Recognizing Red Flags

So, as it turns out, I need to take my own advice. This is a companion piece to my previous piece on the Virtues of Being Expensive.

Twice in my career thus far, I have issued a refund. Both times, it’s been for logo design, and both times, it’s been for someone who couldn’t afford me, but ‘loved my work.’ In both cases these individuals have made personal appeals for me to do the work for less than my standard fee, and in both cases, when they insisted that I refund them their money, they have attacked my character.

Of course, it’s flattering to be picked out of relative anonymity on the internet and asked to do a thing you enjoy doing. Everyone like to hear, “Oh, you’re so good at [X],” or, “I love your work so much, I simply must have you do my [project].” It inclines one to be kind to the person stating such things…and this is why it’s so goddamned dangerous.

These people are frequently the ones who want you to work for cheap…or free; and it’s also been my experience that they are also the biggest pains in the ass.

I don’t do pro-bono work anymore. Really, ever. It only goes well once in every ten times. The odds just suck. Best case scenario is that I’ll spend hours and hours and hours on a thing and the client will accept it as-is, and thank you and move on. Worst case, they hate it, want to make a billion changes that don’t improve the quality of the piece or accomplish any of the goals, and then stop returning your phone calls. Normally it’s somewhere in the middle. (‘Client’ hates it, but accepts it anyway and just doesn’t use it.) Everyone starts the project with the best of intentions, but the ‘client’ (in quotes because they aren’t paying you) doesn’t take the briefing process seriously, gives lip service to the idea of creating a thing that exceeds their needs or bucks trends, and then revises any hope of success right out of it. What you’re left with, if you have the patience to continue being treated like a short order cook, is a thing that not only would you be ashamed to show people, but it doesn’t really serve the client’s needs either. So, all around, it’s a failure.

It all comes down to value. The whole project is poisoned by the briefing process that the client doesn’t take seriously…and they don’t take it seriously because they aren’t paying for it. They also don’t take the revision process seriously, because they aren’t paying for it.

Cheap clients are essentially the same as non-paying ‘clients.’ They don’t value the time that goes into the creation of the thing, so they don’t think they should pay for it. I have actually had a prospective client say to me, “How long could it take to draw a logo? 4 or 5 hours? Do you mean to tell me you charge $250/hour?” (I don’t. I charge much, much less.)

I’ll explain to people that the reason I charge so much (which, apparently is a lot in my market, although it is below the national average according to the GAG) is that I do a ton a research, and spend a lot of time with clients trying to divine their needs, instead of just taking and filling orders. Drawing a logo, after all, should be simple. Designing one takes time, and strategy, and rigorous testing. The cheap people don’t care. They don’t want, and do not value, the insight generated by that effort.

What it really comes down to is that these clients do not value the thing I actually do, generate insight and value. They only value the artifact of that insight. That makes them terrible clients, and almost certainly will lead to dissatisfaction, arguments, and ultimately, if my experience is any indication, irrational name calling. The fact that they ask you to discount your fees, cut “unnecessary” chunks out of your process, or fail to participate in whatever small part of the process involves them signals that they are terrible clients. The project will likely end badly, and the blame will likely fall on you, because no one ever blames themselves.

So, how does one deal with these people? It’s been my experience that there is no good way to do it. I have a long list of red flags by this point in my career, and it’s generally pretty true that once I see one, I can tell you what type of dysfunction I’m dealing with and how this project will go off the rails, no matter how hard I try to avoid it. So, what do I do? Walk away from every contract with a red flag? If I walked away from every contract where a red flag went up, I’d basically walk away from half of my contracts.

I think this is what I’m going to do for now:

Never Give Discounts. Ever

That means no pro-bono, no bartering, no stock options or equity or royalties in exchange for lowering my fees. Ever.

Going Back to a Longer Contract

I used to use this really long and intimidating contract and a lot of people would remark that it was long and intimidating, so I made a shorter one that people found more approachable. So approachable that I fear people don’t think it’s legally binding. Both of the people who have ever asked for refunds have expected that they be let out of this contract.

Raising My Prices

Yep. If, as I’ve covered previously, cheap skates are the problem, raise your prices. In order to make a living doing logo design at my current price, I would have to do 50 per year. That’s one a week. It takes me WAY LONGER than that to do one using my process that I really feel provided the minimum acceptable level of quality to make it worthwhile. And, I can make a lot more money building a website that takes a lot less time. My time is my time is my time is my time. Those things should be equal. So, logo prices are about to go up.

Publish My Prices

It’s generally frowned upon in our profession to talk about prices in public. The traditional wisdom is that you don’t want to quote Nike and the Mom ‘n’ Pop client down the street the same price, because the value you are providing to those two groups is very very different. Here’s the thing though – Nike ain’t calling me. 75% of the local small client calls I field have their eyes bug out of their heads when I tell them what I charge anyway. All I’ve done is waste both of our time. I need to allow potential cheap skate clients to self-select, by which I mean, go away.

Turn Away Work

At the real point of all these things is that I need to stop working with people who don’t value or understand what I do and what it is worth. All these strategies result in me turning away work from people who will be scared off by them. They’re essentially ways for me to allow clients to disqualify themselves so that I don’t have to actually tell them, “No” myself, which clearly, I have a problem doing.

Will it Work?

Who knows? I’ve been concentrating a lot on identifying the red flags that help you figure out which clients are going to be awesome and which ones are going to be assholes. However, I have often said to people, “If you think everyone you work with is an asshole, maybe you are the asshole.”

Maybe they aren’t the problem. Maybe I’m the asshole.

10 thoughts on “Recognizing Red Flags”

  1. They are a problem, and you are an asshole. However, there is nothing wrong with being an asshole!

  2. Well said! I think I’ll send this to my sister, the budding photographer. This is the kind of advice that SHOULD be given to people who are actually talented (you), and tend to be too nice to protect their valuable time the way they should! This is why, although I practice several forms of art, I have never turned them into something profitable, because I’m 99% sure I would fall into this trap. Good for you for trying to make some rules to help yourself succeed.

    1. Of course! Also, I meant to ask– is it a “red flag” when someone says they admire your work? If so, that’s sad! People who admire your work don’t want to pay for it??

    2. The red flags in these cases are:

      1. They love the work SO SO SO SO Much! but can’t afford to pay for it, and instead of saving up their nickels and dimes to be able to afford it (which I have had people do), because they understand the value, they ask you (me) to consider discounting it, cutting out parts of the process, offering alternative compensation (like bartering, equity deals, or royalties), or asking for special financing terms.

      2. They are SO sure that you’re a freakin’ genius (because they love your work so much that they can’t possibly understand why would even NEED revisions or a briefing process) that they give meaningless direction or feedback, such as, “Oh, you’ll figure it out,” or “You know. Make it awesome, like all the other work in your portfolio.” Not helpful.

      The combination of these two things is particularly dangerous, because it is really flattering to have someone really effusively tell you that you’re a genius. It makes you more likely to let them slide on the money, and on the process. I mean, what are you going to do, tell them you’re NOT a genius, and that they need to SIT THE HELL DOWN AND GO THROUGH THE BRIEF!?

      That’s exactly what you should do. That and charge them full price.

    3. Ohh! I gotcha. Gosh. Mad props to you for attempting to do ART that requires someone else to tell you what the art should look like!!! I can barely even handle making my own art because I don’t know what I want it to look like. Yeah, so just like, make it awesome. Duh!

    4. After watching George Lois in Art & Copy I have realized that clients that make me angry are only shaping me to have a similar perspective as George. I love that guy!

  3. Great post… thanks to Tad Dobbs for sharing on Facebook…

    For me, the words “fast” “easy” or “cheap” never accompanied a good client experience… if they said those words during the sales process… I’d point it out to them… if they recognized the error in thought / judgement… we’d move on as friends… if they didn’t… I’d move on.

    Keep doin what you do.

  4. There is nothing wrong asking what you are worth. Some of the most rich business people I know put their rates on their site. I think it’s really great to do it. (I am redoing my site again) Why? because when you have the first meeting, they are willing to pay your price and you can get right down to business. I am seeing first they contact you for your consistency, track record and price is third. There are tons of companies that I have managed in the corporate world that will pay for $20,000 website because of the CMS editor product. Some know the base is 20,000 and want to pay 1million because of first, the reputation (includes track record) because those companies understand the value of what they are getting in return. 🙂 So you are not an ASS 🙂

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