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Getting Hired

Amateurs Get Angry With Clients. Professionals Educate Them.

You can’t pick your family, but you can certainly pick your clients. With a little bit of work up front you can get the clients — and work — that you love.


As most experienced freelancers know, sometimes we have to fire our clients, for their benefit and ours. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I used to think dealing with frustrating clients was just part of being a creative. But then I realized while, yes, there are frustrating parts of any relationship, frustration should be the exception rather than the rule.

There are certainly times when we want to turn into the freelance version of Donald Trump, screaming “You’re Fired!” at everyone we disagree with. But the truth is, we deserve the clients we get. Bad clients aren’t the result of some cosmic force working against us, they’re more likely the result of our own actions.

Frustrating clients are the result of some misstep we’ve made along the way. To do our best work and work with the best people, we need to be diligent in our relationship with our clients. Here’s how:

Have the guts to say “no.”

If it doesn’t seem like a good project for you, walk away before money is involved. Is that the type of project you want to be known for? Like attracts like, so if you’re filling your portfolio with work you aren’t interested in, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for more of the same (Jason Santa Maria gave a great Creative Mornings talk about the power and value of saying no to work). It can be scary, but think past just this one client. 

Walk away before money is involved.

Clearly communicate your values to the world.

The easiest way to do this is to blog regularly on the same website that your portfolio is on. Write honestly about the work you do. This immediately shows potential clients if their goals and values match up with yours and saves time discovering later that you and your client are out of sync.

Educate your clients.

Chances are, we’ve been part of more projects involving our craft than the person that hired us. We have a great opportunity to teach our clients what we’ve learned from all that experience. 

If a client disagrees with something you know to be right, don’t get bent out of shape. Instead, go into research mode. Show them using examples why what they want doesn’t work for your project. If they can turn around and clearly illustrate why their suggestion will work, you can concede (and learn something in the process). If they can’t you’ve squashed an issue while educating your client for (hopefully) many projects to come. Consider it an “investment” in a resource that you need for your career to be successful.

Interrogate potential clients.

What are their tastes in design? Does that match the work you’re interested in doing? There’s no point taking on a client that loves flashy bells and whistles if you like doing subtle minimal designs. Screening clients lets you pick the ones that are better to work with and provide you with the type of work you’re actually keen on doing more of.

Be clear on the project’s goals.

That way if there are disagreements, it’s not a matter of what they want versus what you want, which is highly subjective, it’s more a matter of what accomplishes the goals of the project in the best way. Put these goals in writing and refer back to the document when necessary.

***

It’s hard to say no to clients (and their money), especially when you first start out. But like any other creative endeavor, focus on quality early and your career will get exponentially easier. After all, good clients lead to us good work, which leads to us being more happy and fulfilled (and less complaining to our peers about how our clients keep making bad decisions). Creating a body of work you’re happy with can take a lifetime.

We are responsible for the work we put into the world, so why not make that work great?

How about you?

How do you filter for the best clients?

Comments (214)
  • http://smallbusinesstalent.com/ Stephen Lahey

    Great food for thought, Paul. Especially liked: “Amateurs get angry with clients. Professionals educate them.” Spot-on, IMHO.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Stephen, I don’t claim to always have great clients, but I definitely minimize the bad ones with education (I even a book geared towards them).

    • Randy Zeitman

      WINNER!

  • Adana Washington

    Awesome article. I recently heard a quote that fits nicely with this topic: “You get the work that you show.” Great insights. Thanks, Paul!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thank you Adana!

  • Randy Zeitman

    Wow… great!

  • http://oacdesigns.com/ Oisin Conolly

    Very insightful! I’ll certainly be taking this to heart now that I’ve started out as a full time freelancer.
    Thanks for the article.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      You’re welcome!

  • http://www.markeric.com/ mark eric

    Well done. This should be the cornerstone for any business. Identify your ideal client, then let your company tell a story that resonates with them.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Identifying the ideal client is always key. “Every client that offers money” is enticing but too broad 😉

  • virgilstarkwell

    this should be required reading for anyone who posts or forwards those whiny, insipid “clients from hell” articles….

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Those are pretty funny though…

  • http://www.larrymcallisterii.com/ Larry McAllister II

    While I mostly agree, I think the conversation in some cases really comes down to the clients that refuse to let you “educate” them. I wonder what some tactics those who have been doing this much longer than I have use to help give the more stubborn clients a clearer understanding.

    • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

      You don’t have to persuade to entice everyone to work with you. You can only show them the best you can do and then propose working together.

      Aaron
      The Confidence Lounge

      • http://www.larrymcallisterii.com/ Larry McAllister II

        Really great advice, thanks for the input.

  • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

    I think it is having some principles you want to live and work by and looking to never break those principles in order to get work. My experience, for example, those that aim to negotiate on price to the lowest amount end up being a pain in the ass!

    Aaron
    The Confidence Lounge

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      I tend to never work with people who want a “deal”. I design websites, I don’t sell used cars 😉

  • Leo Pires

    I agree that is “our fault”, most of the times.

    For most of the clients, It’s all about money. Fortunatelly, we can use researches to prove that you get what you pay for.

