If there is one thing that will sap your confidence and destroy morale, it is dealing with a bad web design client.
These are the clients who put heavy demands on your time. They squeeze you, leaving you exhausted and unable to work at anything-like your best. They are uncompromising in their opinion and see you as nothing more than a human-Squarespace — a vessel through which to enact their own ideas.
In short, bad clients don’t respect you.
They don’t value the profession of design, and they typically don’t understand what it takes to build a successful website. And when it inevitably all goes wrong? They blame you! 😖
How to identify a bad web design client
Thankfully, I’ve only experienced bad web design clients a handful of times in my career. In most cases, my customers are considerate and professional.
And now, from years of experience, I can smell a bad client a mile away! Here are some ways to identify a bad web design client before you take them on.
They don’t engage in the fact-finding process
Sometimes, clients can’t articulate their goals, or their vision. They can’t describe to you what they need.
And that’s fine — it’s your job as a service provider to tease out the details and build together a plan of action.
But in some cases, it feels like the client is not engaged in the process. It sort of seems like they’re not really bothered. “Great!” you might think, “I’ve got free reign to make all the decisions!”
But take this as a warning: if your client isn’t engaged from the start, chances are they’re not going to be giving the project the attention it needs. Their engagement will be passive, and when they finally do need to make a decision it will most likely affect the scope and displace everything you’ve put together so far in their absence.
If a prospective client isn’t giving you the details you need, be very cautious about taking them on. If you’re already down the line with a client who’s behaving in this way, make additional efforts to interrogate their requirements.
They want to control the process
Similar to the last point, bad clients have a tendency to want to control the process in their own way, which generally involves forgoing your process. If they could, they’d dispense of you entirely and just magic up a website from their own imagination.
The outcomes of this are never good: they’ll push you down on cost, because they think they have all the answers. They’ll make poor decisions, because they don’t have the experience and knowledge that you do. The end product will likely be of low quality, and you’ll be left demotivated and frustrated.
Be extra careful with clients who want to control the whole process.
They refuse to pay a deposit
In almost every case, clients have agreed to pay a deposit before we start the project.
Generally, I ask for 50% of the total project value, but in some instances this drops to 1/3.
I’ve only had one client flatly refuse to pay a deposit. This can sometimes be forgiven — us freelancers aren’t always trustworthy and I’ve heard stories of clients been ripped off by designers who took the downpayment and ran.
But in this case, I’d only be freelancing for a few months and I wasn’t very assertive. I needed the money, so I agreed to do a load of work before any payment was made.
The client was very demanding, sending multiple stream-of-consciousness emails at a time. They kept changing their minds. It was awful. And when I finally pressed for payment, I received an abusive email telling me that my skills were “worth 10 a penny”. Charming.
In most cases, if your client is not willing or able to make a downpayment for your service, avoid working with them.
How to deal with bad web design clients
I’ve covered a few ways to identify rogue clients, but what happens if you haven’t spotted the signs and taken on the project anyway? What happens if you’re already working with them? Here are my top tips for dealing with bad freelance clients:
Speak with them regularly
Make an extra effort to keep in front of them by arranging phone or video calls regularly. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives, and your client could be behaving strangely for a good reason. Regular contact is key to keeping a relationship on track. By pre-empting any concerns you or they might have, you can avert a negative situation from occurring and a bad relationship from forming.
Be assertive with them
If a client is making your life difficult, either by not providing details or materials you need to carry out the work, changing their mind frequently or being very demanding, it’s time to practice being assertive.
Assertiveness involves using “I” statements such as “I feel that this is the correct approach”, and forgoing passive language like “I just wondered (if you’d received my invoice/looked at my design/read my email etc)”
Related: How to be assertive in web development
Try to shift your communication from passive to active. Show your client that you mean business and you won’t readily accept poor behaviour.
Express your concerns
Don’t be afraid to challenge your client or raise your concerns if you feel that you’re not getting what you need from them.
Be respectful and professional, and make it clear that you’re not happy with the current arrangement. Be sure to cite examples of times when you’ve been made to feel unhappy, and offer ideas towards a solution.
If the worst comes to the worst, you’ll need to fire your client.
I’ve only done this once, and it was after a particularly difficult situation with a client where, in truth, we each dropped the ball. I was no communicative enough with them, and their team were not forthcoming with the materials needed to do the work.
This led to a heated debate and after some consideration I decided it would be best to each go our separate ways. Had I not done this, my mental health would have suffered significantly and it would have impacted work with other clients, too.
If a bad client won’t take steps toward becoming a better client, consider firing them.
Nobody is perfect, but few are bad
You know what?
Almost everyone has the capacity to be a “bad client”.
As professionals it is our responsibility to manage our relationships and communicate effectively. In most instances, people behave according to their environments. If somebody is put under pressure, they retreat or lash out. Very few bad clients are bad people. And in my experience, customers want the same things as you: a good piece of work producing for a reasonable price.
Yes, very few people set out to rip you off or treat you badly, but spotting the signs of a bad client and dealing with it early on are absolutely key to delivering good work, getting paid and keeping your mental wellbeing in good shape.