Bad Clients are Easy to Find

Bad Clients are Easy to Find

by Mary-Lynn Bellamy-Willms

Most creative companies have worked with clients that have morphed into something nasty. How does it happen? Are there clues that the client will be a disaster? Are there clues a client will be a dream? The short answer to both questions is yes. There are definitely clues and if you know what you’re looking for, you can see the signs almost from the first contact.

Here’s a four-point checklist that can help you spot the bad client before you get stuck with them. If you say ‘yes’ to these, you’re in for trouble:

Will this be a bad client? The Four-Point Checklist

  1. The client’s brief is unclear and unfocused. Yes____ No____
  2. The client claims they don’t know what their budget is, but for some reason, they think you can define one. Yes____ No____
  3. The client asks for free strategy, free creative and cost estimates before they agree to pay you for any of it. Yes____ No____
  4. The client’s timeline is ridiculous. Yes____ No____

What if you have a new client and your ‘spidey senses’ are telling you something is just not right. Here are the clues that things will eventually end poorly. And by poorly, I mean that you won’t get paid for all of the time you’ve spent and in fact, you may even get left empty-handed.

Here are the clues that this relationship will eventually go sour:

  • the client’s briefs are unclear and unfocused;
  • they can’t tell you what the budget is, but when you give them the estimate, they don’t have the funds to do what they’ve asked for. Of course they still want and expect it all;
  • when you present your thinking and your concept work, they don’t comment on those things but instead focus on the size of the logo, a colour they don’t like or some other minor component, but they don’t really speak to the idea;
  • they ask for a combo of ‘idea 1’ and ‘idea 2’, regardless of whether they fit together or not;
  • they often let you know that their son/daughter/friend/spouse doesn’t like something about your work – it’s never about strategy and it’s always subjective;
  • they are in a hurry to receive your work, but don’t meet the timeline for their parts of the process… ever… and yet they still want the work delivered for the original date;
  • they never, ever say ‘thank you’;
  • they complain a lot;
  • they grumble about the bill, might try to get you to ‘knock something off’, pay slowly (often because the invoice sits on their desk and doesn’t get passed on to accounting); and,
  • getting them to share results is like wrestling a bone from a hungry dog. Practically impossible.

So… enough about the bad client behavior. What are the signs that your relationship will succeed?

Here’s how to spot a great client. Look for clients who:

  • provide you with thoughtful, clear direction;
  • provide you with a realistic budget;
  • provide you with a reasonable timeline;
  • agree to evaluation criteria before you begin work;
  • provide thoughtful feedback to you on your internal brief;
  • want to engage in a dialogue about your strategy and your thinking BEFORE they see any creative;
  • use the evaluation criteria to evaluate the work;
  • provide clear and helpful feedback;
  • meet their end of the timelines;
  • say ‘thank you’ and acknowledge the efforts of the team;
  • provide ongoing feedback on results;
  • keep a record of the results and feedback so you can improve and do an even better job on the next project together.

Clearly, no one wants bad clients. They end up taking your precious time and energy (and face it, they seem to drain the tank), and almost without fail, they never pay you fairly for the work. They simply don’t value what you do.

When it comes right down to it, the difference between a good client and a bad one is respect. And that goes both ways. A good relationship is always rooted in respect for one another’s contributions to achieving a goal, and recognition that you are all on the same team and are working together for the greater good.

Inevitably, a good client is worth their weight in gold. Literally. They respect you, pay for the work, and provide good and constructive feedback. So go forth and seek out the good ones and say good-bye to the bad ones. You’ll be happier, richer, more fulfilled, and your work will actually be better, too.

This article has been written by FunctionFox CEO and owner of Suburbia Advertising, Mary-Lynn Bellamy-Willms. For more articles and resources, see