I Need Help Dealing with Difficult Clients -- Graphic Designer Edition
October 9, 2010 4:47 PM   Subscribe

What advice would you offer a freelance graphic designer who needs help establishing contracts and boundaries, and managing difficult clientele?

I am a freelance graphic designer who has been doing odd jobs for people since middle school. In the past I was close enough with the people I was doing for so that a contract wasn’t particularly necessary.

Last December a professor at my school engaged me to do some work for him at a seriously discounted price. The project went on for months, and I was paid a pittance for what has since been appraised by some professional designers as highly valuable work. I now realize that I was really undervaluing my talents and services, so I've decided to rectify that by looking into making a better businesswoman out of myself.

Recently I developed a basic contract and was able to use it to wrangle the aforementioned client into a better, more respectable place in terms of fees and timelines, and we are now finishing a second project together. Unfortunately, despite my efforts and despite the contract, the man still just does not do his part as a client, and I want to learn how to nip some issues in the butt NOW so that I never find myself in this position ever again.

My questions are these:
1. How do you let a client know that he or she is being rude and overstepping his boundaries? (IE calling you at odd hours of the night to request changes to a product, asking other “professionals”/unqualified family members to critique your work, suddenly adding on huge sub-projects without referencing the contract to a) see if we have time, b) see if I actually offer those services)

2. Is it appropriate to ask a client what their computer skill sets are prior to initiating a project, and then charge accordingly? (My current client did not know that you could edit an existing Word document and retypes and resaves new versions instead of.. Well.. You get the idea.)

3. If a contract goes over its scheduled time line because your client dragged their heels about getting you resources/feedback, how can you gently let the client know that they need to step things up?

4. What are some of your absolute musts when it comes to drafting a contract? How do you establish boundaries and the way things need to work for you?

5. How explicit can I get about my own rules and such in a contract without going overboard and sounding neurotic?
I’m not really planning on making this my livelong job, but as it’s all I’ve got right now in between full-time positions, any other suggestions/resources you might offer to a freelance designer would be so appreciated. I tend to feel like a huge bitch whenever I assert myself, my rules, and my needs, so verbiage would also be appreciated.
posted by patronuscharms to Work & Money (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've been doing freelance for close to 2 years now, and although I am a different field, I think these things still apply.

One big problem that I see that goes beyond your contract is -- can you get more clients? Clients that pay your rates? What about approaching companies? This guy sounds like he is not used to working with freelancers at all and believe it or not, you can fire your client. Not in the middle of the project, and follow through with what you promised, but the next time a PITA client approaches you for work you can say "I wish I could help you, I really apologize, but I'm booked/have no space" or "I only take graphic art projects related to (puppies, cats, anyting but what he needs)." Or, if you do want to work with him, increase your price far beyond what you would charge someone else. To be honest, I would also charge hourly if he is calling you at all hours of the night.

On thing that I do is spell it out in conversation as to what I normally do. For example, "I write a primary manuscript for $XXXX dollars or work for XXX/hour; if you want a set fee for the manuscript, it includes ~30 references, XXXX words, and 1 revision." Spell out the number of revisions.

I also communicate quite a bit with a client if they drag their heels in getting me something. In email or a call, I let them know that I am booked with other projects and if they plan to give me the material that is needed later that week, I will need X days/1 week to revise it. Or if you are really busy, you tell them when the deadline is -- not the other way around. This only applies if they are late in getting something to you.

To be honest, for a new business venture that I plan to do my contract will say ....Client will give me supplies ____fill in the blank -1, 2, and 3. I will return the first draft __ days after I have received 1,2,3. After the client reviews and submits the copy back to me, I will revise it in __ days. I also will have an outline to the project that we agree before we even start. Then, if someone starts with an outline of dancing monkeys but later decides they want singing monkeys, go back to the contract and tell them there has beena change in scope. To do the singing monkeys, it will cost more money - do they approve of this work before you start? HAve all those things listed in the contract.

You may benefit by approaching companies for this sort of work - most that I have worked with do know how to follow an outline, to give you material, and that you need so many days to turn it around. You can also charge appropriately. But this guy sounds like he has not worked with freelancers before and ....I'm not sure if it is worth it from your description unless the pay is good or the sample that you will produce is interesting.

