Conceived in 2009, Clients From Hell became an immediate viral hit among creative professionals, with its unique collection of anonymous stories recounting hilarious (and/or mortifying) tales from the front lines of design. Five years later, it’s still going strong, receiving over 2,000 submissions per month.

The site has since spawned a book and a video series, as well as inspiring countless nods of solidarity from readers. While we’re quite sure nobody in the Shutterstock community is a “client from hell,” we thought everyone could benefit from the deep knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in client-creative relationships.

Graphic design concept vector by venimo
Graphic design concept vector by venimo

Like any relationship, successful freelancer-client relations are based on honesty, communication, and clear expectations. If you want your client to do more than feed you demands and expect results, you need to treat them as more than a payday that talks too much.

Be sincere about getting to know your client

You don’t need to know your client inside and out, but you should appreciate both their skill set and their deficiencies. Understanding your client’s expertise allows you to play to their strengths. Likewise, understanding their weaknesses (e.g. internet illiteracy, literal illiteracy, a penchant for confusing jargon, etc.) allows you to anticipate potential problems before they arise.

Let your client educate you on their needs

Nobody knows a client’s needs better than the clients themselves. Let them teach you about their intended audience, business plan, or overall goals. Ask questions. Make them clarify. Clients sometimes have ridiculous requests because they don’t see any other way to do something. Appreciating why a client wants something is as valuable as understanding what they want. When you comprehend why a client is taking a particular route, you’re in a position to explain why it is or isn’t the right direction.

Website vector concept by venimo
Website vector concept by venimo

Educate your client on how you’ll be meeting their needs

Though a client is paying you to do a task they can’t do themselves (either because they don’t have the time or the talent), it’s in your best interest to help them understand just what it is, exactly, that you’re doing. It justifies your wage, demystifies the process, and encourages equal footing for both of you. A client is a lot more willing to accept your answers when you don’t dismiss their questions. If you are explicit about your methods, the client should be clear about what resources you need and why the timeline is the way it is.

Manage each other’s expectations

The biggest potential pitfall with any relationship is expectations. Understanding each other’s expectations and whether those expectations align will save time and frustration.

Contracts manage expectations, but before a contract is even ready for signing, you and your client should outline how you each like to work. This means clarifying work hours, turnaround time, and deal-breakers. Underline requirements and obstacles that may arise. And make sure everyone knows how and when you’ll be paid.

Remember, communication is the key to any relationship

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, follow up, or ask for a status report. Encourage your client to do the same. Respect boundaries (clarify business hours and turnaround time) and avoid being clingy, but don’t let the silence sit for too long if you need feedback.

After you and your client complete a project, it’s never a bad idea to check in. Ask how the project is doing, how the client is doing, and what’s on the horizon for them. Who knows — there may be a place for you in their future.

Agreement vector by venimo
Agreement vector by venimo

In summary, get to know your client, what they want, and why they want it. Make it clear how you’ll be getting them what they want, and attempt to make them understand why a particular way is the best way to do it. Outline any necessary rules or boundaries, and keep in touch as work progresses.

And always use a contract. Always, always, always.

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