When to say no to new business

Although learning how to deal with difficult clients can provide a wealth of valuable business experience, sometimes it’s better to identify these clients in advance and avoid them.

Among the client horror stories that I’ve experienced, two factors were almost always involved: an early warning sign from the client, and my own failure to take the time to deal with it.

In most cases, this warning sign fell into one of the following categories:

  • The client is more concerned about cost than benefits/outcome. This is typical with businesses that are not tech- or marketing-savvy; they’ll mention that they think they need a website/logo/brochure/etc., and they want to know about how much it would cost—with no mention of what they hope to accomplish by having you do this work for them.
  • The client is in a rush from the start. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to turn a project around quickly, be wary of clients who want you to start immediately, without allowing the sales process to be completed.
  • The client complains excessively about previous provider. If the primary complaint is that the provider wouldn’t return calls or e-mails, then that’s usually not a big deal. If it’s almost anything else, this could indicate a client that’s perpetually dissatisfied. You might be nothing more than their next ex-designer.
  • The client is slow to respond or provide information. This indicates someone who is disengaged, uninterested, or just too busy to have a productive business relationship. Be especially cautious with people who expect you to work without being provided with feedback or even just the essential information that you need (such as website content).
  • The client ignores your questions or fails to read your e-mails in their entirety. This is a recipe for future conflict, and can be particularly dangerous when it comes time for the client to make an important decision, or to be made aware of changes in the scope or cost of a project.
  • The client wants spec work. The request is usually an indirect one—they’re dragging their feet on your proposal or quote, and would like to see some ideas or to get a better feel for what you’d be able to do for them. If your portfolio is not sufficient to satisfy their concerns, then they’re really just asking you for free design work.
  • The client provides actual design mockups. This undercuts the planning and design process, devalues your expertise, and most importantly, can lead to a vastly inferior final product. Although it can sometimes be helpful for the client to prepare a rough sketch or even wireframes, keep in mind that preconceived ideas like these can become a roadblock to creativity, or even worse, can prevent the client from accomplishing its business objectives.
  • The client’s decisions are made by a committee, not one person. It’s okay if a client wants to have multiple employees involved with a design project, as long as there is only one person who makes final decisions on their behalf, and only one person who acts as your point-of-contact.
  • The client requests redundant meetings prior to signing a contract. This can indicate that the client might be unsure of its needs, isn’t fully committed to the project, or has difficulty making decisions. It also reflects a lack of respect for your time, which will likely continue throughout the project itself.

Of course, not all client relationships are perfect (nor are all designers), and it’s impractical to turn down every less-than-ideal business opportunity. The important thing is to be aware of the warning signs, and to make your best judgment about whether it’s likely to be worthwhile to work with each new client.