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How to recognize red flag clients

Written on 12-04-2017

You've started to work with a new client and some warning signs quickly start popping up that the client might be difficult to deal with. Red flags don't necessarily guarantee that someone is a bad client, but you best tread lightly. I chatted with several architects and interior designers about their past experiences and found a few common traits to look for that may steer you away from your next pain in the ass client. Seasoned professionals are willing to take on clients that will work well with their design process, and politely turn down those clients that will damage their portfolio.

Red Flag Experiences

#1: When a new client doesn't understand the process

Benj Baird, experienced architect and owner of Black Box SLC, warns of clients that are obviously ignorant about their job. He says it's a red flag "When I know more about real estate development than the developer. I might tell them that something isn't feasible but they push me forward only to have the project fail 2 months later. Then I have to fight to get my fee."

A similar concern is when a client pushes hard for goal lines that are too far down the design process. If the client is very detailed and particular on every small item, it will slow down the design or construction process to the point of bringing the budget into the negative. Imagine the client wants to hyper-analyze the location, rotation, and scale of every sprinkle before deciding if they want a donut or a danish.

#2: When a client downplays the required workload

To the client's behalf, they may not know how long it takes to get from point A to point B. As a designer you'll often be asked to do a 'small' or 'quick' job, states Thought Co. Beware! The client might be using a 'Foot in the door' technique to push you to do more work for less cost. They may ask you for a small hour of work, that incidentally turns into 5 hours. When it comes time for the bill, the client expects to only pay for the agreed upon hour.

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#3: The promise of future work

Clients might lead you on by telling you that working for free today means you will be paid on the next job. It's similar to artists and freelancers who often get offered non-paying gigs in exchange for hyperbolic 'exposure'. If a potential client tells you this, even if you currently have nothing on your plate, be very wary of biting the bate and playing yourself for a fool.

Interior designer Danny Gonzales warns of these clients who 'dangle a carrot' to gain a discount. He recommends you counteroffer to provide a discount on the NEXT job. It's the same deal he offers to long term and repeat customers and is just good business. Nice suggestions Danny.

#4: Complaints about rates

If a client thinks you're too expensive from the get-go, they'll probably resist paying you. If you're out of their negotiable price range to begin with, they are not the right client for you.

"I shop at Whole foods and farmers markets because I'm pretty sure I'll get the quality I want. If I can't and don't want to pay these prices I'll shop elsewhere. I will never go to the butcher, discuss the meats, package it and go to the register and see if I can get a better deal. " - Danny Gonzales

Underdog Arch Student expands on this thought. He suggests that if the client has a huge wishlist but insufficient funds / short timeline, they might end up being unrealistic and uncompromising. So always keep an eye out for signs that people can't afford your services.

#5: They have numerous previous designers

If you have drama with everyone around you, you are probably the cause of the drama. If a client has many stories about the problems they've had with previous designers, the client might be the cause of the drama. Tread lightly. Thought Co suggests that the reason the last few designers were fired may have not been the designers fault. Inversely, it is probably best not to tell war stories to prospective clients because they might think the same about you.

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#6: Asking for free sample work

"My office charges a consulting fee for the first consult meeting at a potential clients house. Some don't like it, choosing to go to another firm, but it's a telling sign that either they won't be able to pay on time, or resistant to pay for the consulting fees, regulatory permit and application fees, and regular contractor fees when the costs are way higher and are critical once a project is running" - Underdog Arch Student

I know with architecture, and this probably happens in all fields, a client might get as much schematic leg work they can from the first designer. Then they'll pick up that design and take it to another architect without paying the bill. This is why we can't have nice things. You'll lose work this way, but sometimes the client will bring the work to you in the same manner.

Now you've been warned. Go out there into the world of good and bad clients and try to fish out a few great ones for yourself. After a few years of good clients, you'll have an easier time fostering a quality portfolio.


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