Design Domination Podcast Episode #118: 17 Red Flags for Bad Clients

Want to spot a bad client before working with them? Watch for these 17 potential red flags for bad clients, so you can avoid taking on bad clients and have more pleasant client relationships.

In this episode of Design Domination, I am getting into 17 (yes, 17!) potential red flags for bad clients. Can you believe I came up with so many?

I have encountered all of these at some point in my career. Stick around because I will also share some of my good and bad experiences about some of them and why some are deal breakers, but some not necessarily.

A lot of graphic designers try to take on every client who comes their way. Every prospect that comes to you is not going to be your ideal client. You shouldn’t try to take on clients who aren’t a good fit.

I know in my earlier days of freelancing, I would be so blinded by the excitement and opportunity for a new project or client that my judgment would go out the window. Hence, I have had many bad clients and stories to share with you.

Being on the lookout for certain behaviors, personality traits or requests (or demands!) will help you decide whether or not you want to take on a client in the first place.

But note: I’m not telling you to never take on clients who do some of these things. That’s for you to decide based on your current circumstances. I myself deviate from a few of these when other conditions are right, and I’ll share those insights with you.

Just always be mindful of these potential red flags for bad clients, so you can avoid clients from hell.

1. They don’t follow your process or let you lead.

The first red flag is when prospects don’t want to follow your process or let you lead.

You might have a particular sales process where you want a prospect to provide certain information before you get on a call with them. This is to screen them, so you don’t waste your time or theirs. If they refuse to abide by it, that’s a red flag. That’s a sign of disrespect.

My process in the beginning happens to be that, yes, I want prospects to answer a few questions first before we talk, if we even talk at all, because it may not be a good fit. They either fill out the questions in a form online or I email them the questions.

I also explain that the information they provide will help me prepare for the call. Most prospects appreciate this. I mean, if you can spend a few minutes up front, before a call to do some research, isn’t that beneficial to them?

But I have had a couple of prospects, ironically one who was a warm lead through my alma mater, who not only refused to do it but got snippy. This particular person said he preferred talking to filling out forms and made some snide comments along with that.

Well, then we’re not a good fit, because: 1) you’re not respecting my process and 2) you’re acting like a jerk. So that was the end of that because I explained that was my process and I had reasons for doing things that way.

I was glad to have found that out then rather than in the middle of a project!

Could you imagine talking to any other service provider and saying that?

My naturopath requires all new potential clients to have a 15-minute call with her before she will let you make a regular appointment. That’s because she wants to make sure you’re on the same page with her approach and how she treats patients.

The other thing is, if you talk to clients who don’t respect your process, you may find that they feel the need to take over and lead the conversation. They usually start asking you a bunch of questions. Suddenly, it feels like a job interview or audition. It feels very awkward. You’re not getting the respect you deserve.

It also may be a sign that they will try to dictate everything in the design process, which will be an unpleasant experience. They will treat you as an order taker, not a design expert.

Experts are in charge, in a proactive position. They tell the client how to solve the problem. Order takers are in a reactive position. The client tells them how to solve the problem.

You can be whichever one you want, but it’s important to note the difference and for you to decide that rather than being thrust into that position unwillingly.

2. They require an NDA for you to talk to them.

A second potential red flag is when potential clients require an NDA, a nondisclosure agreement.

I know many graphic designers and web designers who refuse to engage with any potential client that requires them to sign an NDA to talk to them. After all, if you’re not used to reading contractual terms, you may need to hire a lawyer to review it for you. Should you be spending a couple of hundred dollars for that when you may not even get the project? It’s a risk.

Last year, I had a client contact me and ask me to sign one. I was annoyed at first because I thought this is a bit of work I have to do before even talking with them.

The client was going to be sending their files for review, and the files were work they had done for their client. They were not the end client. In this case, I understood why they would ask me to sign one.

But I wasn’t about to pay a lawyer to review it. I’ve become pretty well versed with contracts over the years, so I just read it over myself and signed it, honestly hoping this wasn’t going to be a red flag that I ignored and should have known better.

Well, they’ve ended up being one of my favorite clients ever. They are so enjoyable to work with. They respect our expertise. They praise our work.

They respect what I charge and the work we do. They are responsive to get us what we need when we ask for it. They’ve also given us a lot more work since that initial project.

