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Seven Red Flags to Run Away From So You Don’t Enter Into a Toxic Relationship… With Your Client

Written By Stacy Nguyen | Aug 29, 2019

Hey, we’ve all been there. You meet someone new at an event or maybe through friends of friends. Through conversation, you learn that you have so much in common with this new person — like, you both love all of the illustration elements of Starbucks’ Reserve line and you are both disturbed by how youth-obsessed Taco Bell has become.

So you exchange contact info. You start excitedly emailing back and forth. You feel like this new person completely gets what you’re all about. You start investing time and effort toward their business.

And then one day soon after that — it turns.

The length of time between emails, calls, and meetings stretches. When you do connect, someone always ends up being passive aggressive. Sometimes it’s borderline combative. And when you invoice for the very first time, they balk and not-so-directly asks you why the price of the work is so high.

And then you feel weighed down by guilt and insecurity — and you hate conflict — so you persist and continue engaging in this relationship because you think you can course-correct if you’re good enough at what you do. You are also afraid that there is no other person out there who “gets” you or appreciates you like they do, at least not enough to pay you fairly for your work. You promise yourself that the next time some conflict arises, you’re going to take less of their shit, and you’re going to be better at speaking up for yourself.

But that doesn’t happen, does it?

What actually happens is that you cycle through the toxicity until someone just can’t take it anymore and starts ghosting the other. And then both people just leave the relationship feeling terrible.

What if you could nip all of that in the bud before heartache even happens?

I’m going to give you a few pointers on red flags to look for in potential clients, so you don’t waste your time, energy, and talent on a person that will make you lose sleep and put off responding to emails.

1. If your new client says any variation of, “I could do your job myself, but I just don’t have the time — so that’s why I’m paying you,” run the hell away.

Someone who says this to you is an asshole who will undervalue your contributions. And if this person’s main job isn’t producing creative content, then this person is also delusional. This is the kind of person who will go to their doctor and say, “I could’ve done that prostate exam myself! I’ve watched a YouTube video. I just don’t have the reach!”

This type of client is invariably super charismatic, though. They are good at making people laugh and at making people feel special through association. That’s how other people fall into their narcissistic trap.

But you are better than that. So the second you hear someone tell you they can do your job but are just opting not to, GTFO.

2. If your new client isn’t willing to put down a deposit for your work, run the hell away.

Deposits are a great way to ensure that the shiny new client you have during month one doesn’t end up being deadbeat client who never pays you in month six. A deposit of 25 to 50 percent ensures that they have some skin in the game.

A client who readily agrees to a deposit and pays it in a timely manner is an experienced business person and also probably an honorable person. Gold!

3. If your new client says any variation of, “We can’t pay you what you want, but this would be a great portfolio piece for you!” run the hell away.

I actually really appreciate it when clients tell me that what I’m quoting them is outside of their budget. Often, what ensues is some jaunty negotiation and compromising, like reducing or changing the scope of work or eliminating certain resources. And that’s cool.

But what’s not cool is a client who tells you that while they cannot pay you top dollar for your talents, they can offer you increased exposure and a cool portfolio piece.

Bounce. That’s a client that thinks you’re a naïve idiot, one who doesn’t have your interests in mind at all.

4. If your new client tells you a lot of personal TMI during the initial consult, run the hell away.

I once had a client tell me about her divorce and who she was currently dating during our initial consult. She was responding to a question I asked to the tune of something like, “So how exactly do you monetize your product?”

Clients who get inordinately personal too soon typically are bad project managers, bad communicators, and sometimes they are not very business savvy. When you work with them, they will be emotionally volatile and the way they give feedback and direction will vacillate between “unfair and dickish” and “kiiinda sensical” — depending on the mood they happen to be in.

5. If your new client is your cousin’s wife’s younger sister, uh, I guess you can proceed with caution, but I’d actually just run the hell away.

Tapping into your personal network is a great way to get work, so I highly recommend it. But it’s best done with something like, “Hey, my plumber needs a website, so I gave him your card!”

When you hear, “Someone that I love with all of my heart is trying this new business endeavor for the very first time and who knows if they are any good at it but I think they are completely brilliant so I told them they should call you for help branding because you’re family and I figured, haha, family discount!” then run away.

(Unless you also believe that your relation is a freaking genius, then def help them and ride their coattails to the top!)

Most of the time, though, working with relatives is dicey and I generally refrain. If the professional relationship breaks down, I’d rather not have to sit across the table from them at Thanksgiving, remembering all of the crap they put me through and the hours they stole from me because they thought it was cool to call me on a Saturday to pick my brain for free about something stupid.

6. If your new client says something like, “I want to be the next Amazon!” run the hell away.

If your client tells you that they are gonna be the next publicly traded multi-billion dollar company that will change the entire world — and they are telling you they want to be branded like Amazon/Microsoft/Apple — run out of the room and don’t sign a contract with this client. Their expectations will be immense and nothing you do will ever be good enough for them.

Which is crazy pants because the companies they idolize spend millions on marketing, design, and communications and this potential client is totally not spending millions on you — so you think they’d manage their expectations a little bit.

But they generally don’t.

7. If your new client ever writes “EMERGENCY” or “ASAP” in the subject line of an email, run the hell away.

Short of accidentally running a picture of a penis on a billboard meant for a children’s preschool, there is no such thing as a design emergency. Even then, what can you — the designer — even do? Are you going to drive over to the billboard and start painting over it with spray paint you bought from Home Depot?

Usually, what an “emergency” means is a client getting sudden cold feet — or they realize that something that went out was poorly planned or half baked or had a typo — and that’s on them because they are ultimately the approver of their content. If they respond to their mistake by writing you a hysterical-sounding email about how you are going to fix it for them, that’s going to be an entitled client in the long term. Entitlement doesn’t cure itself. It’s chronic. Run away.

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