Clientele from Hell: When to Fire Your Graphic Design Clients
One of the best things about being a freelance graphic designer is the freedom to pick your clients—but it can also be one of the worst things. It means having to protect your own interests and knowing when to let a client go for the sake of your career, your finances, or your general sanity.
“Firing” a client isn’t always about getting away from a job you don’t like or a person that stressed you out. Sometimes, you might find yourself in a position where you have to say goodbye to your favorite client or leave your dream job behind. It’s not always about how you feel; it’s about how your relationship to the client affects your life, for better or worse.
The devil’s in the details. If you’re getting cold feet about leaving a graphic design client or just want to know some warning signs to look out for, consider our list of reasons why you might need to reevaluate your current working relationship. Nobody can tell you for sure whether you should leave a job; that decision is entirely in your hands. But this handy guide can hopefully guide you towards making the decision that’s best for your career.
Have a story about an annoying “client from hell” or a client you liked but had to let go anyway? Tell us about them in the comments.
When payments are consistently late
We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve been strapped for cash and had to make a late payment on a bill, but when it happens to you as a freelance designer, it messes with your ability to keep your business afloat. When your clients don’t pay you on time, you might end up with late payments for your own bills.
Of course, there’s a difference between being late once or twice and making it a consistent problem. You’d probably never turn away a client over a few small isolated incidents. It’s when those incidents happen with greater frequency that it becomes a problem worth addressing.
And there are many routes you can take to deal with the issue of late payments before having to resort to firing your client. If the client is still good to you (other than their lateness), take this as an opportunity to reevaluate your contract and come to a new agreement.
One way to deal with late payments is to ask for a percentage of your money upfront before the job begins. That way, if the client is late, you’ve at least received some compensation for your time thus far. You may also want to try charging late fees or cutting off service until payment is made (hey, it works for the water and phone people).
But always keep in mind that a working relationship is a two-way street. You can’t expect your clients to pay you on time if the work you’re doing for them isn’t coming in on time. Still, prompt work deserves prompt, timely payment.
When they don’t pay enough
An underpayment isn’t always the client’s fault—maybe they have a tight budget and your rates have recently gone up, or maybe you undersold yourself from the beginning and have been locked into a rate that’s too low. Whatever your reason for needing more money, follow the clients who will keep you financially stable and let go of the ones who underpay you.
This may mean making some tough choices and letting go of a client you actually like, simply because they can’t afford to keep you anymore. Again, it’s not always a matter of the client being bad or undervaluing you; it might just be that you’re growing too fast as a designer to be held down by lower paying jobs.
This often happens as a result of taking on new work. Sometimes, a new client pays you much more than your current clients can keep up with, and it makes more sense for you to have more time to devote to the better money-making opportunity.
Of course, there are other ways to approach the subject, too. It may be worth working with a lower paying client if the work is steady and the demands are low, or if it means working in your preferred field. Money isn’t always the main motivation for working with a client, but if you’re losing money, it may be a sign that you need to cut ties.
When they don’t pay at all
It’s an unfortunate fact, but every designer will eventually have to deal with clients who don’t make their payments. Maybe they keep saying you’ll be paid “soon,” but “soon” hasn’t come yet. Maybe they’ve actually added onto the amount of work they want you do before they pay you. Whatever the excuse, avoid working for free; you need to protect your interests by dealing with the client accordingly.
For one thing, the more money they owe you, the harder it will be to pay you back when they eventually do (assuming they pay you at all, that is). Taking on more work without having been paid for the last job just creates a bigger debt—and the bigger the debt, the less likely it is that you’ll receive all of it back in full.
An easy way to handle this situation is to refuse any new work from a client until their debts have been settled. In many cases, this can help motivate your client to move some funds around so that they can pay for you to return to work. If they’re still not paying, then you won’t have to “fire” them at all, because they’ll essentially be firing themselves.
When they eat up a lot of your time
When you’re a freelance designer, time is a precious commodity. You have to juggle your time between all of your clients and still have some time left over for friends, family and yourself. When a client monopolizes your time, it can have a negative impact on the entirety of your life, which is why it might be a sign that it’s time to part ways.
This can be especially problematic when you work for a flat rate instead of an hourly rate. If your rate was set because you estimated a job would take 20 hours to complete, but it ends up taking 40 hours instead, you end up working for a lower rate.
The problem is that time thieves are sneaky and sometimes hard to spot until you actually sit down and look at the numbers. There are lots of ways that clients can steal your time, such as popping up with unexpected tasks that have short deadlines, forcing you to reevaluate your priorities and change your plans. Or maybe your client expects you to be on call to make edits and changes whenever they need you; it makes it hard to commit to anything when you’re under such pressure.
