Manage your design clients and reduce stress with these 10 great tips

Design clients can be a fickle bunch. They can be easy going, appreciative and awesome – or absolutely horrible – giving you sleepless nights that make you wonder if you should be changing professions altogether. That’s why you need to manage your design clients, and get the upper hand before things get crazy.

Us Designers, on the other hand, can also be a fickle bunch. Creatives tend to be introverted and are not always great at business and communication skills. And we sometimes need a little guidance on how to navigate client relations to make sure that design work is a fun and rewarding experience.

Client nightmares do happen though. We’ve all been there. It sucks. But you have to start by considering that you might be the reason why your client relations go south, especially if it seems to happen often.

Here are some great tips we’ve learned over 12 years of working with Design clients that will help you manage their expectations, control the project and avoid ANY unnecessary situations that can sour the relationship.

The golden rule to manage your design clients is COMMUNICATION, and lots of it.

Miscommunication, slow communication and misunderstandings are the number one reason for clients getting upset with their service providers. If you fix this problem early, you will eliminate 95% of your client related issues.

Communicate so much that you risk being annoying.

Why? Because no one likes being left in dark, getting nasty surprises and having your messages “seen”. Clients are no different, and highly sensitive to bad communication. I cannot count the amount of times new clients have told me that their previous designer ‘vanished all the time / never replied to my emails / didn’t answer my calls’.

And if you check out our Google Reviews, you will notice that most of our clients mention how professional we are – and that’s because of our communication process and the fact that we keep our promises.

Enough of the story, let’s get to the tips!

Our best tips to manage your design clients:

#Prequel: Avoid bad clients early by looking for red flags.

Although this article is about managing your existing design clients, the best way to avoid bad client relations is to sometimes avoid the client entirely. Red flag examples are:

  • Wants a LOT for a LITTLE
  • Wants everything yesterday
  • Offers to pay you later
  • Gets upset that you request a deposit to start
  • Communicates badly or inconsistently
  • Flips from nice to nasty very quickly
  • Gets personal when they don’t get their way
  • Client expects you to jump at their every request
  • Expects you to work after hours / weekends without any consideration for your personal time
  • They expect you to travel to them for meetings all the time
  • Treats you like you owe them something, before project has even started.
  • Client ‘negs‘ you. (Says something passively underhanded to make you feel you need to earn their acceptance / drop prices. Basic manipulation.)

Recent example:

I walked into a meeting with a brand new client who I suspected was going to be a hard ass. His first words to me were “You guys are flippin’ expensive!“. To which I replied, mostly out of pure reaction, “That’s because we’re flippin’ amazing at what we do!” – which completely disarmed him and had us seeing things eye-to-eye from that day on. Don’t apologize for what you are or what you offer. If they need someone else, they will go find them.

1. Communicate EVERY step of the way.

We’ve come to understand that the term ‘customer service’ really means “they communicated well and did a good job at the end of the day”.

If you fail to update your clients regularly it leaves them space to wonder and build up emotional tension. “Where is that design? He hasn’t told me anything in a week – I bet you he hasn’t even worked on it yet.” etc.

Now here’s the kicker:
– Even if you haven’t done work yet, KEEP THEM UPDATED.
– If you’ve only done a small bit of work, KEEP THEM UPDATED.
– If they’re expecting a reply by FRIDAY, email them on WEDNESDAY.
– Always make sure that they know exactly what you are doing, when you are doing it and what they can expect next. (We’ve completed A. Tomorrow we are doing B. You can expect C by Friday.)

You would not believe how much clients appreciate an email like this:

“Hi there, just letting you know that your project is on my schedule and I will send you concepts asap. I am working towards getting the first drafts out by the end of this week. Just keeping you updated!”


“Hi there, just letting you know that I have not forgotten about your design, I am having a crazy week, but I am making plans to get you concepts asap.”

Why? Because it eliminates the worry and imaginary tension. “Oh, he hasn’t worked on it yet, but I can expect an update this week. Now I at least know what to expect and when.” *Client relaxes*

What does this mean for you? It means email / message your clients at every step of the project, even with the little things. Even if it feels unnecessary.

And when it comes to ongoing (high-stress) projects, email your clients on a daily basis just to let them know what was done today, and what you plan to do tomorrow.

