We’ve all been there. ‘This isn’t anything like what I asked for!’ ‘I’m not paying for this.’ ‘Why is it going to take so long?!’
Unfortunately, some clients just don’t get it. Things take time. Illustration costs money. I have bills to pay too. I do know what I’m doing. It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll have a dispute with a tricky client and you’re perhaps left unsure about how to win them over. There’s definitely no right answer and every client is different, but through both working as a freelancer and as a designer in an agency, I’ve learnt a few things over the years which have helped me out with those difficult clients.
Be easy to work with
The thing that will keep clients coming back for further projects is not how perfect your illustration work was, or how punctual you were, but how easy you were to work with. They’ll also be much happier to recommend you to others if you were an asset. Clients want someone they can trust with their project and can build a relationship with. They want to trust that you know your craft and can make good decisions. Work with them, not against them and be flexible. Reply to emails and questions promptly. Work to their deadlines where possible, and offer alternative solutions where it isn’t. Take some initiative and don’t ask them too many questions; they want to feel that you know what you’re doing and they don’t have to hold your hand. Simply, be open and responsive.
Push back once, but not twice
It’s always frustrating when you’ve made a creative choice that is backed up by years of experience, perhaps a degree and countless projects very similar to this one, and yet the client knows better. You may know by the tone of the client by now how receptive they’ll be to discussing these points, and you can judge whether or not it’s worth it. I generally go by the rule of, push back once, but not twice. From a place of experience I will kindly explore the client’s alternative suggestion and explain why I’ve made the choice that I have and why I believe it is the right way to go. Some clients love having these conversations and really delving into the ‘behind the scenes’ thought processes and get on board quickly, and some just want you to make that green balloon red. If they’re receptive, that’s brilliant and those relationships are really a joy to us creatives, but if they have decided what they want and you repeatedly push back you will come across as combative and leave a sour taste in their mouth, which will probably make the rest of the project drag on for both of you. Don’t push twice, move on.
Sometimes they just don’t know
Following on nicely from the last point is that some clients just don’t know. A good portion of your clients will likely come from a completely different industry to us and so something that’s so obvious to us may not be to them. If they’re making copyright demands or are ill-versed in print material protocols, take the time to, in a friendly way, explain how things work to them. It’s likely that they were completely unaware and giving them some professional context may give them a further boost of faith in your experience and skills. It may be worth bookmarking resources such as this blog post about copyright so that you have places you can direct them to instil confidence in your knowledge.
It sounds like really obvious advice, and it is, but it can also be overlooked. I’ve definitely sent an email or two back in the day which probably shone a light on my inexperience, but we live and we learn. Each client will have a different tone and you’ll quickly assess which voice to take with them to get the best outcome. A little bit of small talk at the beginning of emails is always nice, see how their weekend was etc., but the overall language and tone of your correspondence should always be one of professionalism. Be helpful and friendly, but don’t speak to them as you would you friends over a glass of wine. Even if something does have to go so far as making a claim against a non-payer for example, your continued professionalism will absolutely work in your favour.
Know your worth
Some clients just want the Earth. They want you to bend over backwards and keep asking for that little extra. Or maybe the project is so difficult it’s keeping you up at night. Only you can know where your line is. I wouldn’t recommend cutting every client lose at the first sign of trouble, and you should take time to try to win them over with all the above skills. Nine times out of ten that’ll do the trick and it’ll be plain sailing for the rest of the voyage, however with those very few that you’re just finding too difficult, there’s no shame in parting ways. Clients are the ones paying and this can sometimes feel like they have all of the cards, but in an exchange in services, you also have bargaining power. There’s lots to consider; whether you can financially afford to forfeit the project, how your contract is worded and how you handle your obligations. Take stock of what illustration work they have hold of and what they may or may not need to pay for. Ensure that you remain professional right up until the end and, if you need to let them go before the project’s completion, don’t see it as a failure on your part. This is a very personal one, and it’s very possible that you’ll never have to cut a project short in your career, but it’s always worth being aware of where your line is.
Responding to a nasty email
You sent off some artwork you were really proud of, only for the client to come back with an email expressing their disappointment and claiming this, that and the other. Your mind may be quite quick to mentally counter everything they’re saying in not so friendly terms. Arguing back is never going to work, however, so flag the email and come back to it later on. Take a wonder outside, do the washing, have a biscuit – whatever you need to absorb what the client has said in a calmer manner. I find this not only helps to reduce any spike in annoyance, but it gives yourself time to process what the client is actually saying behind their words, and to formulate a much more considered response. Then, when you go back you can be much more constructive in how you reply.
I hope this helps you work things out if you’re struggling with some tricky clients and your working relationships can blossom!