I did have one person from a company who overstepped bounds and called all the time for unrelated projects and ate up my time. I did not have the guts to go through with it,but the company did pay me hourly. I was tempted to tell them "I will charge for calls from person X", but I couldn't do it. However, going hourly may get you set up to handle people like this. I also told this same person that "I am completely booked for the entire summer" when she called for another project. Fire clients who can't work professionally or pay on time.
posted by Wolfster at 5:24 PM on October 9, 2010


I'm not freelance anymore, but this book proved invaluable when I started out:

The Graphic Designer's Guide to Pricing, Estimating, and Budgeting

1. The client is never rude, even if the client is rude. You're not in the business of behavior modification. Reduce the channels the client has to contact you (e.g., use a google voice # and send calls straight to VM between certain hours). Every minute of your time can be billable, and sleep time is precious. As long as you're up front about things ("by the way, in the future, you should welcome to call me for rush projects anytime. I charge 2x with a minimum of 30 minutes when you do.") you can eliminate the dilemma.

2. No, but it's reasonable to charge for "consultation" if your client requires your time. Keep this in mind and repeat over and over: they are paying for your time, not just for a deliverable.

3. You don't. You bill them or find a way to renegotiate. Again, don't reprimand your client until you're such a hot shit designer that you choose who's in and out of your queue. When you hit that inflection point, things become a lot more honest. Until then they really do want you to put up with their BS.

4. See above amazon link

5. Define your terms to a friend with experience writing contracts, and have him/her write it. If you do it yourself you'll likely come off as verbosely neurotic ("if you call me at 4 am i will charge you 2x" can easily just be "off-hours billed at 2x")

For what it's worth, nobody likes this stuff except people doing it for a living. One of the first people hired as agencies scale from designers to professionals is a biz-dev/relations expert.

good luck...
posted by Señor Pantalones at 5:31 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


2nding wolfster. i just had an agency do this to me:
Or, if you do want to work with him, increase your price far beyond what you would charge someone else.
I hired an agency 2 years ago and despite doing a great job, they really hated the project. We sent out the RFP a few weeks ago for another. Friendly, drove down to meet us, gave a preso of recent work, then said that their rates were around $30k a week now. It's a nice tactic :)
posted by Señor Pantalones at 5:34 PM on October 9, 2010


OK, thoughts are here...a little rough since my food is getting cold.

IE calling you at odd hours of the night to request changes to a product,

Don't answer the phone at odd hours, ever. My rule is, they can leave a message, but the phone is off.

If you are worried you'll lose the client, please try not to. There are lots of wonderful clients out there but you need to stay in business long enough to meet them, and "not answering the phone at weird hours" kinda helps you want to stay in business.

asking other “professionals”/unqualified family members to critique your work

This can happen to veteran designers too, but it happens with decreasing frequency as you get more experience (and more experienced clients who go to you because they respect you).

Sometimes I wonder if it's a function of the price you're charging. Cheap graphic design is like any cheap service -- you attract picky people. (Don't know your pricing, so if it doesn't apply, sorry)

I've seen people stave this off by giving a nice presentation along with the work, scheduling a meeting to go over it, and really sticking to your list of a bunch of reasons why you did this or that, continually repeating how it connects to or is inspired by their mission.

suddenly adding on huge sub-projects without referencing the contract

"That's a really neat idea. I'll send you an estimate for that today." If you don't think it's a neat idea, send a huge estimate. They can pay you extra for the pain. If they say "No you will do that for free" or somesuch, they are a really bad client (or you are a college student, ha) and you should tell them you can't work for free, just keep talking in that direction.

2. Is it appropriate to ask a client what their computer skill sets are prior to initiating a project, and then charge accordingly?

The problem here is that your client needed more of your time than you expected. Just get in the habit of billing for all the time you use, and casually mentioning, "yes, of course I'd love to help. I can also find somebody who's good at word processing to help you at $lower price" (gets the hint across)

3. If a contract goes over its scheduled time line because your client dragged their heels about getting you resources/feedback, how can you gently let the client know that they need to step things up?

Lots of your questions are solved with more communication! :-) Looks that way, anyhow...in this case you definitely need to contact them in advance, explain how the situation looks, and ask what they want to do. I got in the habit of specifying "clients part is done + 6 weeks" as a contractual deadline instead of "June 5." That way you can sit back and wait and not feel guilty because of something that's their fault.

5. How explicit can I get about my own rules and such in a contract without going overboard and sounding neurotic?

Be careful here. A bad client is a bad client -- contract language won't fix that. However, you need reasonable protection from problems. Try to make the existing language work better on your behalf (see deadlines above) and focus on working and re-working with good clients and normal contracts rather than putting all your clients in the same penalty box.

I’m not really planning on making this my livelong job,

GASPPPPP oh please...PLEASE do not in 20 years become the client who says, "I USED TO BE A FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER LIKE YOU GUYS SO YEAH LETS SEE WHAT YOU DID!" That drives me nuts.

Are you good at working alongside other people? I found a graphic design veteran of 28 years and I work alongside her, and she takes care of a lot of the people stuff.

You could really turn this into a lucrative career if you wanted to. The problems you're facing are normal to many businesses and tend to slowly recede into the background over the first 5-7 years. Starting...now.
posted by circular at 5:35 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Half of what you are asking is project management related.

The key to most of this is scoping and requirements gathering. Spend lot's of time with the client beforehand working out what they want. Put that into a document and get them to sign it off.

So you now have a document that outlines the clients expectations. In the contract it should state that you will make X number of revisions to a design. This will force the client to bundle revisions into a single communication which makes it easier for you to manage your time.

If they keep asking for revisions past X then charge an hourly rate. (again this should be stated in the contract).

How you want to work and what you expect of the client should be clearly stated in the contract? Don't want calls at 2am - list specific times when you can not be contacted.

In regards to the professor I would just be honest and say something like 'when I started this project I had loads more free time than I do now. Keeping this in mind can we please work towards the below timeline (list the remaining tasks and expected completion dates)

I will complete the above and honour our existing pricing agreement but any other projects or amends outside of the above schedule will have to be re-scoped and will priced according to the current pricing plan (attach the plan).
posted by errspy at 5:45 PM on October 9, 2010


that's some great advice from Wolfster and Señor Pantalones specific to your questions above.

The hardest things I've learned have been

1) My skill is a commodity. I learned it so I could make a living.
2) I cannot afford to work for free.
3) Firing a client is the most liberating thing EVAR.

One of my favorite lines to give to people who ask for more than a casual question, and for people who take up my time without paying me for it: I'm grateful that you think of me as a resource for that kind of question. I'm kind of busy right now, and/or I don't have the resources to answer that for you at the moment. Do you want me to give you a call later and we can set up an appointment? You're (a friend/a great client/family) so of course I'll give you a good rate. [insert genuine smile here] They generally take the hint.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 5:50 PM on October 9, 2010


Clients are always a pain. That's why they hire freelancers. What you describe isn't even close to what I'd call a "difficult" client. It's pretty much status quo.

1) Don't answer the phone in off hours. Don't answer emails in off hours. Let the client know ahead of time what your available hours are. You don't have to put this in a contract, you can simply say "If you want to get a hold of me my office hours are..." I usually don't even answer emails right away, even if I want to or can. Wait at least 30 minutes for small things, two hours for big things. Immediate response trains the client that you are constantly available, which you don't want. Waiting is also good because you'll get things like Subject: EMERGENCY!!! followed 30 minutes later by RE: Never mind. Give them a few minutes to think and they'll often see a proper solution that doesn't involve you. This is good.

I don't even mention that I'm available in emergency situations. Client's think their house is burning down all the time. It never does. Everything can wait until business hours. If they complain mention that you can be on call 24 hours for them for 3 to 10x your current rate. No less.

2. Not exactly. However when you are spec'ing out a project you should get a feel for this. Ask technical questions. Explain what formats you will be accepting and delivering and make sure they understand that. And of course this is why you add 30% to your bids every single time. Some things you just suck up because it's called providing good service. Bigger things you say either "I have a colleague who can help/service that I recommend that can help you with that." or "I'm not really an expert in XXXX, is there someone in your office you can ask?"

3. Clients always blow deadlines. Get used to it. But you can mitigate it. When bidding a project I make all dates contingent. If your deliveries are a 5 days late, that shifts all dates shift 5 days. Except that puts it on a weekend, so they all move a week. Some bad clients I tell up front that I have reserved time for their work until X date. After that I'm promised to other clients so my availability will not be 100%. If they want it done on time they know what they have to do.

