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When I toiled in a cubicle for a larger corporation, my submissive behavior appeared to be expected, applauded and rewarded. When I opened my own business, the same submissive behavior had me working like a dog for wages even a dog couldn’t live on.

I read lots of freelance blog posts about handling difficult clients. They all seem to gloss over the most difficult client of all.


The way you feel about yourself and your talent sets the tone for all your client interactions. Think of your clients as mirrors. If you complain they don’t treat you well it’s probably because you’ve taught them not to treat you well. If you complain they don’t pay you on time, it’s probably because you’ve taught them not to pay you on time. If you complain they expect you to do work you didn’t agree to, it’s probably because you’ve taught them give you work you didn’t agree to.

Most of us learn this wimpy behavior early in life and it gets reinforced as we march into adulthood. I was taught to defer to parents, teachers, lovers, bosses and government leaders. Rumor had it that if I stood up for myself something awful would happen – I’d get punished, dumped, fired or thrown in jail. Is it any surprise that I deferred to clients too?

When I toiled in a cubicle for a larger corporation, my submissive behavior appeared to be expected, applauded and rewarded. When I opened my own business, the same submissive behavior had me working like a dog for wages even a dog couldn’t live on.

It took quite a bit of mental strength training, but I finally told my toughest client – the wimpy me – to take a hike. This allowed my greatest client — the powerful me — to advocate on my behalf. Now I set and maintain clear boundaries and decide how I wish to be treated. The result? My clients get a more confident designer, a far better design product, and a partnership grounded in honesty rather than fear.

Some aspects of the working relationship bring out the wimpy you more than others.

Sales conversation

The sales conversation is just that — a compassionate time for you and your potential client to get to know each other. You try to help the client figure out what his or her real problem is and whether you’re the best one to help them solve it. Sometimes you are, sometimes you’re not. Be brave enough to ask all the questions you need in order to make an informed decision.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a client if you get funny vibes, request for a ludicrous deadline or a balk at your fee. Better to find out now than halfway through the project that the client has a history of being indecisive or controlling. Remember, desperation is only real if you give it life.


Don’t sweat the fee. It isn’t up to you to decide how much the client can pay. Nothing worse than undercharging a client who told you a sob story and later discovering they live in a 2 million dollar mansion while you’ve got a leaking shower and no kitchen cabinets.

The bulk of your fee needs to be determined by how you feel about your work and the benefit it provides. If a client wants to haggle price with you, simply tell them you don’t haggle. They can either pay your price or look for someone who doesn’t believe in his or her own work. I actually found it easier to sell more expensive design solutions than bottom-of-the-barrel ones.


Make sure every client — even if it’s a family member or friend — signs a contract or a memo of understanding. This document outlines what the client will and will not get. If the client asks you to do something beyond the scope of what you’ve agreed to, that’s considered a change order. Tell them it will be extra. They do it in engineering firms. You need to do it in your design business. And beware of phony deadlines and phony decision-makers. Tight deadlines, if you choose to take one on, need to cost extra. Nothing more disheartening than working day and night, weekday and weekend, to find your design stalled for three months because the real person making the decision suddenly stepped out from behind the corporate curtain.


Some clients start the design process with a lot of energy. Everything’s going great and then BOOM, they hit the indecision wall and disappear for weeks/months at a time. You call them and don’t get a return call. You email them and don’t get a return email. If this goes on for more than one month, bill them for anything they owe you and be prepared to move on. Make sure you have a progress payments/cancelled projects section written into your contract in the event this happens.

Standing up to your wimpy-client self may be hard at first. The whining, blaming and excuses circulating through your brain may get to you. Remember, that’s just fear yakking in your ear! Stay the scary course. Soon you’ll build enough courage to give your business-defeating behavior the boot.

Giulietta “Julie” Nardone, of Fearless Design, offers branding and graphic design services to small/medium-size companies and non-profits. Julie is based in Ashland, Massachusetts, and you can read more encouraging articles through the Fearless Design resources page.

Image via Thinkstock


Indeed great post. Not only for beginning freelancers, I’m sure about that.

It is funny how disrespect for yourself translates to clients not respecting you or your time/energy.

Good points about the sales conversation and pricing as well. I have had several clients who at first went with someone else because of a cheaper price, but returned after a few months or a year because they discovered it’s also about the value you get in return for what you pay.

Excellent post Giulietta! I think every designer has found or will find themselves in this position at one point or another. I myself struggled with it for a couple years until I stopped complaining about the client and took a closer look at myself and my practices and discovered how I might be encouraging their behavior. Once I had that pinpointed I was able to establish some rules/steps/guidelines for myself to ensure it would no longer happen.

Of course you will always have your odd ball client no matter what, but if you’ve got your ducks in a row, it’s much easier to drop them at any point…I had one whom I did a lot of work for, unfortunately at some point they must have thought they owned me because I would get calls and texts at all hours of the night and early morning (2am even)…I’ve got 2 kids and a fiance for gods sake! Suffice to say I let them know the behavior had to stop or I would be letting them go as a client. Turns out they were very apologetic and unaware (if that’s possible) of the mistreatment…they are one of my best clients now. Bottom line: you the designer control the relationship. Sure you may loose more potential clients with set rules and contracts in place than otherwise, but they’re not the clients you want to be wasting your talent on anyway. Good clients are out there, be true to yourself and they will find you.

Hi all,

Appreciate your comments! Happy to help other business owners.

Ian, yes — it all starts at home.

Matthijs, glad your clients realized the different experience you provided and came back. Good design requires a lot of thought and exploration.

Mariano, I’d apply the same rules to all clients. It gets emotionally tricky when we start flexing our boundaries for certain clients.

Chris, “Be true to yourself and they will find you.” Absolutely! You’ll be a lighthouse for folks sailing into your design harbor.

Thanks! Giulietta

A great post and truer words are rarely spoken. Like you, it took me quite awhile to wise up and start charging what I was actually worth. Setting design, work hours, contracting and payment parameters clearly and confidently makes for a far more enjoyable and professional work relationship for both parties. Well done.

This was a great read for a beginner like myself. Even if you don’t feel confident in yourself, coming across as knowing what you want usually works. The post has set out each section clearly and has helped me to see all aspects of the process with the client and where boundaries need to be set. Thanks for sharing


Clients and potential clients often don’t understand how long good design takes, like kerning or getting files ready for the printer.

Kelly, Cheri, Natasha,

Best wishes for your new businesses!


Good read, a client will only go as far as you let them. Set boundaries and guidelines beforehand, this will ensure a successful project.

Some great tips of building up self-confidence, both as a designer and as a person just living life. Very inspirational post. More like this please!

This is an excellent article. It outlines most situations that designers face during their day to day functioning. Triggered a bit of nostalgia. Cheers!


We all need to take a good hard look at our boundaries!

O’Leary & Laura,

Yes, what shows up in our businesses, shows up in our lives and vice versa.


Glad it’s nostalgia at this point!

Thanks for your comments, G.

Nice post, i found the most awkward are the ones who want a logo but don’t know what they want. Can’t can’t the amount of times I’ve had questionnaires returned with blank sections, or Not sure/No to basic quesions like colour, style, usage etc.

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