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Three Warning Signs of a Nightmare Client

and why we sometimes don't heed them

1:08 pm on Jun 24, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Once upon a time, I received the "three warning signs" from a potential client all in the first sentence: "I don't have much money, I need my site up and running a.s.a.p., and my current web design company won't return my calls".

Hmmmm...why, I ask you, did some benevolent lightbulb go off in my head - the toxic urge to help someone in need, perhaps - and not the glaring warning flares? I don't know. I took the bait. We met, I agreed to slash my rates, get it done in 30 days, and thus began a relationship with a client that, because of their micromanaging and nitpickiness, ended up diluting my hourly rate to about minimum wage.

I learned early on how to spot the warning signs of a nightmare client. It just took me a little while to figure out how to say "no.". Early on, I am sure that the desire to grow my business was at the heart of the acquiesence, even in spite of that feeling of dread you feel when you are about to execute the contract. Now, with plenty of work from corporate clients, many of whom refuse to micromanage because they have jobs to attend to, I can be a lot more picky.

With that, here's my anaysis of the Big Three. Feel free to add your own.

"I need to do this as cheap as possible"

Usually, this comes out in their first inquiry. If I track the nightmare clients' profile, I can definitely trace this comment to usually the very first phone call. In fact, it's interesting how many of the potential clients who made this statement from the outset would ultimately either stand me up, or cancel the first consultation before we ever got off the ground.

"I need your best price" certainly sends up the red flags now. Not because clients who insist on a fair and equitable price are inherently nightmare clients, but, clients who begin with this as their foundation, those who are price-driven, ultimately don't understand value. They ask "what will you do for me?" instead of "what will my website do for me?". And usually, this type of stance is followed by:

"I need it yesterday"

A tight time constraint is not, in and of itself, a problem. In fact, a number of my better clients have been somewhat urgent about a launch date. But taken in concert with bullet point #1, this becomes indicative of a client who has no understanding of or regard for the process. They think you are sitting at home with nothing else to work on other than their $1000 site. Usually, all other aspects of their business, project, etc are equally in disarray. They are close to closing down, and their website is a last ditch effort to generate business, and so on.

This type of frenetic urgency is interesting, in that, usually, these people are the nitpickiest clients of all - critiquing every font, gradient, and crop. Wanting it done over and over until the picture they saw in their head begins to take shape, or, more likely, until it begins to look like their friend's website, which is what they wanted it to look like all along, but were afraid to say so.

Until I began to grasp the concept that "your failure to plan is not my emergency", I was usually being reactive to the timeline wishes of the nightmare client. Now, the launch date is set by when the calendar will allow.

and, finally, but most daunting of all:

"My current web designer won't call me back"

I have seen and heard many varients on this theme. Sometime it's couched in secrecy, i.e. "our last company we just had a...well, it just didn't work out"; sometimes overt, to-wit: "the web design company I hired dropped me" or "says they won't do my site because they don't agree with my content".


Now, this is much different that the client who breaks with their existing web design company because truly, they are getting bad service, or perhaps they entered into a relationship with a fledgling designer who either got in over their head or evaporated before they ever got off the ground, but you can definitley tell the difference.

This is the client who, by the tone and description of their "falling out" is clearly suspect, and it's very soon apparent that the reason they had a falling out is because they were pouring scope creep into their relationship by the truckload, micromanaging, changing their minds, and diluting the value of the already whittled-down price way past the point of tolerant. I have had a few of these clients and have come close myself to dropping them mid contract (in fact, I did fire one mid-relationship. It's rather liberating)

The fact that there was a break in the relationship with their previous designer should send you running for the hills. When combined with the need for speed and the demand for your rock-bottom dollar, there's almost no need to follow up with questions about why the previous relationship ended - you know why.

Being able to turn away business is a little intimidating at first. It seems counterintuitive to growing your company. But IMHO, it's just the opposite. Turning away BAD business, and there is most definitely bad business in this field, frees up your time to market yourself to and design for quality clients. Clients who get it - who understand that a website is about value, not about price, and that will trust you to do your job in the manner in which they have hired you to begin with.

Just my two cents. Any other red flags?

