Facing your toughest design client

The following article is by Giulietta “Julie” Nardone of Fearless Design.
I read lots of freelance blog posts about handling difficult clients. They all seem to gloss over the most difficult client of all.
The way you feel about yourself and your talent sets the tone for all your client interactions. Think of your clients as mirrors. If you complain they don’t treat you well it’s probably because you’ve taught them not to treat you well. If you complain they don’t pay you on time, it’s probably because you’ve taught them not to pay you on time. If you complain they expect you to do work you didn’t agree to, it’s probably because you’ve taught them give you work you didn’t agree to.
Most of us learn this wimpy behavior early in life and it gets reinforced as we march into adulthood. I was taught to defer to parents, teachers, lovers, bosses and government leaders. Rumor had it that if I stood up for myself something awful would happen – I’d get punished, dumped, fired or thrown in jail. Is it any surprise that I deferred to clients too?
When I toiled in a cubicle for a larger corporation, my submissive behavior appeared to be expected, applauded and rewarded. When I opened my own business, the same submissive behavior had me working like a dog for wages even a dog couldn’t live on.
It took quite a bit of mental strength training, but I finally told my toughest client – the wimpy me – to take a hike. This allowed my greatest client — the powerful me — to advocate on my behalf. Now I set and maintain clear boundaries and decide how I wish to be treated. The result? My clients get a more confident designer, a far better design product, and a partnership grounded in honesty rather than fear.
Some aspects of the working relationship bring out the wimpy you more than others.

Sales conversation

The sales conversation is just that — a compassionate time for you and your potential client to get to know each other. You try to help the client figure out what his or her real problem is and whether you’re the best one to help them solve it. Sometimes you are, sometimes you’re not. Be brave enough to ask all the questions you need in order to make an informed decision.
Don’t be afraid to walk away from a client if you get funny vibes, request for a ludicrous deadline or a balk at your fee. Better to find out now than halfway through the project that the client has a history of being indecisive or controlling. Remember, desperation is only real if you give it life.


Don’t sweat the fee. It isn’t up to you to decide how much the client can pay. Nothing worse than undercharging a client who told you a sob story and later discovering they live in a 2 million dollar mansion while you’ve got a leaking shower and no kitchen cabinets.
The bulk of your fee needs to be determined by how you feel about your work and the benefit it provides. If a client wants to haggle price with you, simply tell them you don’t haggle. They can either pay your price or look for someone who doesn’t believe in his or her own work. I actually found it easier to sell more expensive design solutions than bottom-of-the-barrel ones.


Make sure every client — even if it’s a family member or friend — signs a contract or a memo of understanding. This document outlines what the client will and will not get. If the client asks you to do something beyond the scope of what you’ve agreed to, that’s considered a change order. Tell them it will be extra. They do it in engineering firms. You need to do it in your design business. And beware of phony deadlines and phony decision-makers. Tight deadlines, if you choose to take one on, need to cost extra. Nothing more disheartening than working day and night, weekday and weekend, to find your design stalled for three months because the real person making the decision suddenly stepped out from behind the corporate curtain.


Some clients start the design process with a lot of energy. Everything’s going great and then BOOM, they hit the indecision wall and disappear for weeks/months at a time. You call them and don’t get a return call. You email them and don’t get a return email. If this goes on for more than one month, bill them for anything they owe you and be prepared to move on. Make sure you have a progress payments/cancelled projects section written into your contract in the event this happens.
Standing up to your wimpy-client self may be hard at first. The whining, blaming and excuses circulating through your brain may get to you. Remember, that’s just fear yakking in your ear! Stay the scary course. Soon you’ll build enough courage to give your business-defeating behavior the boot.
Giulietta “Julie” Nardone, of Fearless Design, offers branding and graphic design services to small/medium-size companies and non-profits. Julie is based in Ashland, Massachusetts, and you can read more encouraging articles through the Fearless Design resources page.
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