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Clients: The Good, The Bad & the Ugly

When clients are good, I enjoy spending time with them, because they appreciate my efforts and contributions. They listen well. We work efficiently. We respect each other. And in the end, they pay me on time. But not all clients present such fortune and glory. In the past, I’ve worked with clients that made me want to reach across the table and smack the hell out of them. After some really ugly clients, I developed a checklist that helps determine whether or not we’ll work together. It all happens during our first meet and greet, when I get a feel for them. From your point of view, how do you decide whether or not to take on a client? What makes you feel like the situation will be (or is) rewarding? What traits make a client bad (or ugly)?

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PUBLISHED ON Nov.15.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Bogdan Manolache’s comment is:

I can say that I had some clients that put my resistance to the test but I can also say that when the project was finished I was very happy that I could work with them ... you know the saying: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And second, I can't afford to lose a client :)

On Nov.15.2004 at 02:41 AM
Steve’s comment is:

I've had a terrible client before... He was actually my first client. It was difficult... He took complete artistic control over the project, destroyed any input I had, and paid me two weeks late. I... Wanted to take his face and smash it into his website and ask him how much he liked it then, after his face had smashed into it. I thought he might not like that, and I also thought I might like it. Instead, I took his crap because I thought that was how it was supposed to be.

Just remembering that lunatic makes me sad.

A good client is essentially what that man was not. He lied a lot, abused me a lot, and generally was very rude. And I hate getting paid late! I have to eat you jerk!

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:07 AM
Alex Bighea’s comment is:

If the client says anything about Frontpage, purple and flying things, you've got a pretty good chance of goind crazy.

I think you can easily spot a bad custommer during the first meeting. If he tries to do your job and shows an impressive amount of bad ideas and wrong wording, it's bad.

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:40 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

I recently had aspirations of taking on a new client for various advertising-related design. If there was one thing I remember most about this person and his business, it's that money came up all the time. Concerned about the money, worried about the money, "I don't have a lot of money." And that's one of the major signs for me that this will not be a good client.

I ultimately stopped pursuing the relationship and gave him my contact information. I told him to get in touch when he's ready.

I offer goods and services like anyone else. And while design is a bit flexible, it's still worth something and deserves to be paid on time.

On another note, I'm currently fronting a large sum for a certain client whose project (undelivered) required some outsourcing. I'm fronting it because the client has fallen off the face of the earth. I'm closely related to these people, and since they are family I did a portion of work before receiving the signed quote back. Of course, they haven't sent it and here I sit. Project is at a halt, and I could sure use that money in my pocket--both the sum outsourced and the profit from the project's completion.

I try not to work for family. Guess there should be much fewer exceptions.

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:51 AM
John Athayde’s comment is:

Our first red flag is generally when a client doesn't want to detail out the scope but wants to know how much it will cost. If they don't get the premise that scope size = implementation time and resources and therefore = cost, it's going to be a "I want the world for a penny" kind of job.

The other is the predescribed "Client Designer"—the one that has to pixel push to feel needed (or to justify their job to the upper levels of management). We've had countless projects go into the "never-going-to-put-in-the-portfolio" realm due to this client design. Even to the extent of we come up with a conservative yet classy design (DC based non-profit) and they come back to us with a powerpoint slide of what they want the website to look like. Yes. Powerpoint.

Oy! I pretty much now start conversations with those clients with "if you're looking for low cost, we're the wrong designer"

On Nov.15.2004 at 08:39 AM
steve’s comment is:

worst client = friend / family who also wants the friends & family discount. in the end they want the world for a 90% discount... then can you translate it into 3 websites por favor? no more design work for family and or friends. also no work for the poor schmuck who won't sign a contract.

On Nov.15.2004 at 09:14 AM
geeky’s comment is:

I look for clients who:

- know what they want, but not neccessarily how to do it.

- are willing to listen to my expert opinion, and not demand an all Flash super-cool website just because it looks good.

- are likely to pay the amount owed on time.

- are willing to sign a contact limiting the scope of the project.

Other than that, I'm pretty flexible :)

On Nov.15.2004 at 09:43 AM
Armin’s comment is:

You know what would make a great book? A compendium of clients' feedback about us, something to the effect of Designers: The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. I think we could learn a lot from it. Certainly, clients must have an opinion about us and I'm pretty sure they would be mirrored opinions of those that we express about them. We are quick to blast clients, surely they are quick to blast us.

On Nov.15.2004 at 11:34 AM
John B’s comment is:

The only client that might be worse than family and friends are non-profit organizations, especially if you're donating your time. They never value the work being performed for free. They don't commit to the project because it's free - they don't have a vested financial interest in getting it done so it's low-priority. I've done three: one never launched for lack of content, one launched two years after I finished the design (slow content), and one launched with major holes in the content and was never updated after it launched (I wasn't in charge of updating it but the updated info never came anyway).


On Nov.15.2004 at 02:16 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Believe it or not, we've actually tried to develop an in-house evaluation, that really just serves as a tool for us to soberly look at each potential engagement. It's not hard and fast, but we're using it as well as we can, and it's interesting to look back and see if we're consistently getting involved with clients who are problematic in one way or the other. Use at your own risk—here's what we look at:

Experience & Expectations

1 (Lowest score): The client has never done this type or scale of project before. Client is an entrepreneur and/or business is a start-up.* Client demonstrates a lack of project scope understanding and unreasonable expectations regarding schedules and deliverables. 10 (Best score): Client is an established business entity; is clearly aware of what the project entails, and is familiar with standard phases of a project of this type. Client is willing to revisit timelines and budgets as scope and project definition becomes more clearly defined.

Budgets & Billing

1 (Lowest score): It is clear that cost-containment is the client’s #1 priority. There is a hesitancy to sign agreements and/or pay invoices in a timely manner. Client �nickels and dimes’ on insignificant costs and expenses. 10 (Best score): Adequate budgets are already approved for the project. There’s a willingness to re-investigate budget issues as the project needs demand. Agreements and invoices are responded to promptly.

Team Dynamics

1 (Lowest score): Client team is complex and difficult to communicate with and/or manage. They are disorganized and/or unprofessional and bring internal conflicts into the project management process. They are �time vampires’ and needy. 10 (Best score): Client team has a clear point person and accessible decision makers. They are well-organized and keen to do what it takes to make the project go smoothly. They are pleasant and considerate.

Design IQ

1 (Lowest score): Client views design simply as an expense and is unexperienced buying top-quality creative work. Client is unaware of current branding and design strategy. Client views a design team as just a �production’ entity. 10 (Best score): Client clearly has a vision for how design can be a smart investment for their organization. Client wants to be pushed with great ideas. Client’s aesthetic meshes well with our sensibility.

Project Significance

1 (Lowest score): Project is for a small organization and will be unlikely lead to significant exposure and/or referrals. The work is not innovative or ground-breaking from either a design or business standpoint. The project does not assist entry into a new market of interest. Studio will be prevented from using the project in promotional materials and presentations or claiming full ownership of the final creative work. 10 (Best score): The project will have national and/or international exposure. The project is of technical and conceptual interest — innovative. The project will allow us to develop new skills or to step into a new market area that is of interest. The project has the potential to be a portfolio centerpiece that will attract new business and give us a significant �success story.’

* If the client is a start-up or entrepreneur, pay special attention to the following likely predispositions: 1. Unrealistic expectations due to inexperience in this type of project. 2. Tight budgets as all costs are out of pocket. 3. Poor organizational skills and/or unsettled team structure. 4. Overly controlling (project is their �baby’ and they see design firm as the team to �execute’ their ideas, not bring ideas).

On Nov.15.2004 at 02:25 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Thanks for sharing Tom — not everybody is willing to share things like these. This will surely be helpful to a lot of people.

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:00 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Awesome, Tom. Very detailed and considered. Armin, a book would be nice...almost in the way of a business manual of sorts.

