For me the hardest part of running a business isn’t getting customers, it’s getting the right customers. I do all of my marketing on the web so everybody that sees my website is a potential customer. I rarely meet people face-to-face so I have to rely on certain tells a customer provides via email or over the phone. Herein lies the challenge of choosing the right customers. I’ve chosen my share of bad ones so I’ve developed a sense for which customers might not be worth pursuing. Here is a list of the type of customers I try and avoid.

The hit my hidden bulls-eye customer

You know exactly what you want, you just need a designer to do it for you. If that’s really the case then you don’t need a designer you need a production artist who will follow orders blindly. The problem is that customers who “know” exactly what they want actually just “think” they know what they want and once they get what they ask for they tend to blame the designer for doing exactly what you hired them to do. I’ve been a designer for a long time and in leaner times I’ve taken on a few of these projects but it’s hard to do somebody else’s design work when the person calling the shots doesn’t have a clue as to what they are doing.

Design is a strange business in that you often come across people that think that recognizing talent is the same thing as having it. I recognize delicious food when I taste it but that doesn’t make me an award winning chef, I’ve read some really good books but that doesn’t mean I’m the next Ernest Hemingway. If I picked up a scalpel instead of a pencil do you think you could walk me through your nose job? Wanting plastic surgery is a million miles away from being able to do it. Obviously being a designer isn’t the same as being a surgeon, but bad design, like bad plastic surgery, can do long irreparable harm to your image.

The spec customer

You’d like to see some sample designs to see if I’m a good fit. That’s called spec work and doing work on spec is is a fools errand and makes no business sense whatsoever. No designer should agree to do work on spec and if they give into it then they do nothing but devalue their services and hurt the design industry as a whole. It’s kind of like letting me dig in your yard to see if I strike gold for you. 

The pipe dream customer

You don’t have the budget to pay me my full fee on this project but you’ll have a ton of work for me if I give you a deal on this one… how about you make up the difference by giving me foot rubs and washing my car?

The delusional pipe dream customer

Your business is going to be huge and I’m going to get great exposure! In other words, you’d like me to do it for free or next to free and your inevitable success is as good as gold. Sounds great but I’ve got an even better idea. How about this, you pay me triple my normal fee and when I become as famous as Andy Warhol and charge thousands of dollars for a doodle on a napkin you can brag to your friends about how your generosity was instrumental in my success, heck I’ll even throw in a free napkin doodle.

The great deal customer

I once had a guy send me an email stating “I’ want the best design at the cheapest price”, I emailed him back with the response “I want customers with low expectations and deep pockets”. That was the end of our negotiations. I like good deals just like everybody else but good deals aren’t the same as cheap deals. There are a ton of dirt cheap so-called designers out there but more often than not people that go that route usually end up with an irrelevant and ineffectual design. I’ve gotten some great deals on eBay but I’ve also been burned on eBay as well. The difference though is it’s all been stuff that doesn’t affect me in the long run, but bad branding keeps on causing you grief long after you pay for it. A forgettable logo design won’t help you brand your business today or five years from now.

The snake-oil customer

You sell something I personally wouldn’t buy or wouldn’t want someone else to buy. The work I do helps people sell their products, their services, and their ideas and by designing their logo, their label, or their website I’m endorsing it by association. You’ve probably heard the acronym WWJD or What Would Jesus Do?, a great question that I do occasionally ask myself but the acronym I live by is WWMMS or What Would My Mom Say?

Here’s an example of a project I couldn’t get behind, I had an author that wanted me to create a website to help him sell his new self help book. The problem with this book was that it was written to guide recovering alcoholics into become responsible social drinkers. It could be the very worst idea for a book that I’ve ever heard of. That’s like saying you can teach people how to be safe drunk drivers. So if the product you need help selling is Adult Videos I’ll have to pass; Adult Diapers, on the other hand, that’s something I could get behind.

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