Illustration Biz Best Practices: Dealing With Difficult Clients
While all freelance creatives have the unique benefit of being paid to do what we would do for free anyway, along with that benefit comes the responsibility to run our businesses wisely. There are several posts on Once Upon A Sketch about dealing with spec work, managing studio expenses and getting work. But what if you’ve done your homework; gotten what looks like a good, non-amateur client that’s paying a decent commission and the project still goes south? There is an old proverb that says “a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” For the last few weeks I’ve been getting a learning experience dealing with quite possibly the most challenging client of my career. We’re not at a finished point yet but I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned so far:
1) Don’t ignore orange flags. I take vetting a client very seriously. I don’t show my work in places where wannabe, McClient types would seek to get work for cheap or free. I understand my rights and make sure I understand the scope of the project and the contract. But let’s just say something innocuous, like the trim size, doesn’t seem right. In my example, I questioned the dimensions presented as they didn’t include a bleed and the single and spread sizes didn’t match. I was assured the dimensions were correct. When I started finals, I double checked the contract, surely they wouldn’t make a mistake there. Yep, the contract had the same strange sizes I was given. So I proceeded… but decided to add my own bleed area just to listen to my intuition. Three weeks later after a series of stops and starts from the designer’s side I was given the “actual” dimensions and they were quite a bit different. Fortunately my self added bleed helped some but not enough. The strange size wasn’t a big red flag, it wasn’t a terrible manuscript or teeny tiny budget. It wasn’t being asked to work in someone else’s style. In my opinion these are all reasons to bolt from a project. But looking back, that one wrinkle set up the entire trajectory of the project. Next time I will press and question, even to the point of saying “I want to confirm this doesn’t change after sketch approval”…. and if the answer’s not good enough, I might consider that a reason to bolt.
2) Once you see an orange flag, get explicit approval for EVERYTHING. I’d finished sketches, finished revisions for those sketches, the designer had said “everything looks great!” At that point the deadline was a comfortable three week margin away. Everything was rosy. I did what every responsible illustrator would do – I started the finals. Because when the client says “everything looks great” that’s what you should do right? Maybe not, looking back I wish I’d pressed them again and point blank asked “Can I start finals?” Because 10 days later, after half the project was complete, I hear there’s a new approval process… and my sketches “may not really be approved.” When I pointed out the earlier communication of everything being great, the client questioned whether they had ever approved anything. Fortunately I was able to lay out email correspondence showing the timeline of sketches, requested revisions, and how everything looked great before they ever mentioned a new approval process.
3) Communicate entirely in writing. It was tempting to pick up the phone and sort everything out with a single half-hour chat. That’s what I would have done with any of my long time clients. But as their changes, approvals, and deadlines got more and more tangled I realized that the person I was working with was only caught in the middle. Talking would leave me with no proof of what we decided and possibly start a “he said/she said” scenario. By communicating exclusively over email I was able to lay out my understanding of the project and have a record of it. Be as professional and enthusiastic as possible, but be ready to defend your side reasonably in writing.
4) Know when to say when. Once the process has started to tilt toward endless revisions beyond the deadline and beyond the budget it’s time for the illustrator to consider whether or not they will continue the project. At that point you can say “this is my last series of changes unless you increase the budget” or “unless this is approved without changes I can’t do any more on this project.” You can fight about a kill fee or just walk away. But the main thing is you have to know at what point you should move from helping the client to protecting your business. In the long run, a difficult client will drag your business down no matter how much money the contract says they will pay you. Finishing this project is on my to-do list but I grind my teeth when I think about it. I have other really exciting books to work on at the moment plus, my own projects which are close to my heart. This difficult client is sucking out my inspiration for those. Just like any relationship, once you reach this tipping point, spend time with the “good projects” and get the difficult ones out of your studio as quickly as you can.
As the process got more out of whack with this client I began researching them online to see if any other illustrators had had problems. I recommend doing this at the start of a new client project anyway. I didn’t find anything substantial but I did find a few other interesting tips for freelancers in this same position. I hope my fellow illustrators never have reason to need it, but in case they do I add this advice to mine: