I've been freelancing on and off for over 5 years now and I've had the fortune (and sometimes misfortune) of working with a variety of unusual clients. Whilst all clients are unique individuals, there are several traits and behaviours that have appeared from one customer to another.
Most requests for my work is for web design by small business owners predominately outside of the UK. It would seem that these unfortunate beliefs and behaviours cross boundaries of country, race and language, and I've witnessed many of these traits in completely polar industries too.
With this in mind, you never know when you might come across a client that has one of these behaviours.
I hope that this article might help some aspiring freelancers out there to be more prepared for any occasion when they find themselves in situations similar to those listen below.
1. Aren't you a mind-reader?
You're the designer. They're a director of a packaging company. They have no idea how they want their web layout to look, but tell you, "If you knock something up, I'll know if I like it."
Great. So, on the off-chance that I manage to read your mind and deliver something that meets your unpublished expectations, we will continue to work together? Plus, if I do manage to pull this off, there will be no recognition of my clairvoyant powers.
This type of design is called "concept design" and is very different to standard design; and should be handled and biled very differently too.
Design is a two-way street. As a designer, you'll need to impress upon the client that they play an active role in the success of the project as well.
I normally ask for examples of their existing branding that they wish to retain. For example an existing logo, colour pallete or any other stationary. If this is not available (for example, if it's a new start-up company), then questions about their target customers, demographic and any culture or message that they wish to convey to their clients often helps me to at least determine whether a comic, corporate, web 2.0 or other style is needed.
2. I don't really have much money or I tell you that I don't really have much money
These two are not the same.
Some clients genuinely have tiny budgets for their projects. Others have a larger availability of funds, but want to give the impression that they don't in order to secure a bargain price.
I've encountered customers in the past that have claimed that the work is for a charitable organisation and, once the project was in flow, it became quite clear that the work was for a commercial company with 10 UK offices and 4 overseas branches!
As the freelancer, it's your responsibility to identify which of these your client actually is.
Personally, I've found that the best way of doing this is to discuss the rough project requirements over the phone or via email before you meet with them. If your work is 100% online, ask for details of their current site or business and check it out. I wish I'd done this with my "charity" case above...
3. Free advice and wasting time is just the price of being in business
If you're thinking that potential clients will come right out and tell you that they're not going to hire you the moment the thought pops into their head, think again.
This of course might be the moral thing to do, but many clients are of the opinion, "Hey, designers are paid to provide free information and advice. Sometimes they get paid and sometimes they don't. It's just the cost of doing business."
Some potential clients do this in order to fill their own knowledge gaps about the process or price, and test the water before proceeding with a project. Whilst I'm sure we can all understand and even appreciate the importance of this kind of leg work, the impact on your workload can be immense.
I offer a completely free of charge mock-up service for web design, which many would say is a potential waste of time and risk - actually inviting clients to eat into my availability.
In fact, I've found that many clients will want to see some form of work prior to bringing you on board, so I would probably be providing this service anyway.
By offering the service openly, I reduce the pressure for my clients and, if they decide not to proceed with the design, I provide the design as a tutorial or add to my store for other customers to benefit from.
4. I hired you 3-years ago and you're still on retainer
One of the biggest peeves that I have is when clients believe that, because you have completed and delivered a project to them, you are their new "go to guy" whenever they have any technical issue - in some cases even if it's not related to the project you completed.
I took a holiday for 10 days last year. No computer. No emails. Complete IT blackout whilst I enjoyed some well-earned time away from the monitor. When I returned, I had over 20 emails from a customer for whom I built a site in 2005 - over 4 years ago.
Apparently, they had moved server hosts and their PHP contact form now longer worked. They weren't receiving emails and, as the site was for a holiday villa, felt that they were losing bookings and money because of this.
Although the tone of the unanswered emails progressively became more aggressive, the initial contact email wasn't exactly overflowing with praise:
"Your programming has stopped working and you need to fix it for us ASAP"
After I replied, apologising that I had been on holiday, I asked if they had changed anything on the site. They replied that they had moved hosts, and I told them that their new host had caused the issue and they may not have PHP support with their new host. They upgraded their host and continued to bombard me with emails asking me to take a look at the code.
Eventually, I gave in and took a look. After about 15-minutes, I ascertained that they had also changed their email address when they changed hosts.
There was no offer of payment for the service - there wasn't even a thank you email. In fact, I received only one more response which simply said that they would "test and get back to me with any problems".
In hindsight, I could have avoided this if I had just explained that this was a separate project and treated it as such; provided a quote and a time that I could fit it into my work schedule. Oh well. Once bitten, twice shy.
5. I'm as smart as you
The vast majority of clients are completely clueless when it comes to designing - that's why they've come to an expert. However, not all clients will admit this to themselves, let alone to you.
On the rare occasion that they do, empathise and guide. On the other occasions, it is imperative that the client understands that you are an expert. Your confidence will make the difference between being able to work efficiently or having every action questioned and guided by a novice, extending your project time exponentially.
As far as clients go: being an expert in accounting, manufacturing, or health care doesn't mean you're an expert in design - so let us be the designers here - we're the experts.
6. Can you add in my content?
This is another big issue for designers that is easily missed in your project requirements.
We bid for and plan for the creation of a web design. We slice and code a page template (or three), ready for the customer to add in their content. Then we get the files; "Here's the content for the home page. I'll send you over the other pages in a few minutes."
How did this happen? You receive your files as Word documents, so you can't copy and paste directly into the pages - plus you never signed up for this. You're a designer and you've done the design.
Unfortunately, clients don't always understand the distinction. They want a web site designing and assume that the final deliverable will be a finished, ready-to-launch site, including content. It is our responsibility to ensure that this assumption is corrected before you begin working.
If not, you're only leaving yourself open for all the issues that come with content publishing; spelling errors, font layouts and delays in content (see #7).
7. I've not written the content yet. I'll provide it as I do
I warned you!
As savvy designers and developers, we understand that content is king. It keeps your customers coming back, the search engines happy and makes your site look professional and intriguing.
Clients don't always understand this, in which case you will receive Word documents of sub-par commentary with no direction on what to put where.
If they do understand the concept, that can be worse. Each page optimised for keywords and positioning, which takes time. They send you over one page at a time, with a day between pages - and you've got 50 pages to complete!
As with agreeing to upload content, you must agree this process with your writer/client at the start of your project. The client does not need the site designed and coded to write content. Ensure that they start composing content straight away or, alternatively, have them produce the content at a later date and provide all content to you in one go.
There's nothing worse than copying and pasting a page of text and then having to wait 2-days for your next one!
8. Can you add these images?
This is another assumption that we need to correct at the start of the project: What happens with images supplied by the client?
I once agreed to upload 10 images to a customer's site as part of their content. It's only 10 pictures; how hard can it be? Big mistake.
The images were supplied from a digital camera at a resolution of over 2000px square. The image holders were 150x150px. Also, the images were poor quality; bad lighting and exposure meant that they also needed reworking to be used at such small resolutions.
The 10 images took me about 2-hours to rework, rescale and upload to the site. The thank you? Nothing. Nada. Zip.
And this was only a few images. Imagine if you have agreed to upload all content and there were 50. Or 100.
In summary, keep in mind that, like any other profession, you will work with some great people and some not-so-great people.
Most clients aren't intentionally greedy or nasty, but, make no doubt, they want as much as possible for as little as possible. If you don't nail these requirements and expectations at the start of the project, your experience will not be as pleasant as we all know freelancing can and should be.
Your goal as a designer should be to provide good service to your clients and get paid a fair rate in return. Since those goals don't match up, it's important to learn how to protect yourself and your rights as a designer, because your clients won't do it for you.
Danny Wareham is founder of DataMouse.biz; a web, database and graphic design company near Stoke on Trent in the UK.