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4 types of problem clients (and how to avoid them)

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In the freelance community, we can all relate to experiencing the headaches of the problem client before. Naturally, not every project you work on will go as smooth as molasses. But simply saying “it is what it is” and gritting your teeth through it only opens you up to a world of unnecessary stress.

I’ve pitched quotes and then heard radio silence. I’ve put hours of prep into a project to have them change their mind halfway through. And, I’ve finished a project and spent days debating the final price. This should sound familiar to many of you.

To avoid these situations, here are four ways you can spot them early, and how to manage them if you’re already working with one.


Problem client #1: The “commitment issues” client

We’d love to hire you for this project, but can only spend [insert insultingly small figure here]

Have you ever been approached by a prospect and had them ask you to do an incredible amount of work for an insultingly small price?

If the first thing a client says to you is that their budget is small, chances are they don’t value what you’d be bringing to the table in the first place. Maybe this is an “excess budget” assignment, or maybe design and creativity isn’t that important to their business at the moment. So, you probably don’t want to get involved in the first place.

One way to test the water is to require a security deposit. This will test your client’s commitment to hiring you. Not only is requiring a security deposit a smart way to protect yourself, but it’s yet another way to filter out the good clients from the bad before signing an engagement agreement.

Problem client #2: The “fickle-minded” client

We love what you did! But, what if…

Ever have a seemingly productive conversation with a client, only to hop on call with them a week later and find that they want to completely change directions?

Even if they say they love your ideas, they seem to always be suggesting new avenues to explore. This can really halt the design process and just burn productivity. Your time is valuable! Make sure your client respects it.

Before engaging with a client, make sure to bake in phases of the process into your contract. Use this section of your contract to remind the client that we are past the ideation phase and are at the 9th hour of the design phase. I always break my process down to three phases:

Research & Conception (20%)
Design (70-75%)
Revisions (5-10%)

*for more on contract creation, download my FREE guide to creating a bulletproof creative contract.

I use the Phase 1 to present the client with several different creative directions and make them sign off on one before doing a deep dive into design work.

This is the most effective and productive way to ensure your maintain an appropriate timeline and budget.

Problem client #3: The “passive-aggressive” client


What do you do when your client suddenly stops responding?

You should consider using a termination fee in your project insures that you get paid for your work even if the project falls through or the client cancels it.

This protects you from times when a client might say, “we didn’t end up using what you did” or, “We decided to move in a different direction”.

Problem client #4: The “no-deadlines” client

Take your time! There’s no deadline on this…

Though this may sound like the least stressful design client, it can actually end up being one of the worst. This type of client may love the work you do all along the way, and not put pressure on you to get it done in any particular timeframe

But working like this has serious repercussions. On one hand, you aren’t faced with crunched deadlines. But when it comes time for a paycheck, the client may adopt the same “no deadlien” mentality, leaving you without a check for weeks or months.

An ambiguous project timeline leads to a loose payment structure and ultimately uncomfortable conversations.

You should always be clear on when you will be delivering a final product, and in turn, insist that they do the same.

Have any other advice? Respond below:


About the Author

Drew Palmer is a freelance designer & entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, PA.

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