Forget nightmare clients — this is what dream clients look like
Put down your red flags and recognise valuable partnerships
All too often, we focus on the worst in our clients. Difficult client experiences can be scarring and memorable. That’s why there’s so much advice on what makes a nightmare client and how to look out for the red flags.
Great client relationships can be equally memorable, yet we don’t talk about them nearly as much. We should. The truth is, half of the time a relationship goes sour, it’s you to blame, not your client. A good working relationship, like any other partnership, requires the right commitment from both sides.
We think if we could only avoid bad clients our careers would be wonderful. However, there’s a difference between avoiding bad client relationships, and building good ones.
So, rather than looking for the red flags, let’s talk about how to identify what makes a great client so fulfilling to work with.
The traits of a dream client
If you’ve got clients with most of these skills, you’ve got it made.
- Value clients, not cost clients. A great client isn’t after the lowest possible price, they’re after the best possible outcome. This is the largest single factor as it will have a ripple effect on the attitude of every interaction.
- Trust & respect. Dream clients trust and respect your time and expertise. After all, that’s what they pay you for. If they don’t trust you, why hire you in the first place? The best client partnerships have abundant trust and respect flowing both ways.
- Fully committed. If they expect your total commitment they have to give it in return. They set aside time to consider how to best serve your needs to keep the project on a straight path. The best clients are as good at their job as you are at yours.
- Well organised. They take care of their share of the planning so you don’t have to pick up the slack. They appreciate the details as much as you do. They anticipate the bottlenecks before you have to mention them.
- Strong communication & feedback. A great client is quick to respond to questions and communicates clearly and comprehensively. They know how to effectively critique and give useful feedback. They avoid ambiguity and don’t let things get lost in the cracks.
- Professional personality. Perfect clients don’t have to be your best friend, in fact, it’s usually better when they’re not. They keep things professional, never too personal. They have a healthy amount of ego, and just the right mix of serious and fun to make your communication comfortable.
Dream client personalities (and how to make them even better)
The “I trust you completely and am happy with everything” client
When you’ve worked with a client long enough they are so comfortable with your process and so trusting in your results that they hand you the keys to the car and tell you to do what you like.
This only works, of course, if you can back up that trust with the ability to deliver a great outcome with minimal client direction and collaboration. You have to understand their needs as well (or better!) than they do. It takes an experienced pro with an intimate knowledge of the client’s business to maximise this type of relationship. But when it’s done right the results can be magic.
It’s these clients that let you stretch the boundaries and produce some of your most innovative work. In return, they get something more original that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had they been heavy-handed.
The downside is that they can get too passive and uncritical. They can let you get away with lazy work by not questioning your methods or pushing you to explore alternative solutions.
To make this dream client even better:
Invite them into a collaborative process at every opportunity. Show them multiple options so they have to justify why they like one over the other. Demand critique early and often — just to keep them honest — even if that feedback is nearly always positive.
The hyper-invested, passionate collaborator
Opposite to the passive client above, the hyper-invested collaborator tips the scales towards being too involved. But they remain a dream to work with because their involvement comes with extreme commitment and competency.
They know where their input is valuable and trust you where it isn’t. Where their expertise and passion intersect they come to the table with absolute commitment and desire for intense collaboration. They want to be part of every decision, not to exercise their authority, but because they have something genuinely valuable to add and they simply care too much about the result to let it go to chance.
Clients like this can feel like overly demanding perfectionists, but only if you’re incapable of taking on constructive critique and letting it improve your work. Ivory tower, lone wolf designers need not apply. When you give into the process and invite constant feedback as a way to take your output to the next level, this relationship adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
To get the most out of this client partnership:
Set clear boundaries around process and the tempo of communication. When you find the right rhythm you get the best out of each other. Be mindful of how frequent feedback and revisions may affect budget and timeframe, and use that to justify if client collaboration needs to be dialled back.
The ambitious motivator
This client can be passive or engaged. What sets them apart is their relentless pursuit of an ambitious vision. They don’t want “something that looks like [fill in the blank]” they want something even better. Something newer, different, cutting-edge.
They will push your comfort zone and force you to learn new things. They won’t settle for anything less than your best, or even better than your previous best. But they also keep it real — their budget matches their expectations.
Embrace this opportunity to do the best work of your life.
This may sound scary. But they’re not a nightmare because those high expectations are matched with equally high respect. These are the people that know how to raise everyone around them. Their passion and ambition are infectious.
Help them take you to the next level:
Don’t let this client become an “I’ll know it when I see it” person. Make them match their high demands with an equally clear brief of their expectations. Be the pragmatic voice in the room and don’t be afraid to point out when an overly-ambitious idea may need reigning in. Stay opening minded. Embrace the pressure as motivation — let it inspire and never cripple you.
Fulfilling careers come from recognizing and attracting dream clients
Don’t throw away your red flags just yet — they’re still useful. Avoiding clients who are difficult to work with will always remain an important part of your engagement process.
However, some bad clients can be turned good if you know how to tweak the relationship — and you recognise that sometimes it’s you who needs the tweaking! Your client may be exceptional in every way but for one dealbreaker. Don’t toss them to the curb before you try to save them, or you may pass up a project that’s a few corrections away from being your dream job.
Even better than flagging the bad behaviours of nightmare clients is knowing how to recognise and attract dream clients.
Think back through your last few years of work. Which qualities made your favourite clients so good, and your difficult ones so poor? Now be proactive about chasing or attracting more of the kind you like.
Avoiding bad clients becomes far easier when the majority of your work comes to you, and they come pre-qualified with the trust and respect that makes a dream client. Attracting quality clients is the result of building a strong reputation and generating word-of-mouth referrals. It’s about being the lowest risk, first-choice option every time.
When your work pipeline is full of leads like these, choosing your next project becomes a joy. It’s choosing the best option from a number of good choices rather than settling for the lesser of two evils.
I’ve had years of nothing but dream clients. There are plenty of them out there if you know how to find them. (Hint: you don’t find them, they find you.)
So put away your red flag binoculars, and trade your stress of vetting bad clients for more focus on becoming valuable and attractive to your dream clients. That simple shift of perspective can change a freelance career from frustrating to fulfilling.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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