    But sometimes it’s hard with “straight vision” clients.

    Good post.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      True, some people are just impossible to please (or want more than they pay for), but that’s why it’s important to weed them out before starting.

  • Roc le Roc

    As a designer you should develop a designer’s standpoint from where you can argue professionally. This means you should be able to verbally explain your approach. If my clients want to force me into a bad design decision I will argue, that from my expertise, this is the wrong thing to do. If they still insist, I will decide based on the error that is made, whether I will continue the job (and live with it) or quit, because the critics will come back to me once the bad solution is out. Quitting is the last thing to do, but if the the client forces you to work against all your experience, no money is worth the pain and bad reputation that follows.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Agreed. Quitting or firing is a last resort, but sometimes it’s required to move onto better work.

      • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

        if it not an equal partnership and of mutual growth and empowerment, then the best option is to just be the wiser one, chuck the energy-suckers and move on to spend your creative energies on those that are in the wait for your professional work.

  • http://printfirm.com/ Katherine Tattersfield

    It’s great to see a fresh perspective on this issue. Literally everyone in marketing deals with difficult clients, yet every designer I encounter seems to believe that he/she is a misunderstood artistic genius plagued by “ignorant” clients. If you run into serious communication issues on all your projects, then there’s a problem on your end. Accept responsibility for it, adapt, or find another vocation.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Katherine! Design is communication (visual, but still). If us designers can’t communicate properly, the issue is our end, not the other end 🙂

  • Pau

    This article just hit the nail on its head today. I work for small internet studio and some of our clients seems that they understand all of their business AND webdesign. So I wonder – why did they even hire us? And the thing is, I would really like to do something about it, explain our work to clients… but my boss is afraid to oppose them or even educate, cause he thinks they “might” hire another studio which would do what clients want… I do not understand that. Is it really so hard to deal with clients?

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      It’s not hard to deal with the RIGHT clients for you. That’s the whole point. Sometimes it’s ok to lose business if it’s not business that’s beneficial to you in the long term.

    • Jillian P

      My company sells nutritional products directly to consumers and we have a consultation process to help determine their needs. Often I get the know it alls that are experts at their health issues and their needs and try to tell me what they should get. What I have done is politely tell them, “I know that your health is important to you and you have tried a lot of products and done a lot of research. Most importantly though, you are here because you still have issues you need help with that you have not been able to rectify on your own. Give me a chance to do what I do best, let me take care of you and then decide whether you want to work with me.” They almost always agree and pipe down and listen. Often letting them know that I know they have other options and that they have to do what is best for them, takes down their defenses and usually pulls them closer to me rather than make them want to go somewhere else.

  • Laura Simms

    Awesome, Paul. I talk to all one on one clients before agreeing to work together. This takes time, but it has ensured that I only work with the people who get what I do and I have fun communicating with. If someone sounds like they’re on the fence, I tell them to check back in later, because I prefer to work with people who are READY.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Couldn’t agree more Laura. Those on the fencers are the ones that delay projects, change their minds mid-stream and ultimately aren’t a good for anyone in any industry.

  • Wassim Subie

    I learn as much as I can about a potential client, their history, values, mission, and current challenges they are faced with. This sets the stage for an honest exchange and alignment of our strengths, to get to a Partnership.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      That’s perfect!

  • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

    some clients are beyond education. as ignorant as talking to a stone. some are worth the effort, others just suck the energy out of you, leaving you feeling stupid, used, reused, misused and abused.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Exactly—don’t work with those kind.

      • DarrenRay

        That’s a lot easier said than done, especially when the client pool seems to consistently keep growing with ‘those kind’. I keep hearing the same complaints from designers I know all across the continent. I live in the Canadian prairies, where contemporary design work is few and far between (although it does exist). But I hear all the same stories and complaints about clients from designers out west (Vancouver/Whistler/San Francisco), out east (Montreal/Toronto/Ottawa), as well as designers in some of the southern States. Essentially, Robert Rivera’s rant above is exactly the same conversation I hear all the time around me, and more and more often. I’ve kind of gotten over it now, and gone beyond really caring all that much anymore because otherwise it would just continue to eat me up inside. I know that I’m good at what I do (as a well-experienced print designer), and that I wouldn’t really know how to do anything else, but trying to educate your clients has become a lost cause because a good client means someone who is actually willing to be educated – and that’s like trying to find a ‘good’ movie to watch these days; there are only about 10% that are worth the time. I just say get used to having more bad clients than good ones, and hope that the good ones, and the good work that you do for them, will continue to make doing it worthwhile.

  • Coach-Dave McGhee

    Great advice, not just for creatives, but for any self-employed person. Be intentional about what you do and who you choose to work with.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      It’s amazing what a touch of intention can do.

  • P.J. Simmons

    Paul…great article. Loved it. Been learning a lot of this lately but haven’t been able to articulate it.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks PJ! Glad I could help.

