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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco


Amateurs Get Angry With Clients. Professionals Educate Them.

You can’t pick your family, but you can certainly pick your clients. With a little bit of work up front you can get the clients — and work — that you love.

As most experienced freelancers know, sometimes we have to fire our clients, for their benefit and ours. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I used to think dealing with frustrating clients was just part of being a creative. But then I realized while, yes, there are frustrating parts of any relationship, frustration should be the exception rather than the rule.

There are certainly times when we want to turn into the freelance version of Donald Trump, screaming “You’re Fired!” at everyone we disagree with. But the truth is, we deserve the clients we get. Bad clients aren’t the result of some cosmic force working against us, they’re more likely the result of our own actions.

Frustrating clients are the result of some misstep we’ve made along the way. To do our best work and work with the best people, we need to be diligent in our relationship with our clients. Here’s how:

Have the guts to say “no.”

If it doesn’t seem like a good project for you, walk away before money is involved. Is that the type of project you want to be known for? Like attracts like, so if you’re filling your portfolio with work you aren’t interested in, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for more of the same (Jason Santa Maria gave a great Creative Mornings talk about the power and value of saying no to work). It can be scary, but think past just this one client. 

Walk away before money is involved.

Clearly communicate your values to the world.

The easiest way to do this is to blog regularly on the same website that your portfolio is on. Write honestly about the work you do. This immediately shows potential clients if their goals and values match up with yours and saves time discovering later that you and your client are out of sync.

Educate your clients.

Chances are, we’ve been part of more projects involving our craft than the person that hired us. We have a great opportunity to teach our clients what we’ve learned from all that experience. 

If a client disagrees with something you know to be right, don’t get bent out of shape. Instead, go into research mode. Show them using examples why what they want doesn’t work for your project. If they can turn around and clearly illustrate why their suggestion will work, you can concede (and learn something in the process). If they can’t you’ve squashed an issue while educating your client for (hopefully) many projects to come. Consider it an “investment” in a resource that you need for your career to be successful.

Interrogate potential clients.

What are their tastes in design? Does that match the work you’re interested in doing? There’s no point taking on a client that loves flashy bells and whistles if you like doing subtle minimal designs. Screening clients lets you pick the ones that are better to work with and provide you with the type of work you’re actually keen on doing more of.

Be clear on the project’s goals.

That way if there are disagreements, it’s not a matter of what they want versus what you want, which is highly subjective, it’s more a matter of what accomplishes the goals of the project in the best way. Put these goals in writing and refer back to the document when necessary.


It’s hard to say no to clients (and their money), especially when you first start out. But like any other creative endeavor, focus on quality early and your career will get exponentially easier. After all, good clients lead to us good work, which leads to us being more happy and fulfilled (and less complaining to our peers about how our clients keep making bad decisions). Creating a body of work you’re happy with can take a lifetime.

We are responsible for the work we put into the world, so why not make that work great?

How about you?

How do you filter for the best clients?

Comments (178)
  • Kim Le

    Great article. “Have the guts to say no” is always an interesting debate.

    I’ve been in client services for 8+years, and having recently left a digital agency to join a start-up, the type of projects we take on will absolutely vary. We do our best to balance projects we’re truly excited & passionate about, with others we take on b/c it’s a good opportunity or beneficial to the company financially.

    And when we’ve committed to a client/project, it’s the last resort (in my opinion). I struggle with the thought of throwing our hands up if a client disagrees with something we’ve put in front of them, dilutes an idea or starts manipulating creative… otherwise, they’ll never learn. We’re at the table for a reason. They’ve hired us for a reason. Trust comes with time, but you also need to earn that trust.

    Communication is key, presenting options, providing compelling arguments to back up our choices, getting to the root of the issue (b/c how often have any of us worked with clients who are crystal clear about what they want?) etc. If all else fails, yes – we may then gracefully bow out.

  • jim

    the title is contradictory. “sometimes we have to do this” “but we don’t have to do this”

  • MaggieBeCreative

    Working both as a company employee and a freelance consultant, I have learned that even with my 20+ years as a creative designer, that I will always be a student, and thoseyou work with (for) should always be open to learn something about the work you can do for them. In other words being a true professional is knowing how to be open to the possibility that each job or project brings with it the opportunity
    to learn something new about the business you’re creating for and the possibility to pick up a skill you never knew you may have lacked.

