How do you avoid working with the ‘wrong’ client?

Ollie Francis

Ollie Francis

Digital strategist, UX designer & founder at Deckchair


Written by Ollie Francis

We’ve all had them. We do the dance, start working together, it’s all smiles and then, bam, there’s the moment of realisation that your instincts were right and that things are going to be difficult.

Bad clients are bad for business. They suck our time away from good clients. They have a habit of making requests that make no sense and they seldom trust your judgement. The project grinds on, nothing is ever good enough and by the time you deliver, you’ve stopped caring.

The biggest issue is the effect they have on the team. Their garbled feedback can make your team doubt their abilities. Worst case scenario, they bully your staff, you stop sleeping and people start bailing.

It’s very tempting to think that you can ‘fix’ a bad client. I must admit I have a tendency to think ‘I can save them! We will prevail where many other agencies have failed’ and ‘They are just a lion with a thorn in their side, if I fix their problem we will wield the beast and turn them into a brilliant client’. That’s not to say you can’t but is it worth the risk? I would say not.

What makes a client ‘bad’? Often at the foundation there is a lack of trust. If the client has had bad experiences in the past you may be battling emotions and beliefs that will be very difficult to overcome.

It’s not all drama though; some clients show their bad traits in a far more subtle manner. They may never complete their tasks, or can’t commit adequate human or financial resources or fail to deliver feedback in a comprehensible and timely fashion. All these things added together also make a client ‘bad’.

Alarm bells

What are the universal signs that you should look for? It’s very easy when you are pitching for work to ignore these but I would argue that is the kiss of death:

  • They don’t seem to trust you or your opinions
  • They are evasive about committing to tasks or gloss over complex things such as content or timeframes
  • They want you to complete important tasks for free to prove your worth
  • They tell you in detail how awful the last agency or agencies were
  • They don’t admit to doing anything wrong on previous projects
  • They have an unrealistic budget or timeframe for the project scope
  • The team structure at that their end is undefined, you are unsure who will be your day to day contact or who has authority to sign things off
Becky Taylor

Becky Taylor

UX designer, digital project manager and founder at Deckchair.


Written by Becky Taylor

What’s a ‘good’ client?

Now Ollie’s discussed the foibles of working with the wrong client, how do we know when the right client comes along?

Without getting into the nuts and bolts of how to get clients, I’m going to look at how we recognise a ‘good’ client.

There are fundamental traits every agency should look for in their clients, and there are traits that you need to ascertain for your own individual agency. Here’s our criteria list for the good client…

They value and respect your project process

The client must see you as experts who can help them and who know how to do this, not web monkeys that will follow orders. They may well question why you do things or how, but you can happily satisfy them with your explanation.

The chemistry is good

You have to genuinely like the client, and more importantly be able to work together. If your MD or account manager get on like a house on fire with the client’s MD, great, as that’s often where the relationship starts. But it’s critical that the team on the ground can gel – day to day they will be the people managing and working on this project, they will have to communicate, and communicate well on a regular basis for the project and relationship to succeed. Bear in mind though that it’s all too easy to fall for a client because you have good conversation and feel comfortable in the meeting. Make sure the client meets all the other criteria too!

Realistic timelines or budget

Ideally the client will have a budget in mind – whether it is their marketing budget for the year or their guesstimate on how much they want to spend,  AND they are open and willing to discuss this.

Internal digital resource

This is a must, regardless of project size. There has to be someone, or a team, internally to the client’s organisation that will be working on this project with you. This can and will range from those with autonomy (someone has to sign it off), to those creating the content and testing your work. Hopefully there may even be a project manager who is going to keep the organisation’s team in check and liaise directly with your own PM.

What’s important here is the “digital” bit – whilst you can’t expect them to necessarily have the knowledge you do, they have to get what digital is and why it’s important for the business. For example, they need to understand the fundamentals of why content is so important and what a content management system is.

Do you want the job? Can you do it? Will you enjoy it?

If all the other criteria match up, how does the project itself appear? Consider if it is the right kind of sector or business (for example we wouldn’t work with a nuclear weapons company). Do you have the expertise and experience to handle the project and can you put the right team in place? If it makes you feel bored or dead just thinking about it, this isn’t the one for you!

Don’t let pipeline or cashflow rule your decision

Sometimes as agencies you’re in a place where you feel boxed into a corner – you have to feed the monster that is the business, to pay all the staff and pay all the bills. I’m not suggesting you turn work down if you are up against it. But equally, if you take on the wrong client or project, it could end up costing you more in the long run.

It’s key you have a view of your pipeline and cashflow for the year, so you can effectively plan projects in, but if your pipeline is looking empty, this mustn’t be the deciding factor for taking the client on. And if the client is promising £100,000s of budget to you over the next few years, be careful of getting too excited. You need to discover whether this is realistic, relevant and achievable. Make sure the whole team is involved in this decision, not just the people with the purse strings.

Happy guts

Once you’ve worked through all of the criteria, come back to your gut and listen. Does it feel happy or is there an icky feeling that you can’t shake? On paper we’ve had the best client we could ask for, but we couldn’t get rid of a slightly uncomfortable gut feeling. Ultimately we unearthed through internal discussion that they didn’t fit with our process or values – there were a few hints in the brief and the initial meeting.

Becky Taylor

Becky Taylor

UX designer, digital project manager and founder at Deckchair.


Written by Becky Taylor

How do you define YOUR good client?

Aside from the fundamentals we should all be looking for, every agency will have a different client that is suitable to them. We spent time analysing our own values and traits as a company and who we define as our ‘tribe’. By tribe, we mean the people that ring true with our values and who we want to work with.

An easy way to start doing this is to look at your current client list. Pick out a number of your favourites and list the common traits and values that you find most appealing. For example, values might be “open”, “honest” and traits might be “financial sector”, “problem-solvers”, “clear purpose”. Also, what were the problems they faced and hence the reason for approaching you?

Next list out your own business’ values and traits. How do your values compare with your clients’? You should find similarities. Unless none of your current clients are particularly right for you, which can be the case. You may see that whereas previously you have focused on targeting the vertical market (e.g. Finance), it makes more sense to target the mindset, values and problems of the client.

Does the ‘good’ client actually exist?

This is a good question. Yes and no. As businesses or agencies, we are, and should be, constantly evolving and trialling the way we do things. We learn from our experiences, especially the bad or more tricky ones. I don’t think yet, not from my experience anyway, that we can get a 100% good client. This comes from our evolving state as a business – the more work we do, the more we refine what worked and what didn’t, what we want and don’t want. It also comes from the prerogative of running a business – sometimes we and the client have to compromise to get the work in. Perhaps they tick every single criteria but their timeline is a little too tight or their internal team could be better. You have to work out where and what the compromise should be and actually how much you should compromise. In our book you should never compromise on your key values – this is the linchpin for all other criteria when choosing a client.

Just taking the time to evaluate potential clients before you say “yes” is a big step in the right direction and is surprisingly something that a lot of agencies don’t do.

A penny for your thoughts...