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:13 PM
Robin Andrews’s comment is:

How to handle family and friends:

The only way to do design projects with this group is on your terms otherwise things can get ugly. I have a "one-time" family and friends discount for an identity.


no charge

my timing

my solution

no exceptions

On Nov.15.2004 at 03:34 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Tom, nice list! Very helpful. Some of my points below may be a repeat, but I don't want to rewrite at this point.

Yeah Armin, I've worked with a few clients that had post traumatic designer stress disorder. I find myself not only trying to effectively complete the task at hand, but also trying to undo a lot of the damage to the client/designer relationship. Mostly it's rebuilding trust and demonstrating useful results. But it's a two-way street: A lot of the "ugliness" in designer/client relationships can come from misunderstandings and assumptions between parties that dysfunctionally build on one another.

Having said that, some clients are just god-awful, horrible pains-in-the-ass.

As others have mentioned, wanting something for nothing, or not appreciating the monetary value of professional services or solutions being offered, is a clear indication of future problems. Constantly trying to cut corners and justify reaonable expenses gets old very fast. I know that it's unlikely that I'm ever going to make a reasonable amount of money working with them. Unless the client is really nice and gives you loads of creative freedom, working on the cheap is rarely rewarding. And frankly, sometimes people just have to come to understand that it costs money to make money.

Additionally, I'd add someone who doesn't listen to what I'm saying and/or who frequently interrupts and talks over me while I'm talking to them. Or, the person is very pessimistic and/or self-righteous. If I take on this person as a client, I'm destined to be frustrated and angry. Respect is a critical component in a business relationship. No matter how much money I make or how nice the design is, the relationship will always feel bad and unsatifying.

Adjacent to that is someone who is constantly distracted, scattered, or unorganized. In this case, I'm having to do not only my job, but also a good part of their job -- which usually isn't billable time. And my own design process gets bogged down with errant details and uncertainties that kills any profit. Sometimes, you can help give clarity to a client and they can come around. But usually, someone that doesn't reasonable have their shit together is going to be a bad client.

Also, I really don't like working with people that don't know what they want, but will know it when they see it. It's like playing a game of darts in the dark. You're never sure if you're hitting the board or the wall. I can usually see this problem arise during the initial meeting or when writing up a proposal or contract because the potential client won't be able to properly frame the scope of the project. They're unwilling to provide clear objectives or focus and leave lots of open-ended options. From my experience this comes from people who are in over their heads and have no idea what they are doing. They just want someone to take care of the problem. This scenario is guaranteed to result in a bad situation.

And if a potential client won't sign a contract, I immediately walk away from them. That's a clear indication that you're probably going to get screwed. A good contract protects not only the designer but the client as well.

Lastly, I guess I'd have to say that I also have an intuitive sense about things, as well. That little voice that says "I don't know about this. Something doesn't feel right."

On the flip-side to all of these negatives, if I have a potential client that for the most part is excited about my past work and what I can offer to them, they seem interested in what I'm saying and responsive in generating dialog, have a constructive and positive attitude, and a fairly rational budget and timeline for the project, I know that the person will probably be a good client.

On Nov.15.2004 at 04:17 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

Contracts, huh? That sounds like a whole other discussion. I won't fault a client for not signing a contract, and if they bring up the idea before I do, then it's time to get skeptical.

On Nov.15.2004 at 08:55 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Huh?!?! Jason, without a signed contract, there's nothing legally binding a client to pay you, no conditions for the work process, nor rights for the work you create. You're completely assuming that the client is a good, honest person and everything is going to be honky-dory. And frankly, many people will totally screw you under that situation. I've had numerous situation where the only thing that saved me from getting completely stiffed was having a nice solid contract. This is especially true when you're a one man operation. People think "Oh, it's just this one dude. What can he do?"

Look as an example, just a year ago, I had a number of initial meetings (3 or 4) with an IT consulting client who promised the moon and the stars: logo, stationery system, brochure, Web site, promotional tchotkis, Powerpoint presentation, and more. I was thrilled: a nice juicy client. He was eager to have me work on a couple of things right away. I got back to him a couple of days later with a contract to sign (taken from a template off of the AIGA site), along with an invoice for the project initiation. He immediately became evasive. He'd have to get back to me. I never heard back from him. And this is someone who had experience with putting together extensive, complicated work agreements with Fortune 1000 companies. I am very, very certain that, had I not had a contract, he would have gotten me to do a bunch of work that he had no intention of ever paying for. And I would have had absolutely zero recourse. I'd be completely screwed. If that's not a bad client, then I don't know what!

An invoice is just a useless piece of paper without a contract to back it up. Moreover, contracts constitute a work agreement, rules of the game. Without one, there is no binding structure to the client/designer relationship. A contract protects not only the rights of a designer, but the rights of the client too. We are commited to processes and limitations, as well. As long as a designer is willing to take the time to go over the contract line by line with a client, no one with good intentions should ever be afraid of a contract.

Let's just say that, over the years, contracts are a part of my "experience matrix" that have proven themselves as a litmus test of intention. It's just a part of doing business in the big, bad world in which we operate.

On Nov.16.2004 at 04:24 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

I have to agree that a contract is a huge deal. Even with people you trust. Heck, look at my situation above: I'm getting screwed by close family members because I let them slide on the contract for a while. Paid to outsource some work, and when no contract shows up, I get stuck with the bill. And you think you're being nice because you trust somebody...

I understand where you are coming from (Jason), however. I recently lived and worked in East Texas, and the social climate there is much different than that of my native state of Ohio. While the rule of contract still exists prominently, there are a lot more people who will do work without things in writing. And it's culture. Everybody knows everybody there. It's all who you know and who you know them through, and that's how their world runs. Deals go down every day without so much as a handshake.

And I found things much more gossipy and small-townish even in large cities there, with many social doctrines as well, so perhaps that's why nobody takes advantage of a business deal. To do so would get you kicked out of the social loop, and then you know nobody and can't get anywhere. I've witnessed this, and people's names and businesses get so smeared that they couldn't do business unless they move to Alaska.

Not that it's bad, it's just different. Northeast Ohio (Akron-Cleveland), you don't know EVERYBODY, although who you know makes a difference. And either way, respectable clients and designers both want a contract. If somebody screws you without a contract, there are only small business circles who would brand a person/business as "avoid at all costs". I mean, unless you call the BBB or get the media involved, it's less likely that the situation will get out, especially since people keep a lot of things behind closed doors in the northern states.

These are just some of the regional contrasts I've noticed that may influence a person's perspective on how to do business.

So perhaps Jason, you are coming from a different part of the country / different country where the social culture would lead to a less binding business deal? Where no one would even question it?

On Nov.16.2004 at 08:37 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

(Or perhaps all Jason is saying is that if the first thing on the clients mind is "I don't do contracts," that's the time to get skeptical.

Try reading it differently.

Perhaps he will re-explain himself.)

On Nov.16.2004 at 08:40 AM
Jason T’s comment is:

There's a time for contracts, and depending on the nature of the work, I agree that they're a must. Trust can go a long way too. When I get that good feeling, I don't worry about binding agreements and legal speak. Early in my design career, I wouldn't work without a contract. Today, I feel that I've been able to pick and choose clients better. Perhaps it's that I'm only working on smallish projects.

However, an itinerary always proves valuable—as does a design brief. Something to keep you on track and on time. Partial payment in advance doesn't hurt either.

What I get skeptical of is when the client mentions a contract, "So, will I be signing a contract to get this started?" That tells me that they're more worried about the bottom line and protecting their own interests—instead of the services I'll deliver. Startups and large scale corporations I've worked with tend to have contracts already worked up. And they're nothing more than a non-disclosure agreement.

In the end, it's rare that you'll wind up in small-claims court over a mismatched color. Hurt feelings can't be taken care of in court either, "I can't believe the client wouldn't use the type I suggested. I'll take ’em to court!"

And Bradley…it's not that I come from another part of the country. It's another state of mind.

On Nov.16.2004 at 10:01 AM
Steven’s comment is:

Hey, I'm all for trust and working for good people. That's the ideal. And, if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose your clients, well more power to ya! But that's not really the norm.

Now look, I have to admit that I've done work without a contract -- when it's a very small project with someone with which I have had long standing, good relationship. I've also done work with nothing more than a Purchase Order. But, that P.O is, in fact, a de facto contract for services with conditions set forth by the company's Accounting department.

With itineraries, are you having them sign something? If so, it's another de facto contractual agreement. If not, it's just a piece of paper. Design briefs are great for establishing a dialog about process, but they have no teeth unless a client signs something. Then it's another de facto contract. NDA's are contracts that the client is supplying to you. In this case, you capitulate to their interests.

Initial partial payments help to build commitment to a project , but they don't guarantee payment in full. This is especially true when the project requires you to take on additional expenses, like photographers, print brokering, etc. Then you're really fucked, with an uncooperative client on one end, and vendors threatening to sue you on the other. I've been there. It ain't fun! But my contract saved me.

I completely disagree with the notion that if a client asks about signing a contract, it somehow implies that he's only interested in himself. He could be just following what is considered by most people as standard business practice. And hey, even if he's interested in protecting his ass, that's absolutely his right! He doesn't want to get screwed either. Both parties have something to loose or to gain in a business relationship, depending how things go. And both parties depend one one another to follow through their obligations.

And taking someone to court over a font choice is just plain silly and highly frivolous. No serious design professional would ever do that. It's waste of time, money, and reputation. And I agree that it's indeed rare that you end up in court over a mismatched color. It's a designers responsibility to make sure a color is specified properly (and printed properly, if we take that part of the project on too.) Bottom line, if a client and designer end up in court over something, for the most part everybody looses. Any victory is self-defeating, at that point. And this is why a contract is so important. It helps keeps things from ever getting to that unfortunate outcome

Jason, if you can go through your career without ever having to deal with contracts and you never get burned, then my hat's off to ya. You're somehow charmed.

But for me, a contract is just a part of doing business. It's a standard practice across most professional endeavors. And any client unwilling to commit to some form of binding legal agreement is a big red flag, for me. It forebodes future problems without any recourse.

And as far as state of minds goes, hey, I'm one of the most altruistic guys around. I always want things to work out. I always want to help make clients happy and successful. And I'm never confrontational until absolutely pushed to an absurd, abussive extreme. And I hate it when I'm put in that position. But I'm just not willing to get screwed over and be some pathetic martyr.

Nuff said. (Sigh.)

On Nov.16.2004 at 03:25 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I think I see where you are coming from. Well said, Jason. I appreciate it.

I'm a fan of avoiding legal speak. When I give a quote, it details the scope of the project, and page two is a small set of terms with a signature line beneath. Very simple, not so much legal speak. Works for me. And like Steven said, if somebody has a problem with something like that, it's an indicator of something else.

Many perfectly good clients have a hard time paying on time. I'm not sure how or why that is, but it's our industry. I've worked for a couple video production companies in past years, and it's there too. Any piece of signed material helps avoid this. My "terms" state payment is due 30 days past delivery of final services. In certain situations a payment may be needed in advance, and that would be in the quote.

Don't see the big deal. Deliver the project, wait for payment. If none comes in 30 days I send a bill with a 15 days for payment. It's pretty much standard business. I'm no corporate robot (thank you for the line, Conan O'Brien), but there's no reason to act like design isn't business.

Going in a different direction, I also specify the authority I retain in my solution. The scope of my projects state "(me) to determine creative through development into final production." This may vary slightly for each project, but the point is that I do not need a client to approach me half-way through a project with an outside consultant to redirect the project in a different direction.

It happens, people. There are many essays on Speak Up about good and bad clients, and I think it's safe to say from the feedback that none of us want to be button pushers.

Oh, and John A---

I had the whole Powerpoint thing last fall. Totally sucks when a total square redesigns your logo on Powerpoint, then your boss points to it and wonders why you couldn't come up with that. I said I didn't have to; the client approved my previous design through completion.

Doesn't matter, all he ended up with was some bad looking graphic that was predominantly light yellow on white. Yep. Warned him it wouldn't print. Printed it and showed him. But that's what he wanted.


On Nov.16.2004 at 04:51 PM
jenny’s comment is:

Nothing like coming into a conversation late but here goes...

I actually think that good contracts makes for better clients (something like good fences, good neighbors). I worked with a client last year who'd been burned by a designer. Don't get me wrong, I have the feeling they were difficult clients for the original designer - small government agency, and no one in the office had ever worked with a designer before. Still, the designer didn't help - the person skipped meetings without notifying the client, etc.

The root of a lot of their problems, though, was the contract, or lack thereof. Their agreement didn't spell out important things like rights transfers and schedules; they hadn't worked out sign-offs or proofing (which I saw as essential - the project was done in 3 languages, one of which I couldn't read at all). A contract can do more than just protect the designer, it spells out the client's rights and responsibilities as well, and can head off certain problems before they begin. Especially if you avoid legalese, as Bradley says, which I do.

On Nov.17.2004 at 01:27 PM
Andrew’s comment is:

I haven't really done any graphic designing for clients before but I have done projects with other art.

The worst thing besides money problems is when people just want something cool and expect me to think up everything about it. They say something like, " Your good, do whatever you want", that drives me crazy because I know in the end, even if they agree with what I created, there will be something not quite right about it or it won't be exactly what they wanted.

People just need to tell me what they want and be specific and they will get more bang for their buck.

On Nov.17.2004 at 02:53 PM
szkat’s comment is:

my worst client was my boss at my last job.

some details of that minor design hell:

after agreeing on a start date, he called a week prior to it and told me he bought me a ticket to meet the other members of the company on the east coast. the suprise was a little overwhelming. in effect, i had to tell the freelance boss i was leaving that my exodus would be three days earlier than i'd planned. then on the trip, a new co-worker told new boss i was flirting with him. what he thinks a single 23 year old designer would want with a 50 year old married-with-kids lawyer, i'll never know.

then i started getting blamed for problems with the clients. i found out by being accidently copied on an email that my boss was saying i could do things in half the time i quoted him. when the project was late, he could say, "well, it's our designer." time and budget became concerns i didn't know about -- concerns that discredited my opinions and reputation. a month later, i told the group i'd rather be unemployed than keep working there.

my best client is a good friend of mine that i've known since i was fourteen. he said to me once, "i trust you completely and will defend your art to the death."

that was amazing.

On Nov.17.2004 at 03:32 PM
Carol’s comment is:

The best client relationships I have are based solely on trust and respect. I may not like you as a *person*...but as long as we trust and respect each other -- it's all good.

The absolute worst client I had was the one who decided that their website should look EXACTLY like the one they sketched on an 8-1/2 X 11 piece of paper (holding it up to the MONITOR, mind you) and wouldn't allow me to use any accessibility features. Then they decided to take forever and a day to pay me. When I finally had to send the "Your payment is seriously overdue" e-mail, I got a two-page single-spaced typed letter about how I hurt their "feelings".

Give. Me. Strength.

I never worked with them again. And I try to steer clear of people who seem rather....sensitive. Ahem.

On Nov.17.2004 at 10:17 PM
Sara’s comment is:

I know it's going to be bad when the client comes to the first meeting with a folder full of drawings laying out each page in the site (in great detail, complete with colour scheme), then tells me that my job is to add in some "flashing link buttons" and "make all the text and images spin or fly into place". He then proceeded to tell me that he had a very limited budget ($500), and if I couldn't work within that budget he would let his neighbor's son do the job. And to top it all off, he wasn't willing to sign a contract "just yet", but wanted the work to proceed immediately. Needless to say, I didn't take the job.

It's also bad when a client says something to the effect of, "I've never had a website created before, and I don't really know what I want on it. What do you suggest? Oh, and I have a list of cool sites that I want you to look at so that you know what it should look like." It's really bad when they don't even know why they need a website – they just think it'll be "cool" to have.

On Nov.18.2004 at 08:09 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Sorry, late to this discussion also. Here's my 2 cents.

Good clients trust your judgement, but push and challenge your thinking constantly. They understand the value you bring as a designer in the sense that you help make their company better. I worked with a biotech company CEO for 7 years who maintained that level of trust and professionalism. I/we were able to produce some amazing work together that elevated the business for his company. The work was recognized design-wise as well as business-wise. It was the most rewarding client relationship I've ever had.

The worst client relationship was just the opposite, when there was blatant distrust. I had a client that I was convinced was bipolar. We would have a good meeting, then I'd come back to a scathing email that blasted everything we presented in detail. We would catch her telling bold-face lies to the team, who often had documented notes saying otherwise. We ended up firing the client and burning their business cards. Really, we burned them all.

We also had clients that would say positive things in front of us, only to backstab our work to coworkers when we've left. Some of these coworkers ended up being friends of our team members, and they would warn us. Slimy and unprofessional bastards.

As to contracts, I've always had one, but they are nothing more than in-faith agreements if you ask me. Good clients will be good clients before and after a contract. And bad clients will screw you regardless of a contract. I was burned by a large client that signed a contract, but rescinded the project and dared us to sue them. They knew that the legal cost of suing them was disproportionate to the cancelled contract — and they were right. It wasn't worth it.

And btw, did you guys know that there is such a thing as errors and omission insurance? For print fuck-ups and web crashes. Years ago, many of the larger companies required web agencies to carry web e/o insurance in order to qualify for work.

On Nov.18.2004 at 08:51 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

A little back from contracts to the broader discussion—very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this week about Best-Buy who have had an internal discussion about customers who are 'angels' and 'devils' ... the devils being customers who relentlessly try to game them by doing things like buying products, returning them, then buying them again at returned merchandise discounts (among other less smarmy bargain hunting tactics). Best Buy has concluded that as many as 20% of their customers cost them money, and in a risky move, the CEO is seeking ways to shed these customers, and cut back promotions that attract them.

On Nov.19.2004 at 11:33 AM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

Tan, I first heard of E & O insurance just this year. It's kind of sad, really, that we need that kind of thing. I've never seen it in writing, but how is an 'error' defined? Seems loose and open to interpretation.

For example: "Our membership is in the toilet and it's all because of that lousy postcard you guys did! Not only are we not gonna' pay that invoice , we're gonna' sue your ass!"


On Nov.19.2004 at 01:11 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Tan, I first heard of E & O insurance just this year. It's kind of sad, really, that we need that kind of thing. I've never seen it in writing, but how is an 'error' defined? Seems loose and open to interpretation.

I agree, it is a sad thing.

I'm not that familiar w/ the insurance myself, but I think the "errors" are defined literally — if a printed phone number or web url is incorrect, thus requiring a reprint; if an online age calculator lets in 7 yr olds to a teen gaming site and the company is fined or sued; if copy is omitted or incorrect in a catalog or annual report, thus requiring a reprint; if a bug in a site causes a crash which causes lost sales during a certain amount of time, etc.

Just like any other type of insurance, I'm sure that the responsibility for damage is always open to interpretation by the claims adjuster and both parties.

On Nov.19.2004 at 02:57 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

What about when clients don’t pay? Does insurance exist for that? I’ve never had this misfortune, but I had the chance to witness my father deal with it on one occasion.

As an independent contractor, I visited one client with him that refused to pay his bill after the agreed upon six month window. At the office where he installed their intranet and maintained their computer systems, Dad negotiated with the secretary. She insisted that the person he wanted to talk with was out and the accountant that cut checks was on holiday. “Fine,” dad said, “Jason, grab that end of the couch over there,” referring to the waiting-room sofa.

As we both lifted the sofa into the air, the secretary gave in, “Okay. Okay, hold on. I have a home telephone number for you. You can reach the accountant there.”

As designers, how many of you have gone to such extremes? Few, I imagine. And when a relationship goes sour because of late payment, do you give up on the client…or give them a second chance?