Best Regards,


2:00 am on July 1, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Back in my old brick and mortar, low-tech, small jobshop manufacturing days I heard about a company I will call Acme. All their potential vendors made fun of them.

-They wouldn't pay their bills.
-Their buyers were idiots and con men.
-They wanted everything "right now".
-They often wanted extra work done off the purchase order.
-They would cancel orders after the parts had been started and fought any cancellation charges.
-Their engineers wanted free prototype modifications.
-The entire group would invite a vendor for a Friday night cocktail hour and leave him with a $500 bar tab.

I needed work and fell for their "hustle".

To make a long story short, over the next 2 years I made TONS of $$$ off them.

Turning problems into opportunities and opportunities into profits is what optimistic business people do.

12:48 pm on July 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

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>"Yet the reaction can be more like they are
>listening to a used car salesman, because they do
>not know the process or what is involved, I find
>people automatically become wary of things they do
>not understand.. and think because they are in the
>dark they must be getting ripped off.."

I know this one! I had a client who had a contract with one of these 'website in a box' type companies - you know the sort of thing, pay x for 6 pages in their templates on their server. For an extra x per month it will be submitted to 500 search engines every hour, plus lots of other similarly useless extras available.

He used to call me to fill him in on how to use the latest thing he'd bought from them. I would generally have to explain to him that a) he didn't need it b)he could get it cheaper elsewhere c) if he'd only called me BEFORE writing the cheque I could have told him he didn't need it and advised him what he DID need, and next time that's what he should do.

This was always met with the 'used car salesman' reaction. I didn't mind giving him ths advice as he was a good client for other stuff but I was always a little peeved that he handed thousands of pounds over to the sharks and treated my free advice with skepticism.

Oh yeah, a warning sign I should have seen -

"I just want X type of website - I'll let my business partner/manager/employee work out the details with you...",
"... Yes, of course he has complete authority, go with whatever he thinks is best and show me when it's finished"

Should have walked away at that stage :-s isn't hindsight wonderful?

5:36 pm on July 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I've been on both ends of this dilemma.

[edited by: engine at 5:50 pm (utc) on July 7, 2006]
[edit reason] See TOS [webmasterworld.com] [/edit]

10:37 pm on July 7, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I was reading this document and laughing at the time 'cause I have a client just like that.
Thanx for the advise.

Greetings from Costa Rica,
Alejandro Otoya

[edited by: jatar_k at 11:21 pm (utc) on July 7, 2006]
[edit reason] no urls thanks [/edit]

3:21 pm on July 8, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Thank you for this! It somehow makes me feel better knowing I'm not the only one who has ended up in this situation.

Now I have to learn to say "no" to relatives who want free web sites - or worse yet - pay me the equivalent of about 4 hours work at my going rate for a site that takes 20 times that long and feel justified in micro managing because of it!

12:28 pm on July 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

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you do a site in 20 mins? remind me not to employ you ;)
6:59 pm on July 9, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I have a current website enquiry from someone in the building trade who wants a website but "does not know where to start". He admits that he knows nothing about it. I spent about 15 minutes on the phone to both him and his good lady explaining about the requirement for a domain name and hosting and trying to suggest content, etc. I then emailed him some basic documents about specifying website requirements.

I got an email back saying again that he "did not know where to start". I contacted him again suggesting that he read the information that I had sent him. I got an email from his wife saying again that "he does not know where to start" and that "you both need to speak about this". AAAaaaaarggghhhh!

It gets so frustrating when people seem unable to understand the most basic of information. The documents I sent them were written specifically for people in their position. I used the simplest of language and stayed away from the technicalities of the process.

What to do!?!?

At this point I have now sent him a proposal detailing what I think he should have on his site). FREE CONSULTANCY AGAIN! ;)

5:38 am on July 10, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Been there many times..
Nothing wrong with a first pass consultation...(for free)..
but you should make it clear to the "potential" client (whether they are clueless or not)...that any further communications will be billed at an hourly rate (whatever works for you AND if you don't really want the work...you can quote a high hourly)...

One thing you also need to watch out for ... this "potential" client may not be as clueless as they claim...could be digging for methods/processess to pass onto someone who will "try" to implement on the cheap..

Could be this person is not as clueless as they claim...so you must guard against giving away any of your gems too early...

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