Hun, let’s get real. Let’s get real real.
I’m going to be brutally honest with you: Sometimes, we creatives can be a bit desperate.
When you work in a creative field, you often have to explain to non-creatives what it is that you do and why it’s a real job, and that you deserve to be compensated in real dollars for real work that has real value. It makes you want to barf. But hey, it comes with the territory.
Because of this, a lot of new creatives with new creative businesses immediately start freaking out about gathering clients as quickly as possible. They’re so worried about staying afloat that they take on any and all work that comes their way. I tenderly refer to this panic as “Business-Artist Desperation Syndrome.” It’s B.A.D.S.ville.
I’ve been here before, guys, and I can say with absolute surety that it is not a good look. I want to save you from some of the long-term effects of working with less than ideal people.
Work with people you love working with.
In the beginning of your burgeoning creative small business, you will feel the incredible pressure to gather as many leads and clients as you can. This is totally valid - yes, you need business. But you don't want just any business. There are critical differences between great clients and clients you wish you’d never met. And these differences mean everything when it comes to your quality of life.
You’re starting your own business because you wanted to make a better life for yourself. So you don’t want to ruin that great new start by working with icky people!
You want to attract the clients that will not only pay you what you deserve, but who will be a joy to work with. The kinds of clients you look forward to chatting with on the phone or getting coffee with. You don’t want to dread seeing a new email from them in your inbox each morning.
Client-to-business relationships require trust. If you have people coming out of the woodwork asking for any of the following, give them a polite "Thanks but no thanks."
1. Client asks you to make it on their time and doesn't consider that you have timeline, too. A.k.a. “I needed this yesterday.”
When you start talking to a potential client that needs something unreasonably fast, it can mean one of two things:
- Either, they simply had a fast approaching deadline, or they may have fallen behind due to any number of reasons that are beyond their control,
- Or, they have no concept of what it is that you actually do and are assuming that they can call all the shots.
Be careful with this one. Let them know the time commitment required on your end to do the job right. Suss out their feelings about that and then decide if this is going to be a good fit or not.
2. Client asks for you to do some spec work first
Oh, hell naw. This is code for, “I’m leery of your abilities. I need you to prove to me that you can do a job worthy of payment.”
If you have a portfolio online and this is the opening statement you get, shame on them! This person should already be very aware of the quality of your work.
If you don’t have a portfolio publicly online, then it’s totally ok to politely let them know that you’re sorry, “I just don’t have availability in my schedule to start this project on spec, but here are examples of similar work I’ve done in the past.” You can also send over professional references, so they can do a little homework on their own and get totally comfortable with how awesome you are.
3. Client says, "It's just a small project, so it shouldn't take you that long."
This is another two-for. This person could simply be very sweet and is simply under informed about how your particular business operates. Most people aren’t aware of what it requires to do creative work, unless they’re creatives themselves.
Or… this person is sugarcoating the fact that they need quick and cheap labor. Are you quick and cheap? I don’t think so.
Reply with “Wonderful! Here’s an itemized quote based on the info you’ve provided. Let me know if this is something you’re interested in pursuing. Looking forward to hearing back from you.” Send them that quote so they can see exactly how long it will take to do it right, what goes into it, and how much it costs.
4. Client doesn't seem to know what they want, a.k.a. "I'll know it when I see it."
This typically arises in the beginning stages of a project, once the proposal has already been signed and you’re starting mockups or phase 1. It’s unfortunate when this comes up, because it means a lot of shooting in the dark for you.
Try to get the answer to this question before an agreement is signed. In your beginning conversations with a new potential client, get the best idea you can of what it is they like: “Do you have examples of websites / logos / cakes / clothing that you love? Can you describe the final product to me exactly as you have envisioned it?”
Your goal in these first few emails or coffee meet-ups is to walk away knowing exactly how you would start working on the project.
5. Client is leery about paying a deposit
This is sometimes the sad reality of running a creative business. There is often a stigma associated with creative work for hire. Occasionally, you’ll run into a non-creative who doesn’t know what we really do, and is concerned that we may let our artistic inclinations run away with us. And thus, this person worries that they’ll get stuck paying for something they’re not happy with.
Good communication can help alleviate some of this fear. In your initial conversation, gently remind them that their deposit holds their space in your queue, and will cover some / most / all of the hours you will have worked on their project. Also reassure them that you will be in contact with them throughout the process, with photographs, drafts, or mockups along the way.
If they’re still against paying you a deposit, politely let them know that you’ll have to decline the opportunity, and thank them for reaching out.
6. Client asks for work that you clearly don't advertise on your website
This is just awkward. I mean, honestly?
Use your best judgement here. If you’re asked about something tangentially related to your area of expertise and they’re really nice about it, then this person may be legitimate. You might find you’ve been invited to be a part of a cool new project.
Or, they’re a spammer. Obnoxious. Just be careful here.
7. Client wants you to make it "Exactly like [other company]."
I had the displeasure of working for someone who constantly wanted me to make their company’s website exactly like the competitor’s, “but better.” This lead to a lot of sketchy internet stalking, ripping off of copy, SEO done horribly wrong, and a boss who was never satisfied with the work. Meanwhile, I felt like a complete pixel-pushing fraud and hated my job.
That was 6 months of my life I wish I could get back.
When someone is obsessed with what their competition is up to, it’s a red flag that they’re probably not willing to listen to you. You. The actual expert. That they supposedly hired for your expertise. Because they needed an expert’s help. See what I’m getting at?
This type of client may walk all over you, and use you as someone to do their bidding whenever they need something done that they just don’t have the skills to do themselves. Politely decline, or try to figure out what their real goals are. Determine if you can come up with a plan of action that will actually help them. If they’re uninterested, pass.
Bonus! When you’re already in a contract with a not-so-ideal client...
If you're in an agreement with a client already and she continues to request work that's out of scope, order you around like a pixel-pushing peon, or continues to question your every decision, it's time to say bye bye and not renew that project.
It is completely reasonable to send a polite “break up” email when you have the next opportunity. You may lose money here, but if you ask me, it’s worth the better quality of life.