On Nov.20.2004 at 12:39 PM
Carol’s comment is:

When a relationship goes sour because of non-payment or seriously late payment, I try to get rid of the client ASAP. I am not a charity organisation, and I expect my clients to pay ME the same way they pay THEMSELVES, the gas company, the landlord, etc.

If someone's having a rough time and they agree to a monthly payment schedule (and they stick to it) I might cut them a little slack -- otherwise, I might show up in the lobby ready to move furniture. :-)

On Nov.21.2004 at 10:27 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>What about when clients don’t pay?


1. Nice reminder phone calls

2. Nice reminder office visit

3. Not-so-nice phone calls

4. Not-so-nice office visit

5. Asshole phone calls

6. Empty threats phone calls

7. Back-to-nice-but-this-is-your-last-chance phone call

8. Collection agency phone call

9. Lawyer phone call

...most deadbeats only require up to step 4.

On Nov.22.2004 at 11:08 AM
Bo Parker’s comment is:

I find all of this conversation very interesting. I must say that one of my worst clients was an agency. We are talking about clients as if they are the corporate enemy but we must look at ouselves and how we do business. I know it's a dirty word but at the end of the day, we are conducting commerce. I've found it interesting that when budgets are cut, design is one of the first things to go. Other service industries (lawyers, accountants) are maintained but our segment goes first and I think alot of it has to do with how we do business, both as partners and as clients. I have been guilty of what I am about to propose so I am not above reporach on this. I have taken that proverbial perfect job that allows me to do, what I perceive to be, the perfect creative job that will change the world. In order to get the job, I have done it for a cut rate. I've done the whole industry a disservice. Attorneys don't cut their rate for prime jobs. They stand behind their expertise as justification. It makes us better vendors to stick together and place a premium on what we do as a business. Clients perceive us to be more legitimate (which we already are) and view us more as an authority and partner. I have seen this strengthen my client relationships over time and it started by me examining my business how I handle my business structure and present myself as someone concerned with helping a client's business and not a flighty artist that happened to make it through the tech crash. I have had nonpayments and been stiffed by nonprofits, for profits and friends. My best weapon has been experience and showing myself to be a serious business partner in presentation, procedure and process.

On Nov.23.2004 at 12:51 AM
szkat’s comment is:

you haven't done the industry a disservice by accepting jobs that will produce good work.

it would be great if we, as an industry, could set standards so none of us would have to things at half price or for trade — but it won't work until we have some kind of system of talent accountability. to group everyone together when some "designers" are self-taught hacks who pirated photoshop and know how to throw a mean drop shadow...

it seems unlikely that such an umbrella would work. lawyers can do that because they all went to law school and passed the bar. we struggle to do it because sometimes we're in competition with imposters. you just do what you have to do to feel fufilled by your work.

your "best weapon" is a good one. it's what sets you apart and allows you to demand more. your authority is based on it. the only disservice you're doing is if you tolerate others treating you like the "flighty artist" and not like the astute designer.

On Nov.23.2004 at 10:44 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

I'm currently experiencing my first refusal of payment. I had invoiced once already during the course of the project and received prompt payment. The project was not progressing in a clearly defined direction. Minor things, such as being told the incorrect names to links, to more severe things, like being told to delete everything off the "testing server" before adding my new files plagued the project. The "testing server" was in fact the live site. I had thankfully backed up the entire server before deleting it in preparation for the possibility of that ass-clenching moment.

I know that some of the responsibility is mine. I should have had the posture to take control of the project direction when it was clear that we had lost sight of the road ahead. Working with a project leader with no experience leading a project and not communicating with the CEO of the company who was giving the behind-the-scenes direction was also a mistake. The project leader was quick to sell me out to his boss, who in turn had no other reason to believe that the problems were not mine alone. Thankfully I was working with an IT consultant in addition to the project manager. The IT guy shared my view of the project and had recently told me that he would talk with the CEO regarding the project's collapse. He went so far as to say that he would recommend changing project leaders and continuing with my services. Now I wait for a call.

On Nov.24.2004 at 12:20 PM