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Bad Clients, The Best Money You Never Made

Have you heard? Not all clients are created equal. Yeah, really. Great clients will enhance your creative skills, your reputation, and your bottom line however Bad ones can make you question your skills, destroy your reputation, and result in the worst money you have ever made. Here's why and why you should learn to “Just Say No!” when you feel the itch of taking on a Bad Client.

Bad Clients, The Best Money You Never Made

“Success Will Come and Go, But Integrity is Forever” -Unknown

If you get anything from this blog post, at all, please remember and live by this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be. Building a reputation of integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose, so never allow yourself to ever do anything that would damage your integrity.

Bad Clients, The Best Money You Never Made

Before we dive into the “How” let's make sure you have a better understanding of “Why” so you know how bad clients can wreck your firm for the sole purpose of you being able to spot them and flat out avoid them. Trust us, it will be the best money you never made, for realz!

Money is Money, Right?


Bad clients have an amazing way of sapping time and energy in ways you might not even be able to bill for. You most likely will not be able to bill a client extra for meeting only in the evenings or on the weekends and you definitely will not be able to bill a client extra because you have a personality conflict because let's face it, they have NO idea what they're doing nor do they have the first clue about what they should be doing, even with your professional guidance.

Even if you could bill for scheduling issues, you cannot bill for stress. You cannot bill for screaming when you get off the phone, for not sleeping well, for spending an hour talking about why you already wrote off a third of your time and why your bill is reasonable. Talk to any smart developer, designer, creative speicalist, hell even attorney and they will tell you that the total cost of a problem client almost never adds up in the long run.

Bad Clients Crowd Out Good Ones

Like a virus that spreads throughout your body bad clients spread through your company making you icky, grumpy while you marathon watch Breaking Bad in a single day fantasizing about stabbing both of your eyeballs with the dull letter opener laying on desk.

Bad clients normally cause you to turn down good clients for two reasons:

1) Bad clients have an amazing way of sucking up more time than they should meaning you will probably have to turn down good clients because you are so busy deailing with your problem client.

2) The mental fatigue is greater than you realize in the way that sometimes when you are in the middle of dealing with a bad client, it can make otherwise good clients seem like bad clients. Like a sort of mental sickness bad clients cloud your thinking and mess with your normally rock-solid client evaluation skills.

It ALWAYS Gets Worse Before it Gets Better

Backing up to our virus metaphor, when was the last time you started to get sick and magically woke up feeling better the next day? Probably never, a very rare event right? The same goes with bad clients, they usually become much worse before they get better and when I say better, I mean the project ends or you just decide to flat-out fire them.

Face it, you are doing yourself a disservice if you ask yourself “It can't get any worse, can it?” or tell yourself “it has to get better from here.” Sure of course you can cross your fingers and hope they suddenly start responding to phone calls or emails, or starts following the original proceedure as layed out for them in the proposal and development agreement but let's be real about it and call a Spade a Spade. No wait, maybe the first three appointments they missed truly were emergencies (doubtful), or maybe they'll stop misconstruing project deliverables and creeping the hell out of your perfectly planned scope (that's an inside joke for us professionals).

Hopefully your development agreement has a provision for these scenarios but that will not matter to a bad client, they're going to act however they want to act despite how the agreement outlines their appropriate behavior. Hopefully you are not afraid to invoke it and terminate your design or development wizardry / representation. I am not suggesting you become cut-throat and cut loose every client that is five minutes late to a meeting, or modifies scope a little bit but if they no-show, or are two hours late, or drop their originally planned path for a completely new path that is a serious red flag — and a giant flashing sign that there will be more trouble down the road so make sure to pay attention.

The Warning Signs Are Usually Clear

Now that we understand all money is not created equal, let’s further sharpen your mental abilities to avoid bad clients altogether. Over the past ten years we have talked to thousands of potential clients and without fail, the most important thing we have learned is to trust our guts.

Picture this, one of your existing clients (Good Clients) calls with a referral that sounds like the greatest project in the world, but something makes us question the project or the client. Whether it’s during the first meet and greet, the second meeting, or right before the project design phase implodes, our guts are almost always right. We used to fight it and talk ourselves into taking the projects but not anymore. If our gut says no, then we say no. As simple as that.

If you are not ready to live and die by your gut, here are some other warning signs that trouble could be brewing down the road:

  • Calls with a “Whatever” emergency, then waits six days to return your call
  • Leaves a message without any specific details, other than they know “it’s a great project” and you need to call back immediately
  • Sends four emails with documents before ever talking to you
  • Changes the scope of the entire project after the proposal has been finlized and the development agreement signed
  • Argues with you regarding the scope change and additional fees
  • Cannot elaborate what it is they want, argues with your professional insight as to what they and their business needs
  • Generalizes project phase requirements, expects you to make changes for free
  • Makes an appointment and then no-shows or reschedules repeatedly
  • Tells you what design or development is or how either or works
  • Tries to bargain on your rate or explains why you are too expensive
  • Explains they previously hired another company but want to “give you a shot”
  • Tells one story over the phone and a completely different one in your office
  • Asks too many details about your personal life and explains why you could be great friends and should hang out
  • Expects you to give them your time like they're your most expensive client, when they're your least
  • Demands anything that isn't covered under your development agreement
  • Misconstrues contractual obligations
  • Expects the world but not having to pay for it
  • Mistreats you, or your staff (this is a contract ending infraction, EVERY TIME!)

That is not an exhaustive list by any means, those are just some of the red alerts we have encountered. As noted above, if your gut says something is not right, something is probably amiss and it is the perfect opportunity to bounce the project off another mentor, general council and get some feedback. But NEVER try and convince yourself that any client is a good client. It’s NEVER that simple.

Just think of it this way, like developers, clients are a dime a dozen, do yourself a favor just avoid a bad client at all costs! You'll be thankful you did. 

In the longrun “Do what is right, let the consequence follow. - Unknown” and always remember, Success Will Come and Go, But Integrity is Forever. You are not your bad client, you are a gift to those who are lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with you.

Happy Creative!
- Team OMG

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