When it comes to running my brand consulting business, I consider who I work with to be just as important as the work I do. Not every inquiry that lands in my inbox will be a good fit and not every client will be the right one for me. Unfortunately, many of us only realize this once it's too late and we're knee deep in our very own client horror story.
Is every client a good client?
In my early design days I wanted to believe that anyone could be a good client if you approached him or her the right way. I thought, if only I could communicate better why their current brand isn't working or if I could read their mind. But that wasn't the problem. Although brand design involves lots of empathy, research, and my best attempts at mind-reading, the truth is that some clients just aren't the right ones for me.
Realizing this was a total game-changer. Since then every client I've taken on has taught me a bit more about what I should look for in my clients, since a roster of dreamy wonderful clients is what we all want, right? So how can you tell if a new inquiry will be an amazing fit or a client from hell? Today I'm sharing my red flags and green lights so you can separate the dream clients from the nightmares before it's too late.
1. robotic inquiries
I want to work with people who are excited to work with me. Lackluster or brief inquiries can be a sign of apathy and/or poor communication skills on the part of the potential client. And if they don't have the time or energy to thoroughly complete an inquiry form, how do you think the rest of the process will go?
2. “I just want a logo”
I take a holistic approach to branding so I refuse to design “just a logo.” This may sound picky or unreasonable to some, but clients that make this request usually aren't interested in the strategy, care, and collaboration required to create a truly successful brand identity. They're looking for a shortcut to the end result, and many times they also check the next two red flag boxes too.
3. “I need it yesterday”
Creating a strategically stunning custom brand identity is a process, and as such it takes time. My process requires a minimum of 8 weeks, and rushing that just isn't an option. If a client wants to race to the finish line without putting in the necessary time to create something amazing together, then they're not the right client for me.
4. Nickel & Dimers
If a client isn't willing to invest in the quality of a custom brand identity, then odds are they don't appreciate the value of what I'm creating for them. I've also found that the clients who want to rush and pinch pennies are also the ones that tend toward scope creep. In my experience these projects are more trouble than they're worth, so I say steer clear.
5. Inquiry Skippers
On my website it's pretty clear that inquiring about a new brand identity requires filling out the inquiry form. You'd think this would be common sense, but there are always a few who try to circumvent the onboarding process and email me with a half-baked, robotic inquiry that gives me a fraction of the information I need. Occasionally this is an honest mistake (I can usually tell by tone), but more often than not it's a sign of apathy, laziness, or inability to follow directions from the inquirer. No thanks.
6. The Clueless
While there's a certain amount of discovery and brand clarity that comes from our work together, I can't define their business for them. So when a new inquiry isn't clear on their target audience, core values, or doesn't know what they want, it's a clue that they need to do some discovery of their own before moving forward. These aren't always a “no” but definitely warrant a “not right now.”
Each time you say no to the wrong clients, you make space for the right ones.
7. Business Newbies
Whether they're just starting their business or the business just changed ownership, these folks often put the cart before the horse with their branding. You need to understand your business, know your target audience, and set your goals before investing in a custom brand identity. Otherwise we're just guessing and creating branding that might not be the right fit for your business when all's said and done. It's hard to turn a good client away, but if they're not ready then you're doing both of you a disservice by wasting time, money, and designing off of early speculation.
8. Communication issues
It's absolutely essential that my clients and I are on the same page at all times, so clear communication is mandatory. If I notice that a potential client has difficulty expressing themselves in written or verbal communication, this is a MAJOR red flag.
9. Process cynics
Certain facets of how I've designed my creative process go against industry standards (such as the one concept approach and no more “revisions”). Needless to say, trust is an absolutely essential ingredient in my client relationships. So if someone can't buy into my process, then you also won't find them on my client roster.
10. Too Many Cooks
Anytime I find out that I'll be designing for multiple owners/stakeholders, it's a sign to proceed with caution. Design by committee is a real life nightmare, so it's best to avoid it up front.
If I'm going to work with multiple stakeholders within one project, I communicate what it will take. I need a set point of contact for the whole project and for the stakeholders to speak through one unified voice. Most importantly, I need to have a solid sense that they can actually deliver on this before moving forward.
11. Generic inquiries
You know the type. Somehow it's obvious that this person has pasted the same inquiry they've sent to 10 other designers. Now I totally understand a business doing their research and contacting multiple designers to find the best fit, but sending them all the same email/inquiry shows a lack of care that's a definite red flag for me.
This type of client doesn't seem to care who they work with and may even want me to reproduce another designer's work to achieve the “look” they're going for. A. That's not how it works. And B. I want to work with clients that are as excited to work with me specifically as I am to work with them, so this is definitely not my cup of tea.
12. Mismatched Values
This one is often some combination of other points above, but I can just tell. Maybe the person is pushy or rude or in too much of a hurry. Maybe they want to copy their competition or they don't seem to value work life balance and want to call me constantly. Whatever the case, it comes down to a mismatch of personality and values. And that is a big red flag.
Where to Find Red Flags
Sometimes these red flags jump out from the initial inquiry. Other times it takes some emailing back and forth or that initial introduction call (which I do by video chat) to realize it isn't a good fit. For some, it might just not be the right time. Maybe they're not ready yet, whether that's related to time, finances, or they're still unearthing their brand direction as their business grows.
Other times, I can just tell. It's not right for either of us. In this case, I politely tell them we're not the right fit and provide recommendations for other talented, wonderful designers they can contact instead. It's important to me to provide these options and wish them luck, because if the tables were turned I would hate to be led to a dead end.
So now that I've given you a lengthy list of my red flags for design clients, you're probably wondering if there are any good ones left. So what does a great client look like for me?
- She's visibly excited, kind, and submits an engaged inquiry that reflects this.
- She's ready to invest in a cohesive brand identity and understands the logo is only the beginning.
- She has a clear vision and direction for her business.
- She has a solid business foundation backed by experience.
- She understands her target audience (bonus points if I'm part of that audience).
- She has solid communication skills, both written and verbal.
- She trusts me and my process. Also, bonus points if she mentions my blog posts being helpful for her—this guarantees we're on the same page on a whole new level and she's that much more invested.
- If there's more than one owner/stakeholder, they're prepared to communicate with one unified voice (most often through one person).
- She's a like-minded individual who shares the same values.
- She wants to work with me specifically.
Now I understand that we all have bills that need to be paid and sometimes that requires taking on a client who doesn't exactly fit your idea of a dream customer. But keep in mind that each time you say no to the wrong clients, you make space for the right ones.
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
Of course even I get this wrong sometimes. I've said yes to more than a few clients who weren't right for me. Maybe it's in the brand strategy phase, or maybe not until scope creep rears its ugly head. Whenever I realize it, it's always frustrating.
I know it's tempting to blame the client. But it's not their fault. Either I didn't set expectations properly or I shouldn't have taken them on as a client in the first place.
It may be tough, but this is where you need to put your game face on, find the silver lining, and complete your work together in the best way you know how. Going forward you'll be that much wiser. Fill those gaps in your process. And next time, hold out for the right fit instead.