4. Very few Musts in my contracts. Mostly Must Nots. They can't ask me to not work for their competitors. They can't ask me to turn over all ownership to them. (Design jobs I'll want to use it in my portfolio, at least. Other jobs I have probably developed technologies or procedures I'll want to reuse.) I don't agree to any part of a contract that has the word "arbitration" in it.

I was wrong, a couple Musts: They are responsible for getting legal rights to all assets they provide to you. If they get behind on payments work stops. First milestone payment up front.

5. If your contract is more than a couple pages think about pairing it back. About 80% of most contracts are just restating contract law, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but it also can be a good way to hide some gotcha's in there.

Lots of good advice so far in this thread. Seconding quit working for individuals unless they obviously have experience. Working for companies is always smoother. (Though not necessarily smooth.)

Also: Fire bad clients. It feels so amazingly good.
posted by Ookseer at 9:41 PM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


1. How do you let a client know that he or she is being rude and overstepping his boundaries? (IE calling you at odd hours of the night to request changes to a product, asking other “professionals”/unqualified family members to critique your work, suddenly adding on huge sub-projects without referencing the contract to a) see if we have time, b) see if I actually offer those services)
You don't. Personally, I just don't give them my phone number because that's exactly what happens when you do. If you must give them your number, get a number that is only for clients and turn the phone off outside office hours. The client has the right to get the opinion of other people before signing off on a job, I don't know why you think that is rude. If extra sub-projects are added you explain that, yes it can be done but it will delay the project by x days/weeks/months and cost an additional $y. If the project is outside your skill set you either tell them so or sub-contract.

2. Is it appropriate to ask a client what their computer skill sets are prior to initiating a project, and then charge accordingly? (My current client did not know that you could edit an existing Word document and retypes and resaves new versions instead of.. Well.. You get the idea.)
No. As ridiculous as it is that your client didn't know he could edit word documents, I don't see how that becomes your problem? Its normal to have more than 1 client at a time, if one is wasting time you work on someone elses project.

3. If a contract goes over its scheduled time line because your client dragged their heels about getting you resources/feedback, how can you gently let the client know that they need to step things up?
Again, you don't. Its not your job to hurry them - simply explain when you request resources/feedback that you need it by x date if you are to meet y deadline
posted by missmagenta at 1:05 AM on October 10, 2010


While I have nothing to add that hasn't been said before, I would suggest that as a working professional in a creative field==really examine yourself in light of this statement:

"I tend to feel like a huge bitch whenever I assert myself"

Not to lecture, but you (and many other women) would be wise to retrain youself. If you don't value your time, your work and your abilities, no one else will. Take your self and your skills seriously. It's not "bitchy" to set boundaries and standards for your professional life. You're a respected professional, not their new bestest pal.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:17 AM on October 10, 2010


Lots of great advice here. One practical tip for making sure they don't call you in off hours: Get a google voice number, and set it to do not disturb for the hours you don't want it forwarded to your regular phone. Makes it easier to not have to look at the ringing phone and wonder if its work related - if all clients have is the GV number, you'll know for certain.
posted by korej at 10:23 AM on October 10, 2010


1. How do you let a client know that he or she is being rude and overstepping his boundaries?
Get a cell phone or something and only use it for work calls.
Refer them back to the contract, your schedule, your service offering.

2. Is it appropriate to ask a client what their computer skill sets are prior to initiating a project, and then charge accordingly?
My contracts often say that the report will be delivered in Word XX and that track changes must be used and so on.

3. If a contract goes over its scheduled time line because your client dragged their heels about getting you resources/feedback, how can you gently let the client know that they need to step things up?

I put something about timely work in the contract and note that the project will be delayed if work is not done on time. I get a deposit and milestone payments to prevent getting put over a barrel to complete a project.

4. What are some of your absolute musts when it comes to drafting a contract? How do you establish boundaries and the way things need to work for you?
Reference contract law. You'll learn some boundaries as you go. But get the project scope, deliverables, payment terms, lack of payment terms, and so on in place.

I run a website with hundreds of articles on freelancing and consulting. Details in profile.

5. How explicit can I get about my own rules and such in a contract without going overboard and sounding neurotic?
Get a freelancing/consulting fees guide and use what they suggest. Lawyer up, if need be.
posted by acoutu at 2:57 PM on October 10, 2010


Thanks, everyone! I'll take all of your advice into consideration as I move forward with my part-time business. Much appreciated.
posted by patronuscharms at 1:45 PM on October 11, 2010


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