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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)
  • Tim Engle

    It’s not about education. My clients don’t want or care to be creative marketers they want to be what they are. So after 25+ years I have found success in making about “Respectful Guidance.”

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Tim, agreed. I never try to teach clients the ins and outs of design, just how to best make the process work for them and their end goals.

      • Tim Engle

        Paul, I like your idea. But having worked with Global to Local clients the only process they really follow is their own with their own internal agendas. So it’s our job to adapt and get into “their world” not coax them into “our world.” Great creatives are nimble navigators.

  • Richard Vickers

    Sometimes it’s not your fault and a client just doesn’t want to listen or their ego won’t let them (as is also the case with designers) but in my experience if you try and explain your reasoning with clear sensible logic, the client is more likely to respond in a similar way which is more productive for everyone.

  • Omar Faizan

    Excellent!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Agreed, which is why we’ve got to use our common sense about it 🙂

  • Nik Jones

    This is great. I will just say that sometimes the small clients I have don’t even look at my style, they aren’t interested in my values, just getting something done. How do you educate them, if they won’t listen?

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      You don’t. And if you’re ok with that, there’s no problem.

      • Nik Jones

        I’m absolutely fine with that. Thanks Paul 🙂

  • http://www.apzmedia.com/ Pablo Apiolazza

    Well I think that then you reached a point where you have to make a stand: if you don’t believe in my authority on the subject, then I’m not the service provider for you.

    • F M

      That’s completely true, and I tend to do that… But unfortunately, that doesn’t leave me with enough clients to make a living from designing :-/

      • http://www.apzmedia.com/ Pablo Apiolazza

        Don’t give up. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing entourage, or making a personal project to put yourself out there and be valued for what you’re really worth. Sometimes I feel that it is almost a moral obbligation to do so. Otherwise we’re accomplices of all the wrongdoing.

  • Tony Dennell

    We can’t all afford to turn work down. In a perfect world, we would all have enthusiastic customers who believe in our (the designers) ability and will pay what we’re worth.

    The truth is, designers need to have a thick skin and the ability to listen to their clients. After we have listened, we then mould their idea to the best of our ability and produce the best piece of work we possibly can for that client.

    A good designer can create something awesome… and make the client believe it was their idea!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      The last line is a brilliant point. Thanks Tony!

  • Laura Lin

    Paul, I completely agree. It’s important to work with clients who have similar, if not the same, values and goals as you do. Indeed, like attracts like. While money is a factor in choosing the type of work we do, it would only lead to frustration and dissatisfaction if it’s the leading factor. Your article reminds me of the commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave at the University of the Arts 2012 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI). Insightful.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      That’s a brilliant speech!

  • Chakintosh

    Yeah, but we should agree on something … there ARE clients from hell, and you just can’t tame the Devil!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      There’s a song in there somewhere 🙂

      • Chakintosh

        Trust me, that night I encountered a ‘potential’ client who came to hire me for a freelance job.

        And amongst the first thing he ever said after “Hi”, he says, and I quote “Our company is way more developed than the one you’re working for” in an attempt to lure me to quit my actual job and join them. But when I checked their website .. It was not that developed! The site’s theme is a nulled WordPress theme, and they are offering web design & development by PACKS! who does that ? I mean … There’s a Silver Pack, Gold Pack, and Uranium Pack!!! I think that’s enough to have an Idea about where that client came from… Hell!

        Another thing, when he asked for a quote on the job he wants, He saw the quote and said “Are you out of your mind !!!!” (Disrespect) Apparently the quote was ‘too expensive’ for him even though it’s really not a small project, and he knows that.

        I lectured him about how NOT to talk to a freelancer, and that a freelancer is not just someone you can give orders to. Freelancers don’t take orders, you set the objective, and you let them work autonomously.

        He never showed up again … Fortunately.

      • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

        When given the choice, I always go for the radioactive pack. Because, spiderman!

  • dougbowker

    I won’t say a lot of what the article isn’t true to a point, but you do a real disservice by not acknowledging that some clients are just plain bad actors who often don’t show their true colors until it’s too late to back out. If halfway through you realize they are using their position of power to soak you for everything they can get, it’s not a matter of educating them- they KNOW exactly what they are doing. You can’t bail without risking a lawsuit, even if you have at least been paid for some of the work performed. I’ve seen freelancers and even medium sized firms nearly put out of business with just a few bad clients. In fact, half of the VFX industry has been buried by such practices in just this last year!

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Doug, true, sometimes people lie. But I’ve always trusted my gut from the onset and it mostly works out. Mostly.

    • Maddie

      Ugh I know this all too well unfortunately!