You might also waste a lot of time on non-billable tasks, such as sending e-mails, waiting for approval, and so on. If you’ve got a client who wants to approve of every change (but who leaves you hanging for days every time you send your latest draft), that’s a lot of time spent chasing after one client instead of taking care of your other clients or yourself.
Non-billable hours might also take the form of the hours you have to spend unwinding after working for a stressful client. It might even be the hours you spend struggling to complete work for another client because a difficult client got you all riled up.
Of course, you can always find ways to protect your time, such as instituting a no overtime policy or charging a client extra for rush jobs or delays. It’s up to you to draw the line somewhere in order to save your time for what’s most important to you.
When the work has dried up
When a reliable source of work suddenly isn’t so reliable anymore, it may be time for you to change directions and find a new client. If you’re lucky, your client will come to you when a project is wrapping up and let you know if they no longer have work for you or if your workload is about to decrease. However, sometimes clients just don’t like to give bad news or they like you too much to let you go, so they try to keep you around when there’s no work to be done.
This puts you in a sort of limbo where you not sure whether to stay or go. You can waste a lot of time and money waiting for work to pick up, and there’s never a guarantee that it will—even if a client has promised that they have big things on the horizon.
When a client’s work dries up, the best thing to do is have an honest conversation about your future with them. Perhaps you could be put on a retainer, so that even if the work isn’t always there, you’re still compensated for leaving time open just in case it does pick up. Or maybe the client will give you the okay to take on additional work from somewhere else in the meantime.
But most of the time, when the work dries up, it can be a sign that you’ve reached the natural end of a working relationship. You can always leave the door open in case the client has more work for you in the future, but there’s no reason to stick around waiting if it’s killing your business.
When you don’t like the work
We can’t always cherry pick the work we get to do, but if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to do something you like over something you hate, you should do what thrills you. Doing work that you actually enjoy means you’re more likely to do your best work, which is better for your career. Inversely, if you don’t like the work you’re doing, it’s going to show in your designs.
Sometimes this also mean coming to the hard realization that the work you want to do isn’t the work you like to do. Maybe you always set out to be the best book cover designer you could be, but found you have the most fun when you’re designing brochures. There’s no shame in choosing the work that you like and that you’re good at, even if it’s not what you set out to originally do.
Likeability of the job isn’t always going to be a crucial factor when deciding to leave a client, but it can be a deciding factor when figuring out where to devote your time and energy. For example, if you’ve got two clients fighting for your attention and both pay the same, then likeability would be a big factor in deciding on which one you settle with.
If you’ve got dreams of designing for a certain industry, brand or medium, then your career should have a pathway that points towards your future goals. Otherwise, you might never end up working for the types of jobs that you like because you spend too much time devoting yourself to clients you don’t like. For example, if you really want to work in print but you only seem to do web design, it’s going to be harder for you to find print clients when all of your experience seems to be in web.
Likeability is kind of like the canary in a coal mine. If you don’t like the job you’re doing, it might be a sign that your career is headed in the wrong direction. Work isn’t always going to be fun, but it doesn’t always have to be boring, backbreaking labor, either.
When the work could damage your reputation
If you’ve got warning signs going off in your head that continuing to work for a client could damage your reputation as a designer, trust your instincts and back away. Sometimes a client can be so toxic that they actually poison your career for years to come.
The most common example of this is when a client meddles with your design so much that the final work is an embarrassing blight on your portfolio. Maybe the client wanted you to include design elements that were ugly or they refused to listen to your suggestions. If you can’t be proud of the work you’re doing for your client, that should be a red flag.
If the work your client wants you to do is offensive, in bad taste or dishonest, it can also tarnish your reputation and make it difficult to show off your past work. This can be especially damaging if the client is called out on their inappropriate behavior. As the designer, you’ll likely take the blame for the contents of the design, regardless of whether or not you had any control over it.
And if the client or brand itself has a bad reputation, then unfortunately, you’ll often share their reputation whether you like it or not. It might not be the most rational course of action to blame a designer for the bad reputation of their client, but the negative connotations are often subliminal. If a brand conjures up negative feelings in a potential employer, then just the act of looking at your portfolio or resume is going to be a bad experience for them.
When the client is toxic
Sometimes a client is so demanding, demoralizing or dishonorable that you have to get away for the sake of your own sanity. Of all the reasons to fire your design client, this can be one of the hardest to have to deal with. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what you feel comfortable with and sometimes it’s worth the worry of being without work if it means getting away from a toxic relationship.
Toxic clients can come in many forms. Some clients expect the world from you and are rude when you don’t deliver. Others might belittle your ideas and disrespect your professional opinion. And then of course there are the clients who are just abusive and downright mean.
