Client Red Flags & The Art of No

No matter how long you’ve worked in this industry, you’ll always encounter bad clients. A lot of the times, we can spot them from far off and send them packing. Then there are times the red flags don’t start waving until the middle of the project, or we can be so excited to work on a particular project that we completely ignore them.

Of course hindsight is 20/20, and you end up realizing that no matter how small, there were signs from the beginning. I recently ended a working relationship with a new client that was unprofessional from the beginning. I definitely don’t like severing a relationship, especially in the middle of a project, but it was starting to affect other work and my personal life. When you’re stressed and constantly thinking about pleasing one impossible-to-please client – you forget about the others who actually deserve more of your time.

So what are some of the red flags I learned to recognize this time, and how do we say no?

The scope is unclear

The biggest red flag from the get-go was the fact that the scope was totally unclear and ambiguous. This was a completely n00b red flag that I should’ve realized, but I was dazzled by the great design and what I saw as a fun project. I estimated out the project, received the deposit and got going. All of a sudden, a “we don’t need any JS or animations” website became full of animations. Functionality became to increase well beyond the project. They “forgot” to tell you that the 30 hour project you scoped them was really supposed to be 200 hours.

The scope is constantly changing

Unfortunately this is often an issue you won’t notice until the project is already underway. First the site’s target is clear. Then all of a sudden they decide they want to change routes. Then the third week the site is headed somewhere else again. Just when you’ve finished coding several modules, each one needs to drastically change – or perform some action that wasn’t originally talked about.

They refuse to pay for extras and/or attack your abilities

The previous two issues aren’t an issue at all if they client is prepared to pay for recoding something. Usually they are. But if they refuse to pay for something extra they asked for (or to redo something you’ve already done) and it’s beyond a 2 minute change – you should refuse to go any farther. Do it once and they’ll expect to keep getting more and more coding time up front. If they attack your abilities or claim that you’re only charging because you don’t know what you’re doing (well maybe if you were an expert in X, you could do it in two seconds instead of two hours!!) – explain why this is unfair/untrue once, and then walk away the second time. You have better things to do with your time.

They refuse to agree to your payment terms / ask for a discount

This one ALWAYS comes back to bite me, and I always seem to fall for it. A good client knows you’re worth your asking price. And a client who can’t trust you enough to pay your deposit terms, probably won’t trust you enough to let you do your job.

They want you to steal code or copy functionality from other websites

Obviously there’s a lot of redundancy on the web, and from time to time I’ve taken a script or two from a website. But when the client wants you to copy whole portions, pages and functionality from another site – that’s stealing. Not only that, if they believe you can just copy and paste functionality from one site to another – they think they don’t have to pay for that feature. This is immoral on more than one level and you should *always* refuse to do this.

They treat you like a service provider, bring on other ‘experts’, and/or refuse to listen to your advice

You’re supposed to have been hired because you’re the expert. While advice, questions on approaches and suggestions are always welcome, you’re not a pixel pusher. Don’t ever allow the client to dictate how to do your job for you. Similarly, don’t allow other “experts” to be brought in in the middle of a project to start telling you how to code something (unless you ask of course). This has nothing to do with ego, and everything to do with professionalism and scope creep.

The call or text at late hours/weekends/all the time

It’s one thing to send an email at midnight on a Saturday. It’s another thing entirely to text or call someone at that time. Calling someone’s phone is always an interruption. While they can check their email at leisure – a phone call interrupts whatever they’re doing and shouts LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW. Also, if they continue their first texts with five others after it, asking where you are (and it’s 10pm), request that they stop. If they refuse to listen, you might need to end up ending the relationship. Your personal time is just as important as work time, and without proper rest, you’ll never be able to perform 100% on the job.

They speak to you or about other professionals or their own clients unprofessionally

I have a lot of clients that I consider more than “just a client”. We joke around, talk about vacations and ask about how we’re doing in our personal lives. But you should never *ever* allow a client to speak to you unprofessionally in anger or malice, nor sit on the phone and listen to them cuss out or insult their client (who you’re probably working for as a third party). I did this once and will never do again. IN the future I would sever the working relationship as soon as this happens.

Saying No, Saying Goodbye, Saying Go Away

Obviously it’s important to maintain a professional demeanor, not matter how upset you are. Never lower yourself to their level of malice – never give into name calling. And no matter how good it feels, don’t give into naming and shaming on the internet, unless it’s something you truly believe will help others (and even then, proceed with caution).

Instead, when you’re finally had enough – calm down. Take a long walk. Eat some ice cream. Come back to the computer when you’re calm and under control. Open up your email client and compose a well thought out email of why you’re severing the relationship, or turning down more projects from them. List reasons of why you refuse to work with them, and how they could improve in the future.

Chances are, most people are not evil, and probably don’t even really want to take advantage of you. Many are unexperienced or uninformed about what it takes to do what we do. Perhaps they’ve just started in our industry. While this doesn’t excuse their behavior, try to remember that they’re human too. A professional description of their misconduct and a suggestion for improvement in the future goes far. If they continue to harass you, blocking their number always works too.

Remember we’re in business to improve the web – and if you’re not sane and happy, what kind of code will you produce??