When Has a Design Client Gone Too Far?


One of the most difficult parts of being a freelancer is learning how to deal with different types of clients. You’ll run into just about every personality type along the way and find that some are much easier to work with than others.

In truth, I can say that the overwhelming majority of clients I’ve worked for have been a pleasure to deal with. But there have also been a few difficult experiences that have left me both frustrated and disappointed. In some cases, we were able to salvage the relationship and move forward. Other times, parting ways was the only sensible thing to do. Not much different from a romance, I suppose.

Part of the challenge is determining whether a relationship can be saved and when it can’t. How do we know when a client has gone beyond the breaking point? Here are some signs to look for that will help you make the right decision.

They Routinely Make You Feel Uncomfortable

There are a number of different ways a client can make us feel uncomfortable. There’s the obvious signs of someone who attempts to take things in a more, shall we say “personal” direction. We don’t need to dive too deep into the headlines to see that taking place just about everywhere.

But there are plenty of other areas to explore. It could be that they routinely ask you to do things that you find morally objectionable (stealing content, for example). They might speak to you or others in a disrespectful way. Or it could even be a bit of a seemingly-unstable personality that gives you the willies.

That last one certainly rings true in my experience. I’ve been in a couple of situations with people who were very threatening (although not necessarily directed towards me) and made me wonder when (not if) they were going to throw the gauntlet down in front of me. The sad part was that, eventually, I did have to dodge those gauntlets on my way out the door.

The bottom line is that anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable on a regular basis has crossed the line – whether they know it or not. Sometimes, people really don’t realize they’re doing something until you call attention to it. You may be able to politely mention such an issue. But you’ll need to use your best judgment in this area.

They Routinely Make You Feel Uncomfortable

Expecting the Moon

I once had an experience with someone who was in an incredible hurry to get a project quoted, demoed and done. Fair enough. But that person (who I didn’t know previously) expected the quote on the same weekend morning when they first reached out. I nicely asked them to wait until the work week started back up again. When we did speak, I found out that they wanted a rather large project turned around within what I deemed an unreasonably short timeframe. And, it was to be done for less than a third of what I would normally charge. Suffice it to say that the project didn’t work out.

While it’s quite understandable that someone could have both a tight deadline and budget, it’s also asking a bit much of a freelancer. You can’t necessarily put aside everything else on your plate to focus on just one, lower-paying project.

You absolutely want to make a client as happy as can be – but not at the expense of your other clients. When someone makes what you consider to be an unreasonable demand, it’s often not worth the effort. Especially so when someone comes to you, sight unseen, and places those kinds of expectations on you.

There are times when a loyal client may be in a pinch and could really use your help on short notice. That’s a different story, as they’re more likely to be appreciative and considerate of your time.

But if someone comes through the door with a list of demands and no willingness to work with you on a compromise – you’re better off staying away.

Expecting the Moon

Breaking Trust

If you feel a sense of responsibility to your clients, then you know how important it is to establish trust with them. But trust is also a two-way street in that we need to be able to trust in our clients, as well. A designer needs to trust that:

  • They’ll get paid on time.
  • The project they’re working on is legitimate.
  • A client is acting in good faith.

From time to time, you will run into a situation where a client has an unexpected financial hardship – which is understandable. Any one of us could be there with a little bad luck.

But, most times, when someone breaks that trust, there’s generally no good excuse for it. For example, I once worked with an organization that approved the launch of a new site – a process that took hours in this particular case. Only once it was launched, it was demanded that the old site be put back immediately. Why? Because one of the principals involved never took time to review it over the months it was being developed. That lack of involvement, combined with similar prior incidents, was essentially the end of the relationship.

Every one of us makes mistakes, and I’m a big believer in forgiveness. Thankfully, I’ve been forgiven many times over the years. But there are certain actions where we have to draw the line. If a designer fails to act in good faith – then we’ll undoubtedly get axed. It should be the same with clients.

Breaking Trust

Successful Relationships Require Mutual Respect

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to work with a lot of great people in your career. You may not always see eye-to-eye and you may even have different visions for a project. But there’s a certain amount of give-and-take with any type of relationship. When there is a mutual respect, problems get resolved and things have a way of moving forward in a positive direction.

In those rare times when something isn’t worth saving, it’s important to know that both parties can go their own separate ways when possible. You can chalk it up as a valuable experience. Only when you go through a failed situation do you truly know what it’s like. From there, you can learn from it and (hopefully) sharpen your sense for avoiding a bad relationship.

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