Had I not signed that NDA, I would have missed out on a great client.

3. They send an RFP.

Another potential red flag may be that a potential client sends you an RFP (request for proposal).

I have always worked with nonprofits, and they use RFPs in a lot of situations because they’re required to.

Let me tell you: I hate RFPs. Evelyn Powers, in the episode we did together talking about bad client stories (which I had way too many of, by the way!), she even joked that RFP was “the red flag process.”

I’ve done so many of these types of proposals over my career. I’ve wasted days preparing proposals, agonizing over them. I’ve wasted many half-days going in person to present them. I’ve rarely ever gotten any work from them.

Complete waste of time in hindsight, but you don’t know that at the time, and you’re hoping to get the work.

The problem is that much of the time, when an organization sends out an RFP, it’s because they know which designer they want to work with but they are obligated to get five or whatever number of proposals.

I would always ask how many designers they sent the RFP to, and if they said five or fewer, I would usually respond.

But if they said they had posted it online or shared it on an email list, forget about it. They have no idea how many people will respond. You have no idea what your chances are, so it’s not in your best interest to respond.

I even wrote an article about this on my business blog, warning organizations about the issues with their RFP process.

4. They’re unsure of their goals.

Another red flag is potential clients who come to you focused on the tangible deliverable they need, but they don’t know what their goals are with the work.

Usually, clients have specific goals such as they need to rebrand to come across as more modern or they need to appeal to a younger audience. They might have financial goals such as to increase sales by 25% or something.

If they don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish or where they want to be, how will they know when they get there?

How will either of you know if the work was successful or not?

Can you help them design a new logo or brochure? Sure, but without knowing what they’re trying to achieve, that could affect your design.

The other part of that is there is no objective basis for the design, no way for you to justify your design decisions. So your design could get nitpicked by the client. When they say they want to use red because they like it, what will you have to come back with to say why that’s not a good idea?

Yet another aspect to this is positioning your pricing. If they are trying to get 1,000 new leads from their website in whatever time period, shouldn’t it be a no-brainer for them to spend more than $500 on their website?

Knowing what they are looking to achieve makes it easier for you to be more confident by pricing according to those goals and for them to see it as an investment.

5. They’ve never worked with a designer before.

This next one isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for not working with someone. It’s just that a client who’s never worked with a designer before sometimes can mean that working with them will be difficult or that you will have to do a lot more hand holding, more education in the process.

You may or may not be willing to do this or have that kind of time. You might account for that in your pricing if you decide to work with them.

6. They want you to work for free, for shares, exposure or future work.

A huge red flag is when a prospect contacts you and asks you to work for free, for shares or exposure.

By this“free,” I don’t mean an animal rescue asking for volunteer work but someone who just doesn’t want to pay or is trying to get away with not paying because they’re cheap.

OK, so get this. I once had a doctor’s office contact me about brand identity. Toward the end of the conversation, they said that they would be contacting other design agencies. I was thinking to myself, yeah, I figured that.

Then they said that after we all did the work, they would let us know whose work they were going with and then they would pay that person. I was shocked. I didn’t think they were serious but when I restated what I thought they were saying, they confirmed that.

So I said, no, this is not a contest, explained why that was a problem and how things actually worked. Then I asked him how he would feel if he did work at his job and then wasn’t paid because his boss didn’t like it. Or how about the doctor didn’t get paid because the patient didn’t like the diagnosis.

That was the end of that conversation, and good riddance!

If someone is that ignorant, I want nothing to do with them. Plus, any price you give them will be too high.

Another time, a woman called and carried on and on about her career and the awards she’d received, then finally said what she was looking for—book layout. She wasn’t happy with the previous two designers she worked with on this book.

After I said I require 50% up front and a signed contract to start work, she screamed at me for wasting her time and then said that after all that she had been through with these other two designers, I should have known she was looking for free work!

Not a chance, and acting like a prick doesn’t get you my sympathy.

But they might offer you a share of the company instead of payment. You see this a lot with startups. They usually have no money.

Other types of businesses may promise exposure. But you can’t control if they do that or not, when they do it, how often they do it and if you will even get clients out of it. Their audience may be completely off target from the clients you usually serve, making the chances of getting work slim to none.

