How to spot a troublesome client

I’ve written in the past about how it is just as important to turn down the wrong clients as it is to work with the right ones, but even when a client ticks all the right boxes they might still spell trouble. Here are a few problematic clients to watch out for:

The Carrot Dangler

The Carrot Dangler will tempt you with promises of lucrative work in the future if you agree to take on their first project at a generous discount. Like the carrot that coaxes a donkey to pull its cart, this client hopes that the lure of more work will secure your loyalty, and make you receptive to the idea of lowering your fee.

It goes without saying that the dangling carrot will always remain just out of your reach, as elusive as the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If you do have an opportunity to work with this client in the future they will almost certainly plead poverty again, then dangle another carrot in front of you.

When confronted with a Carrot Dangler remind yourself that if they don’t have the money to pay you fairly now, they probably won’t in the future either. Don’t let the carrot tempt you into putting yourself at a financial disadvantage.

The Aspiring Designer

This type of client wishes they had gone to art school instead of business school, and sees the redesign of their website as a perfect opportunity to live out their fantasy of being a graphic designer.

The Aspiring Designer has little respect for your professional expertise, and secretly wishes they didn’t need to hire you at all. In this relationship they see themselves as the brain, and you as the brawn, little more than a Mac Monkey with the technical skills required to realize their grand vision.

You can spot an Aspiring Designer because at your initial meeting they will tell you they “have a few ideas for the site design”, and proceed to whip out a huge stack of ultra-detailed mockups that leave no room for you to do any real design work.

Think very carefully before taking on an Aspiring Designer as a client. The power they wield over you isn’t financial, it’s creative, and working for them can be a miserable, soul sapping experience.

If you do choose to work with the Aspiring Designer, make sure they understand that their role in your relationship is to define the business problem, and it is your job to propose a design solution. Make it clear that the appropriate solution may differ significantly from their preliminary mockups.

The Broke Startup

In the web industry the word “startup” has glamorous connotations, conjuring up images of overnight wealth, fame, and a jet-setting lifestyle.

When a prospective client describes their new Internet company as a startup you might imagine that they have come up with an idea for the next Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, and that untold riches await anyone who gets on board at the ground floor. The tradeoff? You have to build their website on the cheap, in return for equity in the company.

That probably sounds like an opportunity too good to pass up, but when you stop to think about it “startup” is just another word for “new business”, and the reality is that most new businesses never get off the ground. By offering you equity, your client is asking you to gamble your money on their business idea. In the likely event that your client’s idea fizzles, you’re left with a big handful of nothing.

Don’t let the allure of the word “startup” cloud your senses. You’re not operating a charity, and the fact that your client is a cash strapped entrepreneur doesn’t entitle them to special treatment. You should only enter into this type of business arrangement if you’re 110% committed to the startup, and are OK with the fact that your equity share will probably never amount to anything.

Yay or nay?

If you are approached by a client who fits one of the profiles outlined above, should you automatically put them in the “too hard” basket? Not necessarily. If you nip the problem in the bud it needn’t affect your relationship with the client. The trick is to spot the troublesome client coming, so that you can deal with them before any damage is done.