  • Sabra Morris Media

    I agree with you regarding clients’ relationships as a reflection of what we’re willing to allow. Like any other relationship, fool me once, shame on you. Twice? Shame on me. If I take a job with a client who I’ve had a less-than-stellar experience with in the past, I only have myself to blame for any ensuing issues. However, it is sometimes necessary to take on work, even when knowing the process won’t be as seamless as desired. In some cases, if the good outweighs the bad, or if the money is good enough, I’ll live in the gray area of “just OK” client relations. As business grows, I think it’s good to advise freelancers who can’t cut ties altogether to actively seek out ideal clients while working with current clients. Hopefully they can weed out the less-than-ideal work once new, more ideal work starts to roll in. It’s not a black-and-white process, but if the need for income prevents freelancers from breaking ties with clients entirely, a “weeding out” process might be a good option to consider.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Great points Sabra, thank you! Definitely not black and white.

  • http://www.octopus-creative.co.uk/ Octopus Creative Design

    Good article Paul. It can be difficult to say no to work sometimes, particularly if your quiet or just starting out. Clients unable to visualise something that clearly won’t work tend to fall into my ‘difficult’ category. I take it for granted that everyone can see the end product from a few component parts, unfortunately this isn’t the case. Sometimes I have to spend a little extra time creating visuals to demonstrate my point of view, yes it’s time consuming, but it helps gain client trust. And I find the next time I offer advice it’s more readily taken.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Agreed, saying no, especially at first, may not make sense. I too have sometimes taken a bit of extra time to create a visual to make a point. It works.

  • Prints of Paper

    My one, huge problem, is that for print, my clients don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to know what “high-resolution” means. I’ve lost good projects (and money) because they couldn’t put their hands on portraits or building exteriors suitable for print production. Thoughts, PLEASE?

    • http://www.maverickcreative.ca/ Joshua Richards

      Explain it to them, provide them with an info-graphic to reference. Problem solved. And include in your contract / agreement that if assets are not provided at the correct resolution, there will be a delay / charge to source an appropriate photo.

      Simple.

      • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

        Infographics solve EVERYTHING! 🙂

      • Prints of Paper

        Thanks, Paul. Unfortunately, that’s besides the point. The hi-rez images (we) seek were usually taken long ago, no one knows by who, and the low-rez images all they have. My default to that is to get new photography, and that’s when they bail because that’s another project to them—usually more than the design or printing. To make matters worse, I am seen as a “can’t do” designer, but the original crappy designer was able to get it done—yeah, because they had the hi-rez images. By then, they’ve written me off as “fussy.”

      • http://www.maverickcreative.ca/ Joshua Richards

        Who the hell is Paul?

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      There are 100s of articles about this on google. Maybe share a few of those with them? Or offer suggestions to hire specific professional photographers?

  • AlexanderDashutin

    Obviously, the world would be full of great design if we could educate our clients. However there are two fundamental problems with educating them. I’m a certificated teacher and I know that apart from your professional skills you must have authority over the people you want to educate. Firstly, they must believe you can teach them. Secondly, they must strive for the knowledge.
    The vast majority of the clients, even those who consider you as authority, just don’t want you to educate them. They want you to show them something that matches their personal expectations (sometimes unconscious ones). And when you do so, they are satisfied.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Alexander, great points. If you charge money for something, you’ve got authority (or at least you should). And if a client is paying money, they should want to at least know a cursory level of understand about what they’re paying for. When I hire a mechanic to fix my car, I don’t need to know everything, but it helps if I understand the basic concepts so when she’s suggesting that I fix something, I know what she means.

      • AlexanderDashutin

        Paul, you’re right. I always explain my concepts but as far I know from my experience, the average client believes that he knows what is good in terms of visual identity. Your mechanic can show a broken part and suggest to replace it with the new one. And you barely can argue with him. However your clients may say something like: “This is a great design, but I don’t like it. Sorry.” They believe that the most important criterion of a good design is whether it seems appealing to them or their wives, friends, neighbors or focus group.

      • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

        I press on “why” or “why not, based on your goals for the project” if a client says they don’t like something. Confrontational yes, but it has worked for me.

      • AlexanderDashutin

        Yes, this strategy may work. I’m open to the dialogue so when the client explains his reasons I usually try to take them into consideration or to share my counter-evidences. But here is the message I received a few minutes ago: “Your design is impeccably thought through. The question I have to ask is, does it grab me? at the moment I’m not sure…” It’s utterly difficult to argue when the only reasons they have are “don’t like”, “doesn’t grab” and so on…

      • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

        “Make it pop more!” is my favourite 😉

  • Rockbrand

    Great article. Some clients are open to guidance, some need a tranquilizer dart. We can’t eliminate the baggage they bring to our door. It’s the price of admission and the nature of a subjective product. If we’re as clever in solving a problem as we think we are, we have to be even more clever in selling the solution.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thanks! Some are definitely not interested in what professionals they’ve hired have to say.

  • Rene Andritsch

    Michael Bierut gave very inspiring talk about clients (https://vimeo.com/9084072) at Creative Mornings in New York. He is not in favor of the phrase “educating a client” and I agree with that. What is it a client has to be educated about? A client is a professional in its field and we are professionals in our field. The thing that can go wrong is the communication between the two parties and sometimes people just don’t get along with each other. The magic is probably finding the right people you can connect with in a genuine way. That is what enables all participants to do their best work and create outstanding projects.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Rene, I’m not saying make your clients know as much as you do, I’m just saying that the more they know about the process they’re part of, the better. That’s it.

  • future graphics

    Nice read Paul. Implementing these tactics has made my relationships & projects so much more rewarding with clients. An initial screening is a must as well as determining goals. Educating them on why certain aspects may not be in their best interest and respectfully communicating such info rather than putting a client on the defensive also puts a much more positive spin on things.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Thank you! Definitely putting a client on the defensive is a bad idea 🙂 But being helpful by illustrating points with examples? That’s never been a bad thing for me.

  • Olaf

    All my professional life I have tried to educate clients. But so far they’ve resisted.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      That’s too bad Olaf, perhaps there’s a different way to go about the way you educate them?

    • Anna Roberts

      Do you let them educate you too? If they feel like it’s a one way street, they’re probably less likely be interested.

  • Matt Mozgiel

    Be a good communicator, bring alternatives to the table that you can back up the decision process for. Saying “No” should never be part of the creative process. That’s just putting up blockades and creating a butting heads situation. As a creative, whenever an idea I’ve had has been rejected or stalemated, I will go back to my desk, and sketch/ brainstorm alternatives and then bring them back. I also know how to explain the why and how behind my creative decisions. This is how I deal, professionally.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      Matt, “no” is always a last resort. After everything else has been tried.

      • Matt Mozgiel

        absolutely.

  • Dale Heller

    Really great article, so important to remember that so much of your reputation comes from the clients you take on.

    • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

      It sure does, especially if you want to use them as references. Or link to your own site from theirs.

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Hey Miss Moon—Thanks for your comment. I’ve spent almost two decades doing freelance, and zero decades doing sales/PR. Learned a new word though, “dross”.

    • penina

      Count me in for 30+ years. There are some great clients out there who make it all worth it. In a list of his five top role models, Milton Glaser included his client, Joe Baum. Baum was a businessman (a restauranteur) and a non-designer.

    • MissMoonPilot

      Hello Paul,
      Firstly, can I just say congratulations! You must have won some kind of freelancers client lottery! You’re clearly one of the lucky few, who
      1) have the luxury of being able to pick and choose your clients.
      2) have had the fortune of finding clients with ears.
      It’s no wonder you’re so happy & positive. Where do i sign up for this lotto btw?

      • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

        I’ve got a pet unicorn that shoots rainbows out it’s ass. From there, I follow the yellow brick road to #2.

        For #1, spending so many years working my butt off to get a point where I can pick them. It’s a long game, not a quick place to get to.

        Let me know if you hear of any motivational speaking gigs!

      • Dan

        Snap! Being quick on your feet is a great trait to have as a freelancer, and you have clearly mastered that Paul. Don’t take sh*t from the jealous types – Love it 🙂

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Thanks Melissa!

  • MissMoonPilot

    i agree! It’s so painful… for 10 years now I’ve prostituted my creativity to an endless stream of clueless arse wipes. I could just burst into tears thinking about it.

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Thanks FM!

  • LorettaMay

    Wow. Take the money and run? Seriously?! It’s up to freelancers to not only educate clients on our decisions but stand our ground and make advocate for good design, good practice, and respect and trust from our clients. If you’re letting them walk all over you every time, then that says more about you and the clients you are choosing to work with than the industry. Yes there are those clients that really will NOT hear you and just want it their way, but you can usually avoid them if you know how to spot the red flags. It’s really not doing them any service by letting them walk away with something that help them be successful.

    • Amber Rose

      Yes; Take money and run… There’re only 5% chances that client will get any education from you, because they feel they’re superior to you and know more than you. So don’t focus to educate them and make sure you’re are following these 2 rules:

      Rule No.1: Take money and run. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1.

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    Thanks Shane! It’s a long process for sure.

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