Creatives: Avoid Clients from Hell, Attract the Good’uns

How to avoid "clients from hell" who will want to pay you as little as they can for an increasing amount of work, or make unrealistic demands.

Finding new clients is hard work, even in a buoyant market. You need to focus on your current projects, while at the same time handling the marketing side of your business to generate new clients. That involves developing a presence and creating a buzz about your business, engaging on social networks, connecting with prospective clients, and following up on proposals. The payoff is servicing good clients, the ones who will value you for the work you do, pay you on time, and refer you to other good clients. You do not want those “clients from hell” who will want to pay you as little as they can for an increasing amount of work, stray widely from the terms of your agreement, or make unrealistic demands and start firing orders at the 11th hour of project completion. These clients will absorb too much of your time and leave you stressed and frustrated at the situation.

As a creative professional, you are your own boss and need to work on your own terms to be successful. So it’s also your responsibility to navigate accordingly when it comes to managing your client base and developing great business relationships.

Build Your Self-confidence and Follow These Three Tips to Attract Good Clients

1. Know Your Worth and Charge the Appropriate Rate

Know what your services are worth. You are a professional and need to be confident in the value of your work and the high level of professional service you offer the client to carry out the work. Research what other professionals in your field are charging—it’s important to know the going rate. Professional associations, for example, can be great resources because they’ve surveyed their membership for relevant information. The Association for Registered Graphic Designers has good documentation on hourly vs. by project billing. The Professional Writers Association of Canada outlines rates for a range of writing and editing opportunities. In the U.S., the American Institute of Graphic Design and the American Society of Journalists and Authors are excellent resources.

If you have friends who are established in their freelance business, ask what their hourly rates are. Decide on a rate that reflects your skills and experience, and make sure you’re competitive. Take into consideration the area you’re based, your competition, and the types of clients you’re working with. Your pricing method may vary depending upon the way you approach the work but the key is in breaking down larger projects into their smallest constituent parts and ensuring that everything is accounted for. Then you can assign necessary resources to each individual portion of work and come out with a conservative costing.

When you start talking to clients, you may find that one day/hourly rate won’t suit everyone, so allow room for flexibility and negotiation. Ultimately, you want to be confident and insist on the compensation that meets the value of your work—good clients will pay your rate if they are convinced that you will deliver something spectacular. And then do it!

2. Offer Services That Are In Demand and Show Prospects That You Have Solutions

Get to know your target market. Search the websites of your most desired clients and get to know what options and features they are looking for from creative professionals, whether it’s engaging graphics or SEO-effective website content. Think of connecting with these good prospects as you would prepare for a job interview. You want to research the company, read about their culture, successes and possible challenges—and then position yourself as the person whose skills and knowledge will be a great asset. What can you as the creative professional bring to the table?

Consider your website and your activity on social networks or blogs your magnets for new clients. When new prospects are visiting your website, for example, they want to see that you understand what they need help with, and that you have the solution they’ve been searching for. You are the expert they need! Be clear about your services and multiple options for prospects to engage your services. Provide testimonials with or near your offers to reinforce the benefits of working with you. Further demonstrate your expertise and passion by interacting with other professionals and prospective clients on Twitter and Facebook, and guest-blogging on high-profile blogs where your content may generate good client leads.

3. Ask for Referrals from Clients and Professionals Who Know Your Work

Satisfied, happy customers do want to set you up for success and help you—and refer you to other good clients! Get comfortable talking about your expertise and specialization with pride and confidence. As a creative professional, there is no shame in self-promotion. In fact, your business depends upon it.

Reach out to your clients and customers for referrals. Take a moment to share with them your ideal client profile, and ask them if they know anyone who fits that description and who would benefit from working with you. Tap into your professional network to let people know you’re looking for clients and ask for referrals. Small business owners tend to think of the professional marketplace as cutthroat, but that’s just fear talking. The market is competitive for creative professionals, and clients do expect excellence for their dollar, but initiative and outreach on your part can and will connect you with opportunities.

Cue Your Radar: Three Red Flags That Signal Clients from Hell

1. Clients Who Want to Pay as Little as Possible—Even Free for “Exposure”

While negotiation on a rate or a project is fine, you want to avoid the client who points out that they know someone who can do the work for substantially less. This client likely doesn’t value, respect or understand the work that you do. There is also the client who wants you to do free work for “exposure” so they take advantage of your willingness to establish a business connection.

Some clients think they can pay whatever they want for creative services because the services aren’t products with fixed prices. There is a shroud of mystery around creative services because they are subjective. How much time should a logo design actually take? How many drafts, mock-ups and revisions are required?
Another warning of potential “clients from hell” is somebody who refuses to pay a deposit before the work begins, or who won’t agree to payment clauses in the agreement. On that note, make sure you have an agreement in writing that defines the scope of work and is understood and agreed upon by both you and the client.

2. Clients Who Push You to Deliver Above and Beyond Agreed-Upon Terms

While technology keeps us “on” 24-7, you have to set boundaries about your availability and billable hours. Some clients pay the basic design fee but then are constantly emailing you, calling you, and even asking for you to add additional features and components. This client may be indecisive and unsure about the work they’re asking you to provide, which leads to roadblocks in the process, and likely added hours. Any client who fails to grasp the scope of work and reasonable timelines is definitely a red flag. You want to be flexible, but not bendable and undervalued.

Being on call is fine if that’s what you’ve signed up for, but be clear about what you provide. For some situations there have to be compromises, but you should never leave a project feeling as though you worked for too little or were not able to do your best work because of client restrictions.

Again, you want to make sure you have a contract up front that outlines the terms of your agreement, making it clear that when you exceed those terms, you will bill more and revisit the scope of the project. The agreement protects both you and your client.

3. Clients Who Aren’t Aligned with Your Professional Portfolio

Well-paying projects can be alluring, but if these projects and clients are well outside your speciality—or professional portfolio you’re hoping to build—they are best avoided. You want to make sure that you’re deepening your expertise and experience in the areas you want to continue to build your business, rather than dabbling in areas that ultimately aren’t as interesting for you. You should be prepared to pass on work sometimes. Know that your reputation and prospects to build your business are better served focusing on your specialty.
Success in your business ultimately depends on you. It’s not just about your skill and experience, but your time management, marketing capabilities, and savvy to find and keep good clients. Keep these tips in mind and make sure that you’re putting your time and talents to their best use for growing your business.

about the author

Freelance Contributor Karen Hawthorne worked for six years as a digital editor for the National Post, contributing articles on business, food, culture and travel for affiliated newspapers across Canada. She now writes from her home office in Toronto as a freelancer, and takes breaks to bounce with her son on the backyard trampoline. Connect with her on LinkedIn.