Episode 74: How to Avoid Toxic Clients

Delivering professional creative services involves at least two parties, the creative and the client. A successful project requires both parties to communicate well, respect each other’s goals and objectives, and enter into a project in good faith. Even when all these boxes are checked projects are still vulnerable to many pitfalls. Genuine mistakes and miscommunication can derail any project.

But sometimes projects are doomed from the outset, regardless of how well a creative delivers. There are bad clients out there—clients that don’t engage in good faith, who’ll use any excuse to blame creatives, just to save money. How can you avoid toxic clients? When should you run away from an opportunity as fast as you can?

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?

When you’re talking to prospective clients, how often do you find them complaining about past bad experiences with other creatives? It’s not that uncommon is it? You need to listen critically in these moments, remembering, of course, that you’re hearing just one side of the story. And sometimes we can be tempted into thinking that we’re so much better than our competitors, that we’d never mess up a project the way your prospect described. But be warned, this is one of the classic warning signs that may indicate a toxic client. If you’re not careful they may be complaining about you to the next creative they flatter.

Of course some complaints are perfectly genuine, so you can’t automatically walk away if the topic turns to their past disappointments. Fortunately, there are other signs and signals to look for, and the more you see in one prospect, the faster you should run away from ill-fated opportunities.

One such sign has to do with where their funding is coming from. Are they paying you directly out of their own pocket? Or do they have a real company-established budget? When people spend their own money, money that might otherwise buy a new car or a nice vacation, you can anticipate that they’re going to be counting every penny, and challenging every hour you charge. If your prospect is a new start up, ask if they’ve sought funding from investors. If they have, but did not get funding, and therefore have to self-fund, this is a huge warning sign.

Another signal that should set off your radar is if your prospect lacks experience in working with creatives like you. Ask them if they’ve ever engaged in a branding or website project before? If this is their first time—increase your alert level.

Another sign is their overall attitude toward the value that you deliver. Do they make off-handed comments about being able to “do this themselves” if they had the time? Are they evaluating your services against a cheap crowdsourced alternative? Whether or not they understand the value of what you deliver, and expect to pay for it, is a big signal for how a project or a client relationship will turn out.

And always watch out for the prospect who comes with a meager budget, but promises that behind this project are many other opportunities, that will have much better budgets. So many creatives have fallen for this line, and it pays off approximately never.

One last sign to look out for, is whether the person that you’re talking to is the final decision maker or not. If the decision maker is entirely absent or unavailable, at least calculate the increased risk of slippery goals, and last minute project changes, that result from absentee decision makers into your fees!

There are many signs that can indicate a bad client or project. When you see more than one in a single prospect, think long and hard before moving forward. And watch yourself, because if you don’t have a strong marketing engine, or if you’ve allowed yourself to skate by on thin margins, so that you’re desperate for any work at all—you’ll quickly ignore or rationalize these warning signs away. But take heed to them, and you’ll protect yourself from destructive clients.

Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.