Some potential clients may promise future work.

Why would you do free work now and risk getting nothing in the future, when you could get paid for that work now and are more likely to get future work simply because they’re happy with your work?

Doesn’t make sense to me!

7. They need “just” a [blank].

Something else that’s potentially a red flag is clients who come to you who need “just a [blank].”

“Just” is a four-letter word in the design industry.

When clients use that word, it’s like a knife in the gut, right?

They’ve already diminished the perceived value of whatever it is they’re asking for, which means they’re unlikely to want to pay what it’s worth.

This goes hand in hand with “it should just take you this long.”

Are they using Photoshop every day? Are they laying out publications? Who are they to say how long something should take? Where does this even come from?

“Well, doctor, that MRI shouldn’t take that long.” I mean, really?

8. They’re in a hurry.

It can be a red flag when clients contact you to have something done immediately. It could be due to lack of planning on their part, and they may say that they are unorganized, which may make working with them unpleasant.

They may drop the ball only to expect you to rush to get it done, which can set you up for failure. You may not do your best work, there may be a mistake and then they get upset.

It’s like the saying:

There’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always enough time to redo it.

I have colleagues who refuse to take on any rush work from new clients.

I recommend that if you decide to do so, you charge at least double. Getting it done for them increases the value of the work. Plus, it needs to hurt a little. It may hurt you.

It may also make them rethink whether or not it’s that important.

9. They’ve already tried other designers on this project.

Another potential red flag may be when a prospect says they’ve already worked with a designer—or more—on this project, and that didn’t work out.

That screaming woman I was talking about earlier? She went through two designers on that project and still wasn’t happy. She told me that she shouldn’t be having to pick typefaces and point out this or that. She felt like she was doing the designer’s job.

Now, it could be the case that the work they did wasn’t up to par. On the other hand, since she presented herself like a complete jerk, it’s more likely that she was a control freak, a micromanager and would never be satisfied with anything.

Me? I’d rather put my hand on a hot stove.

10. They refuse to give you a budget.

Sometimes when the client refuses to give you a budget, it can be a red flag. This could be for a few reasons.

One, a lot of times they fear that amount will be higher than what you would charge and if they tell you that number, you might inflate what you charge.

Two, they might not know what the work should cost and so they might be just trying to understand that. They might not yet be at the ready-to-buy stage.

So just be aware of those things.

11. They try to negotiate.

Clients who try to negotiate can be a red flag, like if they are trying to talk you down in price without making other concessions. This isn’t a used car lot.

If they are asking what you could do to lower the price, there might actually be some legit options, such as removing something from the scope of work, doing the work in phases instead or extending the timeframe for the work to be done.

But a client who is simply looking to bargain your rates with you is showing you disrespect. They might be a bully client.

I had a bully client who would sometimes try to negotiate. “Will it really take you that long? “How about I pay you this?”

He also tried to negotiate his way out of paying a few bucks in late fees by saying he would take his work elsewhere. I told him to go right ahead. He did. I had had enough of him and his attitude. That was the end of that relationship, thank goodness.

12. They insist on an hourly rate.

Another red flag can be clients who insist on an hourly rate. I tell them I don’t have one.

Most of the time, clients who focus on this are trying to compare rates between various freelancers. But they usually don’t also ask the designer how long they think the work will take in terms of the number of hours. So what I see happen all the time is these clients go with someone with the lowest rate, but they may end up paying more because it took that designer longer to do the work than it did a designer with a higher hourly rate.

So it doesn’t make sense for them to ask for hourly rates without knowing the number of hours.

But, still, these kinds of clients are looking to pay you for your time, not your expertise, not the value of the work.

They are usually looking for the best rate they can get, which many times proves to be pennywise and pound foolish.

Now, having said that, once or twice I ran into a situation where an organization required that information for a form they were filling out for a government grant or something. So I told them that while I have no hourly rate, I would make up something in this case that was based on what I would charge in total and then divided by a certain number of days. I think they were also trying to understand a day rate too or something.

13. They won’t pay up front.

The next one is a client who won’t pay up front. Now, this is not necessarily a red flag.

A lot of governmental organizations, for example, only pay after getting deliverables and then they might also take 30 days. You have to weigh whether or not that’s a deal breaker for you.

