4 easy steps to avoid disaster clients

I found an article today describing the things that really lousy clients say that make their said lousiness obvious. I did a lot of head-nodding, but was disappointed that they didn’t include tips for avoiding these situations. Indeed, the comments contained horror stories of clients who literally ran roughshod over the freelancer, gouging work out of them for little-to-no payment. I shuddered while reading their stories. The events themselves were bad, but my awareness that a freelancer can always avoid them made it even worse. While firing a customer can be a delicate process, screening a customer and covering your butt are super-easy, you just have to bring some business mindset to the table. If you had a disaster client or two, but still wonder why you’d ever need to do your thing “like a business,” look at it this way: how does avoiding these morons sound? Sound good? Okay, do this… 1. Interview your client

Approach the information-gathering stage as a possibility to interview the prospective client. What does the client do? How long have they been in business? How long has your contact been working for the company? What does the client hope to accomplish with your work, both immediately and longer-term? If they ask why you’re asking such questions, tell them you want to ensure that they would be a good fit to your business style. This line of discussion does two things: makes you look better to professional clients and makes disaster clients a little uneasy. Let’s quickly cover the benefits for good clients. Business people can talk business to anyone in business. These types of questions will reassure a knowledgeable client. Most professional clients recognize the need for a good fit in the working relationship. In general, they show the client that you have your stuff together, making the client feel more confident in the relationship. It’s typically the exact opposite effect on disaster clients. People who have it together are intimidating to someone who does not. Plus, the questions themselves often bring potential problems to the surface. 2. Lay out your terms in clear, plain English

How much will the work cost the client? What’s your time estimate? How much money needs to be upfront? Do they need to pay in full before delivery? Answer all these questions straight up, with no fanfare. When everything’s out in the open, everyone’s comfortable. Conversely, when you nervously dance around the “money thing,” or speak in abstract buddy-buddy terms, you’ll set off alarm bells in the mind of the good client. I was actually burned recently for not following this one. I hired a firm to do some work for Fwd:Vault, and they were pretty vague on the payment terms, beyond the total cost. But my point-man from the firm repeatedly reassured me that we were good as long as I paid, that he would “run blocking” for me with their internal accountants. When my first check ended up in a pile and not going out on time, that blocking ended up being about as effective as a 12-year-old girl facing the Eagles offensive line. After finding the check and sending it out, I get an email a few days later saying that they had the check, but were returning it and dropping me as a client to boot, vaguely describing internal billing issues associated with my delayed payment. Fortunately the relationship was on a trial basis, so there was no real harm. This whole mess could have been avoided had they provided (or I required) a clean explanation of their payment terms. The irony that their accountants probably consider me one of those “lousy clients” is not lost on me. When talking money, be clear, be concise, be confident, and all will be well. 3. Always have a written contract

You DO use contracts, right? Right? After you’ve laid out the costs and services to be rendered in plain English, every one of those points should make it into a written contract using valid legal mumbo-jumbo. Contract templates can be found for free around the web, and there are some sites that sell them. Either way, you’ll need to make adjustments to suit your business, and it should always be reviewed by a lawyer. I recommend finding a template, customizing it yourself, and then submitting it to a lawyer. You’ll save a ton of money on legal fees since he’s just reviewing it, instead of writing it. I know lots of freelancers work on verbal agreements, but they don’t hold up in court. Don’t be dumb or lazy, get it in writing. That one’s worth repeating: always get it in writing. 4. Require an upfront deposit

I do half up front, half on delivery for modest jobs, and thirds for bigger projects. Either way, I don’t do anything beyond the contract and simple prep without a deposit. It’s easily the most effective way to eliminate riff-raff. Going along with my point on clarity, make sure the client understands that nothing gets done until the deposit is in hand. It blows my mind how many freelance designers and developers do everything off the cuff, eschewing any concept of business practices. Reasons I’ve heard include laziness, ignorance, even rebellion against the status quo and “the institution” (looking mostly at you “rebel” designers here). Business people are nothing if not efficient. Do you think they would waste their time on these hurdles if they didn’t provide an obvious benefit? These practices exist for a reason! If you’re still unsure, I’d urge you to save yourself future grief and listen to me now, believe me later.