Sometimes it’s hard to leave a toxic work relationship because it’s difficult to admit to yourself that it’s become a problem. Abusers have a way of taking control of their victims and making them afraid of leaving. These are the types of clients who will go out of their way to remind you that they can replace you and that there are many other designers looking for work. Maybe they’ll try to convince you that you should be grateful to have a job at all.
But there’s always a way out, even if you’re not financially stable and you rely on your client to stay afloat. Try to have a new client lined up before you jump ship. If you have multiple clients, you might be able to renegotiate your deal with a good client to fill in any gaps left by leaving an abusive client.
Again, it all comes down to how you feel. If you can’t stand the thought of working another day for your client, then get out as soon as you can. There are other people out there who need your talents and will treat you with the respect you deserve.
When the client doesn’t respect you
A lack of respect may not seem like an important enough reason to fire your clients, but in truth, it’s a big hindrance to a successful design career. In order to do what you do, you have to have confidence in your ideas and your skills. If your client makes you second-guess yourself, then it might be a sign that you need to second-guess the client.
Some clients like to withhold respect and admiration as a tactic to keep you pining for their approval. If you constantly feel like you’re not good enough for your client and that you’re lucky to have a job at all, then you’re less likely to have the confidence to branch out and leave them behind.
Disrespectful clients will put little value in your ideas and undermine the work you do. They will refuse to recognize your contributions to the success of their project or take credit for all that you did. Some might even belittle your entire profession by not taking your job seriously and dismissing it as “easy work.”
This can be especially damaging if you’re working as a freelance designer since you’re technically not even an employee—you work for yourself. These are the clients who won’t respect the fact that you’re running your own business and treat you like an intern instead of the professional they brought in to provide a vital service.
The problem with disrespectful clients is that their inability to see your value can lead to more serious problems when it comes to paying you a fair wage, respecting your time and commitments to other clients, or just treating you with any sort of decency.
When the client lies to you
It’s hard to work with a dishonest client because once they’re caught breaking their word once, you can never truly trust what they say ever again. Obviously, when a client violates an agreement that you came to (written or otherwise), it demonstrates a lack of integrity and can be a clear warning sign that you need to dissolve the relationship.
But it’s not always easy to spot a liar, and not every situation is so black-and-white. It’s less common that you’ll be left high and dry, and more common that your client will come to you with apologies, excuses, and promises that sound tempting—but you have no way of knowing if they’re legitimate.
Often, this comes in the form of a client who wants to take advantage of your pre-existing relationship to get preferred treatment. It can even start with little things like wanting to change the way they pay you or asking you to take on a special side project for a reduced rate.
When your clients start renegotiating your initial terms, it could be a bad sign of troubles to come. When you secede power to your client, it creates a snowball effect that is harder to stop the further it continues. It sends a message that their needs will always trump your own needs, and that you’re okay with this type of working dynamic.
But that doesn’t mean you should run away screaming from every renegotiation meeting or instantly distrust any client who seeks a change to your working relationship. You just need to be sure you look out for your own interests and be sure that any new deals that you might come to will favor both parties equally.
If the client doesn’t seem too interested in keeping you happy, it’s a sign that they’re probably untrustworthy. And of course, if you catch your client in a lie, then it’s time to move on.
When your gut says it’s time
If you’re still not sure whether you should fire your client, try this exercise. Flip a coin. Heads, you stick with your client, tails, you let them go. When the coin is still in the air, ask yourself one simple question that should make everything clear: which side of the coin do you want to see when it lands back in your hand?
The result of the coin toss is irrelevant, instead it’s your gut feeling in that moment that should help guide your decision. Don’t underestimate the power of your gut-chances are, if you’re even questioning whether you should leave your client or not, it’s a sign that things aren’t working out the way you’d like.
It could be for any of the aforementioned reasons listed or it could be for your own reason. Maybe the commute is bad, maybe the office culture is not your cup of tea, maybe you hate the way your client says “bagel” and it’s driving you nuts. It doesn’t matter the reason, or if you have a reason at all, if it’s time to move on then it’s your gut’s way of saying you need to keep moving.
Don’t want to fire a client? You may not have to
If you still aren’t sure you should fire your graphic design client, then don’t fret—there are always other options for dealing with problems that affect your career. Just bringing some of these issues to light in a letter or e-mail to your client can help you come to a solution that works for you. You can’t expect every client to completely get it right away-some will need you to guide them and train them so that they know how to ensure that your needs are being taken care of.
And of course, the best way to avoid these situations is to avoid potentially problematic clients altogether. Learning how to pick your clients and allowing yourself to say no to a project can go a long way towards avoiding trouble.
Need a reminder of how to identify problematic clients? Use this handy infographic (and share it with friends)!