I did work for a non-governmental organization who wouldn’t pay until they got the final deliverables. I inquired more about their policy, and they said they needed to see proof of work before paying. So then I negotiated with them to get 50% payment once I sent the first proof because that was “proof of work.” They amended the contract to say that as well.

14. They want to use their contract.

This is not necessarily a red flag. A lot of governmental organizations, for example, require you to do this. So, again, you either have to comply or not get the work.

I’ve had a few situations where a client asked me to sign their contract. Once, they signed mine and I also signed theirs. I had to ask them for some modifications.

But here’s why this can be a red flag.

The back and forth I had to do for all that was a pain in the rear, and I was dealing with two people. After I sent them the contract, they asked me to forward it to someone else to sign. I felt like I was spending more time on that than the work would take! Not really, but you know what I mean.

Working with them was a mess. I asked for a single contact because I had two people asking me the same questions separately. It was ridiculous.

There was so much handholding. I would tell them what we needed and ask them specific questions. I would get no reply. I would bug them again because I told them we’d get this done by a certain date. When I finally did get a reply, they ignored my questions. So I would have to ask all over again. It was a huge pain. I hate babysitting.

Then they were on vacation (unbeknownst to me until I emailed some questions) and didn’t get reply for a week.

Then, suddenly, they reply and said they sent the proof to their client, w ho was complaining about missing information.

Um, yeah, the things I had asked them to provide.

So they ignored that I said I needed answers to certain questions, sent the file to the client and their client was upset—all because they couldn’t read and follow my instructions.

Then a little while later, they email me asking for the deliverables. I told them that per our contract, they weren’t getting a final file until I got the payment—and this was one of the terms I had them change to suit my policy, which they likely forgot about or chose to ignore.

They weren’t happy about that, but that’s not my problem. They were saying I had “their word” I’d be paid. Eye roll.

Anyway, my point is that if a client is requiring you to jump through a bunch of hoops up front, they will probably be a pain to work with.

15. They’ve got to ask their mother, nephew, etc.

This next one is a bit nutty, but it happens: that the prospect has to consult with their mother, nephew or whoever. Now if that individual is qualified to make business decisions with them, that’s fine.

The red flag gets waved when they are just doing it for no good reason, like they don’t trust their own judgment.

But the other problem is that anyone who is involved in the decision making process should be involved from the beginning. It’s not the same for that person to hear secondhand information from the person you spoke with or to see a design proof without knowing what’s been discussed and agreed to all along. It’s always better for you to deal with the decision makers directly.

In my early freelancing days, I talked with a prospect and then met him for a business lunch. I can’t believe I even did that, now that I think about it.

Anyway, he said I had to impress his mother! This isn’t dating! So she was there too.

She was not part of his business, but he sought her approval—for everything.

You know what they say about people and opinions. Everyone has one. Getting business advice from unqualified people is a red flag.

16. The work is something you’re morally opposed to.

This next one is that if the work is something you’re morally opposed to, it’s a red flag.

It could be something related to your faith. It could be something related to your code of ethics.

Maybe you’re a vegan, and a meat company contacts you for a product design.

I’ve declined work both small and globally known organizations because of my beliefs.

I once had a request to design a new magazine that would be similar to Maxim. Sorry, not interested!

17. They expect you to be available all the time.

Another red flag is clients who expect you to be available all the time, especially if they don’t expect to pay more for it. They don’t respect your boundaries.

They may ask you this up front, but you may not find this out until you start working together.

In my early days, I put up with a no-boundaries, mentally abusive freelance client for years because it was a huge client in terms of money. I had a full-time job too, and this client had worked there at some point.

She would call me at work to harass me and ask me about this or that and put more pressure on me, even though there was a set monthly publication schedule and I had never missed a deadline. She would also call me on weekends.

Part of that was my not setting boundaries, but part of that was someone who felt entitled to treat me this way because she knew it was a large monthly project.


So now you have a lot of things to keep in mind before taking on new clients, so that you take on clients who respect you and are a better fit for you. If you want to find out more about screening clients, check out episode 46 on why designers should screen potential clients.

If you’ve already got a problem client on your hands and want to learn more about dealing with problem clients, including how to fire them, check out episode 32.

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