    In both the corporate and freelance worlds, you’re always in a collaboration with a Team – whether you’re the new kid on the block or the one who’s been around it once or twice. Always be confident that your past experience (knowledge) can be a
    positive contribution to the relationship. Strive to learn how to contribute
    your ideas in a positive direction without coming off as being arrogant or to
    sound like you know what’s best. Remember you may know how to create the idea,
    but it’s your client who knows his business – work collaboratively with each of
    your strengths and together you will create success.

  • BLUE731

    This is great advice! I have another question in the same area though. How does one let a client go (in a professional manner) that has become difficult to work with?

  • Matthew Rogers ☠

    Expanding on interrogation, the first question I always ask is whether they have worked with professional designers before and how the relationship went. If it went well, I ask how. If it didn’t go well, I ask why. Before that, I stalk the hell out of them on LinkedIn & Twitter🙂

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    This is very helpful post especially when it comes to people working with different kinds of people. Look at the situation in the most positive way while controlling your emotions, every client has a purpose, you will learn from them so make sure that you can educate them also all throughout the process.

  • Craig Fairbanks

    Good advice! We set expectations upfront but sometimes that is not enough with difficult customers. the good news many of those customers are high maintenance and pay top dollar and the margin at the end of the project is much higher than our normal customer. I best learn to deal with those who frustrate as not everyone can deal with the pressure that come with it. Up front prep is what helps the most.

  • Linda Makins

    Excellent advice. For years I did not listen to that inner voice that told me that this client/project would not be a good match for me. In the end the experience always left me somewhat disappointed and not terribly happy with the outcome. Now I am very careful as to which projects I take on. Truly, screening clients and being totally honest about the importance of a mutually satisfying connection really does work. Lasting positive relationships and wonderful design solutions are the reward.

  • Joe Gunawan

    Great article Paul! I would love feature it on our photography blog, Please contact me at

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

    – Joe

  • Cardiel

    There are some great points in this article, which I came across because of a situation we are dealing with right now. What happens when you research like crazy, explain exactly where the problem lies and outline why a number of decisions were made, citing blogs and industry leading websites…and the client doesn’t listen, won’t listen, doesn’t care…1 month into a 4 month consultancy contract. Realise that you’ll never be on the same page, cut your losses and walk away, potentially affecting the name and standing of the agency, or keep trying? We’ve tried writing everything down in emails and face to face. My experience is that this particular type of client is the hardest to deal with and only makes the brand they are working for suffer but if someone else out there has any tips, please share!

    • Duke

      Some options :
      1) he needs something else (a bribe)
      2) he’s already tied with someone else (who’s already giving some bribes)
      3) you solution goes against his personal interest
      Clients are humans and they have also (personal) needs.

    • adamtaha

      So you did all that work and they themselves haven’t made a commitment? That shows to the client ‘neediness’ and “lack of value.’ You need to lead with values and demonstrate these value i.e. put a system in place, educate the prospective client on your system. If the prospect doesn’t follow your system, that’s already telling you they don’t qualify for your skills and time.

      In other words, believe in yourself and attract clients who see where you’re coming from by getting your own site to raise awareness, educate, and have a system in place in which the customer must first qualify before you do work with so much time.

      Put a system in place, and start marketing and attract tons of potential customers who will be in the loop. Have a strategy so you have the financial power, lots of work to say no to clients who don’t get it in the first step.

      It’s not about bribe, or lowering your price, or discount. This is a qualifying process matter and a system matter, a process you need to fix way before communicating happens with.

      Ask a lot of questions in beginning and if the prospect doesn’t still see, then politely let go of this type of client. It won’t be easy at first because emotions are involved as well.

      However, I found leading with my values and having a system, a process in place has helped big time. Now, I’m loving it and work with clients I want to work with and it’s amazing life. It prevents frustrations with potential clients and I respectfully decline and we’re still happy, ok with each other.

  • AliTalahi

    “No” sometimes can be difficult to be said for a client who trust your work. However It’s an excellent advice for beginners who wants to make their way up in business.

    Great Article!

  • Awesome-Raghib

    never get angry at your clients

    UNSW petroleum engineering 2015

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco