So, what happened with the nightmare client from the last blog? Well, I didn’t really know the answer to that until today. A telling point, however, is the fact that we hadn’t included his projects in our traffic planning session yesterday! So, as my old sergeant used to say to felons before being cuffed, “Come on, man, you know what time it is…” And I did.

Nightmare clients come in all shapes and sizes

But, they tend to have a few characteristics that should serve as red flags. Most of the time, you can spot them a mile off. Sometimes, they sneak up on you and turn into nightmares just when you think you are in for sweet dreams. Here are a few nightmare client red flags to watch for:

  • he/she is new to his business (restaurants…stay away from new restaurant owners…or get paid up front)
  • he/she has been in the same business for decades but the business is stalled or declinging – let’s face it, this guy is likely burned out and is going through the motions of saving his business…it’s like EMS doing CPR on the obviously dead whose family is standing about shrieking…
  • he/she professes to be “an expert in marketing” but doesn’t have time – then what DO you have time for? If I make a suggestion, will you shrug it off because you are an expert anyway? And, when you get a bill, will you say, “I already KNOW all that you told me to do, so why am I paying so much for it?” Okay, you will get this response. Guaranteed.
  • he/she teaches marketing in any level of education –  I had two clients who were deans of schools of business in two different universities…they both gave me the same answer when asked why they didn’t just get their marketing professors to do their marketing…”If I wanted to teach someone about marketing, I’d call them. I want someone to do marketing, so I called you.”
  • he/she mentions family members who are in the business – I promise you, they will take over the account shortly
  • he/she is family, a friend, or a coworker–or related to any of these – don’t mix business and, well, anything, unless you want a swirling vortex of pain
  • he/she wanted to find a way to “make it work without spending a lot of time on it.” – That’s a little like throwing a gourmet dinner without the bother of, say, actual cooking.

None of these should be confused with the potentially great clients out there. Some are just too busy to get their marketing house in order. they have ideas but aren’t sure how to execute them. They need help and are willing to learn from you and do their part. Many business owners put their marketing on the back burner. It is not coincidental that my marketing consulting biz is called “BackBurner Marketing.” Many smart, hardworking, dedicated businesspeople just can’t seem to get to their marketing because there are so many other things to do. Ideally, the bulk of this would be sales, order fulfillment, or manufacturing. They know they can do better but need help to get there.

Those clients are golden. They can bring you lots of long-term business and lots of positive referrals. And you will feel good about helping them. 

I Should’ve Known Better

In the case of our most recent Nightmare Client, I should tell you he teaches marketing in a high school, declares himself to be an expert in the field, has been in the same business for over twenty years (and it’s failing miserably), and I used to work with his wife. I know. Don’t say it.

Now, I have to add that, just after the second round of logos, I tried to quit the client. I emailed him and quit. He called me on the phone and I quite again. He then, somehow, talked me into staying on the job. I know, I know. Don’t say it. The relationship was, unquestionably, irretrievably broken, but, like many old married people, I stuck it out just because it existed!

Communication is Golden

We had a fairly regular pattern of communication. Typically, it went from us calling or emailing him asking if he had reviewed the latest round of identity materials. The answer was usually YES, but he had to talk to us about colors, typeface, and the inevitable rehashing of how his old logo worked so well in the mid-‘80s. Then, almost mercifully, there was nothing.

The lack of response tells you something is up. It could be that a) the business is booming and he is killing himself to finish some major projects (not likely since he called you because the opposite was happening), b) the business is not happening at ALL and he is floundering even more than before (strongly possible), or c) he found another artist/marketing firm/cousin/buddy to help him with the task at hand. It is my experience that, in the case of c) the newfound help is never a professional. So, I can’t cuss out my colleagues for stealing my client (indeed, most of them would be cussing ME out for taking him in the first place). 

In this case, it was the buddy. The most recent email read like this: “Hey, we are going a different direction. My buddy is giving me HIS website and we are going to use that. But we want to get the logo finished up so we can use it. By the way, can we get some of our deposit back?”

HUH?

Your buddy has a spare website lying around? Is the buddy giving up his livelihood so that you can usurp his website? And how the heck does it so conveniently mesh with your new direction? 

What it really means is that the client decided he really can’t take suggestions from outsiders and wants to make every decision on his own. The “buddy” is probably a do-it-yourself Web template that cost $99. Since it’s now summer, and the high school teaching gig is on hiatus, he has some time on his hands to pull the marketing off the back burner, fire up something up front, and git ‘er done. Go for it. As for the money back…I am thinking NO.

What does this all mean for someone in our field?

Well, after a couple of decades working client- and agency-side, I’ve seen a fair number of difficult clients. “Difficult” is not a synonym for “bad.” In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Some tough clients are perfectionists or are driven by an innate sense of where they want to go. They push the creative team to new levels of excellence–provided both sides of the equation have mutual respect for each other. The other type is like the client in this story: wants to do marketing because the business is failing, but in the end wants to do business the way he has been for years. Clearly, these conditions cannot coexist. 

From a business standpoint, a difficult client costs more in time and effort for the designer or marketing firm. If you are on a strictly hourly basis, the client will argue every minute on your invoice and demand discounts. If the agency established a one-price fee for services to be rendered, this can lead to endless revisions and hand-holding that eats up un-billable clock time and unfairly empowers the client. This can lead to a relationship that look more like a playground bully picking on the nerdy kid (not that all us designers were the nerdy kids, but…). 

Occasionally, the client and designer just don’t see eye to eye on styles. That’s fixable. Typically, the designer puts on a new design hat and conjures a new idea out of the magical place that those ideas spawn. That is, after all, his job. It is what all designers want to do. However, the desire for change has to be on both sides of the graphical river. 

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that there is a time for any professional to quit. Whether you are a football player, designer, or shop owner, there is a point at which you’re really not in the game anymore and you are going through the motions. When the safest place to go to modernize your company is by going back nearly thirty years it may be a sign that it’s time to pack it in. And, as a design or marketing professional, it might be okay to just let that happen.

Or bill up front.