  • Rachael Rice

    Love allll this up in here. Personally, I give all new clients Abby Kerr’s Voice Values Assessment (abbykerr.com). It makes them jump through a little hoop of reflection and gives us both clarity on their needs and perspective. Ones that can’t make time to do it self-select out of my pool.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Nice! Abby tops my list of favourite online people 🙂

    • JeffreyDavis11

      Agreed about Abby’s delightful, intelligent presence – and her VVA’s usefulness. I also use Sally Hogshead’s Fascinate Assessment with premium clients so they and I can see how they operate.

  • Nicola Redman

    Hello. Thank you. I work as a Northern Irish voice artist and found a lot of this relevant to my business. Having the courage to say no to jobs at the beginning can be difficult but it sets a precedent which is integral to a successful business.
    Nicola
    http://www.nicolaredman.com

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Totally agree Nicola—doing what you do makes it easier to build a business that you don’t end up hating 🙂

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/ Adam

    Good article, however I have to slightly disagree that only amateurs get angry with clients. I know some top agencies that have fired their clients either half way through the project or if their the agency of record, let them go after a period of time as well.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      True. It can happen to the best of us. But hopefully it’s less likely the further along we are in what we do.

  • JeffreyDavis11

    Paul (aka Gentleman of Adventure :-)), Thx for this article. 1. Lately, I’ve advised myself and apprentices to “get privately irritated” during pro bono calls not publicly angry once you’re deep into a project with a client. I turned away four clients & three potential live event participants last month b/c I could quickly surmise we weren’t a good fit. 2. I appreciate the part esp. re: educating clients. It is part of our job. Sometimes clients are “new” to working with designers or consultants and don’t know what to expect. On the best days, I try to redirect my mind from irritation to empathy to education to conversation and agreement. Educating clients is part of elevating them, making them feel a little better off and a little smarter for having interacted with you. With any luck, you’ll come away feeling elevated, too, because of the clients you attract. – from another Thoreau fan

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Jeffery! “Redirecting irritation to empathy” is HUGE, great way of stating that thought.

  • Leona Mizrahi

    Nice! So happy to read your familiar and effective voice on 99U! Great points. Staying true to yourself/mission, as a freelancer or hiring professional, generates wholesome outcomes in the end.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Leona! Great to see a familiar face in the comments.

  • simonecas

    I do this all the time. I think it’s good practice.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Simone!

  • http://www.phoinx.info/ Ricardo Roehe

    Beautiful in theory, but when bills come mercilessly every month, some just can’t afford the luxury of saying no. You can’t focus on quality when you are starving in the dark.

    • Eric

      +1

    • Doctor J

      Then I would say the first step would be to work towards being able to afford the luxury to say no. If you don’t have the luxury to say no then you really don’t have the power to negotiate.

    • http://silvrlak.com/ Andi

      Agreed, but that charging more and saying no is the end goal. If you keep working on your professional skills and establishing yourself as an expert in your field to your market, you can say no as much as you want. Then you won’t be struggling paycheck to paycheck.

      • http://www.phoinx.info/ Phoinx

        I believe all other steps in this post are perfect to have a healthy relationship with your client. Everyone should “educate” them, have a good communication. And also know to say “no”, but in terms of knowing your limits and regarding to deadlines.

        However, saying “no” just because it is against your “style” is really an end goal. Let’s be honest: it is a luxury. Of course, everyone does want that, I just thought this step doesn’t fit very well in this topic. I thought it was about negotiating with your client, not terminating him. =]

      • http://silvrlak.com/ Andi

        Trust me, I totally agree because I’ve had to take on clients I didn’t want to and do jobs I didn’t like to pay the bills. I like to see them as growing opportunities, oftentimes, so I feel like I get more out of it than just frustration and meager pay. But there have been times, recently, that I realized instead of struggling to get my head in the game for the money, I’d be better off focusing my efforts elsewhere where there’s money AND the job will flow smoother because I fit better with the client. I end up wasting a lot of time and effort and frustration on jobs that I’m not a good fit for and I’m just doing it for the money.

      • Charlie

        Yeah sounds great until you haven’t got a new job in three weeks and your power bill is due. This whole article is common sense. But as many have put it, it’s a luxury to say ‘no’. If you have the luxury you more or less command your destiny.

      • bsaunders

        Has it occurred to you that saying no is one of the ways OUT of the feast-or-famine cycle, not the necessary result of it? Of course you may start out needing to take everyone. Of course desperate occasions may arise from time to time. Over the long run, though, clients that ask for endless revisions and ultimately put out ugly work make it harder to market systematically, prevent you from forecasting your cash flow and availability, and leave you with fewer good samples that let you charge more or get better projects.

  • F M

    I couldn’t agree more… I have the same experience (but luckily I’ve realized it 10 years sooner :-))… Now all I have to figure out is where to move on from here…

    • dougbowker

      Agreed- the last company I worked for before going freelance had a ton of talent, some great customers, but a few aggressive sales and project managers that could not learn to say no, or to simply bill for work performed! They brought in a lot of business, all of it way under the real cost, and management didn’t see that it was slowly sucking the company dry. At one point the company had to spllit in half, then a year or two later downsized again, and eventually went down to a small but profitable core. But it was really too bad to see an otherwise great business that employed 50+ people whittled down to about 6-8.

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