Nightmare clients: the one where the client doesn’t pay

Clients From Hell author Bryce Bladon gives three pro tips for coping with clients who mess with your money.

Terrible clients come in all shapes and sizes. As part of a mini-series delving into some classic nightmare client scenarios, we've already looked at the poor communicator, the ungrateful client and the design savant.

Unfortunately there's no better way to identify a nightmare client than hands-on experience of one. But there are ways to protect yourself from being trapped in a sticky situation.

The best advice suggests carrying out preventative measures. This means clear contracts, precise briefs, and outlining appropriate action for a lot of 'what if... ?' situations.

If you feel like learning all the lessons with none of the aneurysms, check out the Clients From Hell blog for insights into the daily hardships of creative professionals, or just come by to take solace in your colleagues' pain. either way, know that you're not alone.

In the meantime, here we examine one of the worst nightmare clients out there: the one who refuses to pay…

Nightmare client: can't pay, won't pay

My client is haggling on the agreed-upon price, or is refusing to pay me for my work.

Fortunately, the worst nightmare client situation that you can encounter as a designer is also the easiest to avoid. But saying that to someone who finds themselves here isn't very good advice.

There are numerous ways a client can mess with your money: they might try to convince you that your price is egregious; they might withhold payment until you do more – essentially free – work; they might drag their feet when it's time to cough up.

"I was hired by a religious group to do an illustration for their printed brochure. They loved it, and I sent them an invoice. Two months later, I hadn't been paid. I called them, and their manager said they had prayed to God about my invoice, and He told them to use the money for their cause instead. I waited a few minutes and called him back. I told him that I had prayed to God about it, and He said they should pay me. They sent me a cheque."

The solution is almost always the same, but you need to take action before this situation occurs...

Yukai Du for Computer Arts issue 233

01. Insist on a deposit

This can range from all the way from a percentage of the cost to the full amount. You do so after signing the contract, but prior to starting work.

02. Agree a payment schedule

For larger projects, have a strict payment schedule. After a deposit, the client should pay a certain amount with each milestone you reach over the course of the project. Don't do any more work until this money is in your pocket.

03. Remember: you're a business

If you're making money from your art, then there's no shame in treating it like a business. Do not lend it out on the promise that the client will pay. By doing so, you've taken almost all of your negotiating power away, and they have next to no incentive to pay you.

04. Be prepared to get serious

A final solution is to take the client to a small claims court. However, this is often a complicated drain on your time and money, and it's rarely worth the trouble.

05. Learn from your mistakes

The best way to avoid tearing your hair out and having a heart attack is to learn from your mistakes, protect yourself and work hard. Eventually you'll get to pick and choose your clients. And when you're working for clients you care about, it stops feeling like work.

Words: Bryce Bladon Illustration: Yukai Du

The full version of this article first appeared in Computer Arts issue 233, a special issue (with a photochromatic cover) revealing the UK's top 30 studios, plus how to craft the perfect folio and make more money as a student...