How to Overcome the “Difficult Client” (for Designers and Creatives)

I wanted to take this opportunity to answer a question that came to me from a fellow designer. It’s one that seems to plague a lot of graphic designers and those in the creative industry: What do you do when a client rejects your creative direction and wants you to create something that you know will look bad, or not be right for their brand? Should you just do what they want, or stick to your guns?

Any designers reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about! Even if you’re not a designer, I think you’ll enjoy getting to hear a little bit of my design process, and how I’ve learned to overcome these pitfalls.

The Client vs. the Graphic Designer

In the design industry, it’s easy to feel like it’s the client vs. the designer. Many time we end up blaming the client when creative differences like these arise. But it’s really not meant to be this way.

Don’t get me wrong, there are bad clients out there, but 90% of the time, I’ve discovered that it’s not the client who is at fault. It’s actually our fault as designers for not setting the expectations and qualifying our clients beforehand (keep reading and I’ll explain!).

So it’s possible that there’s nothing you can do to “fix” this current problem with the client–I recommend that you finish out the project graciously and humbly–however, there may be a way to avoid the situation altogether. Allow me to share a bit of my process so that you can know how to handle this better next time!

How to Overcome the So-Called “Difficult Client”

Perhaps you’re thinking that the answer to the previous question is simple: The customer is always right.

Well, that’s partly true, but it’s not quite that simple.

My job, as a designer and a brand consultant, is to do what is in my client’s best interest to grow their business. Because of that, that does mean that I’m there to make every idea that the client has. Of course, I will take into account all of their ideas and do my best to incorporate them; but in the end, if any of those ideas will not serve their business and their brand, then I have to speak up. Remember (and this is important), they hired me for a reason, not because I have the ability to design anything they can think up, but because I can help them enhance their brand.

But to be able to implement this, there are a few things you must do:

1. Be Selective With Your Clients

You have to know who your ideal client is, and determine that you will only work with them. Your ideal client is someone who understands and respects your expertise you have to offer!

This is the key because a client who hires you because you’re the expert and because you are working towards their business goals will be more open to what you present to them. They will also be much more receptive when you may need to push back at times.

Your ideal client is not someone who wants to dictate the whole process. These are the types of clients who already have an idea in their head, and they just want you to make it for them.

This means you need to be willing to decline a project. I know that it can be difficult to say no to a paying client, but trust me, I’ve learned that the mental toll of working with a bad client is never worth what they may be paying you.

2. Create a Process to Qualify Leads

In order to work with only your ideal client, you need to have a process to qualify them ahead of time. I’ve seen people use an online questionnaire, or if you’re like me, you can just talk with them and get to know them a little

If they do meet your requirements for an ideal client, graciously let them know that you may not be the best fit for them. Also, offer them an alternative – refer them to another graphic designer you know who would be glad to have the work.

3. Set Clear Expectations

You need to set clear expectations both before and after they become your client. Communicate what they can expect in the project, as well as what is included and not included.

It’s ok to set certain limitations to a project. Your time is valuable, and you cannot work indefinitely. I do this by offering two rounds of revisions on a branding project. This is usually more than enough to come out with a solution that the client is happy with! Realize that most clients are totally understanding this as long as it is communicated ahead of time.

4. Have a written contract.

Many creatives forget this important step!

It’s important to have in writing what is expected of them, and of me. Yes, a contract is a legal document, but I see it as an opportunity to make sure we are all o the same page.

This helps prevent “scope creep” – so if a client starts to ask for more than what the scope calls for, you can refer back to the contract to remind them what you agreed upon.

5. Set Benchmarks

In my early days of freelancing, I’d be so excited when I’d get the design brief from the client that I would just go off on my own and create everything. The next time they heard from me was when I presented the final designs. (I think we creatives like the idea of giving the “big reveal”).

This worked out ok sometimes. But other times, not-so-much. Sometimes the client didn’t like it, or it just wasn’t the direction they had in mind.

For this reason, it’s important to set benchmarks and plan regular check-ins with the client. It’s about including them in the process to make sure we are on the right track.

In a branding project, you can do this by presenting more than one logo concept. For my clients, I deliver three concepts. Doing this provides them with options. It decreases the number of times a client is totally unhappy with the direction of the project because they can choose.

If you incorporate this into your process, don’t just create three logos that are small variations of each other. Make them each unique from each other. Think of these concepts as three different directions to explore with the client, then let them tell you which direction to go from there.

(One bonus tip: Make sure each concept you provide is at the top of your game. Sometimes it can be hard to create three great logos, but don’t settle for two great ones and one okay one. The client may end up choosing your weakest one, so make them all strong!)

If you find that you haven’t implemented these 5 tips with your current client, that’s ok. But own up to it! Accept that you should have handled the situation differently from the get-go, and continue to handle the rest of your current project graciously.

Learn from your mistakes (as I have), and next time you can seek out that ideal client who will be glad to have you for your expertise!

Have you dealt with a situation like this before as a creative entrepreneur? Or maybe you’ve been in the client’s shoes before. How did you handle it? Comment to let me know!

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Miguel A. Osorio

3 months ago

Excellent video. The info exactly what I need as I take some time to process a client who were given the 2 rounds of revisions then try to blame me for the addition rounds that we agreed would be billable.

Thanks. Now I can take a break and not worry about my next move.

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