I guarantee that your clients will never complain that you communicate your updates too often, and they will LOVE you for it.

2. Talk about money as bluntly as possible.

For many people, money is an awkward topic. But let’s get something clear: clients do not feel the same.

They want to know exactly how much it’s going to cost, as upfront as possible, so they can make decisions and get going. If you are upfront about your pricing, clients will respect you for it.

“What you’ve requested is going to cost X. Please let me know if we have your go ahead.”

TIP: Always put the decision in their hands, and make them feel like they have options to consider, rather than being forced into anything.

3. Don’t do any work without a deposit.

And we mean ANY work. No matter how small the job is, no matter how much you need this work, you need to communicate to your clients that the deposit is the activation switch for the job. And your hands are tied until you get a proof of payment.

After all, would you walk out of a supermarket with a loaf of bread, and tell the cashiers that it’s all good because you are going to pay later?

This is all part of good client communication. The success/speed of the project rests in their hands, not yours.

There are very rare cases where we jump on a design without a deposit, but that is usually with a formal confirmation in writing, or it’s a long term client that we already know and trust.

4. Always be one step ahead of your clients.

This concept is simple but extremely effective. Always make sure that in the business world of send-and-receive, that YOU are always waiting on THEM – not the other way around.

ie. “Shit, the designer can’t do his work because we still need to send him X”

If you are always on top of the project, sending regular updates and bugging your clients for responses (rather than the opposite) – then you will come out as the more professional of the two parties. Your clients will take you far more seriously, respect your prices and give you good reviews because you did such a good job that they were the ones who looked unprofessional.

5. Manage expectations from day 1.

The trick to manage your design clients is to make sure that your clients know what to expect, and when, from day one to the end. Do not make promises you cannot keep.

Always stick to ‘under promise, over deliver’.

If you can’t deliver by a certain date, say so. If you think you can have a design done by Friday, promise it for the week after, and deliver early. This not only buys you extra breathing time, but allows you the opportunity to give your client and pleasant surprise and earn some brownie points..

Here at Seventh Season we try avoid meetings as much as possible because it takes up so much of our valuable working hours. So we tell our clients from day 1 that we can do Skype meetings after the initial meeting, or else we have to charge a call out fee.

If you manage client expectations properly, there is no space for emotional reactions because of nasty surprises or miscommunication issues.

6. Sniff out misunderstandings.

Misunderstandings happen often, especially over text and email. You need to make sure that all parties understand exactly what the project entails, how much it’s going to cost, when it’s going to be delivered and how the process is going to down.

Very importantly: Ask stupid questions

If you are unsure of some details, ASK. If you think that the client might think you are going to provide X, where you promised Y, ASK.

Clear things up as soon as humanly possible, always. No matter how awkward or silly you feel. I have never had a client think less of me for asking lots of questions when they know that I’m just making sure that we understand each other perfectly. They appreciate that I do it. Because just like you, they too might be nervous about working with you and spending their money on an unknown variable.

If you make an effort to manage your design clients, you can really enjoy a much less stressful working environment, and make your job fun!

7. Always fulfill your promises.

If you say you will get them X by Friday, then get them X by Friday. If something unexpected happens and you realize you won’t make the deadline, let them know EARLY so that you can soften the blow and allow space for damage control.

Most clients don’t mind an extension of deadline, but only so long as you let them know in advance. The key to manage your design clients is to build a trusting relationship.

8. Always call back.

If a client calls you, call them back. You have to realize that a missed call or ignored email is a ticking time bomb that will grow in strength the longer it’s left unattended. It’s disrespectful and unprofessional to ignore clients, and they will take this one to heart very quickly.

Our best tip here is to just do it. Just pick up the damn phone and call them back right now. You will feel better about it we promise!

9. Work with contracts.

Unless it’s random small design work, make sure your clients sign contracts / service level agreements to cover yourself. Not only will this cover you if things go south, but it will also make your clients take you more seriously and respect that you have boundaries that they also need to avoid overstepping.

10. Don’t be a chop.

We often brand our clients as the enemy, and ourselves as the hapless victim of their torment. But try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand their goals, pain-points and budget restraints and give them the best you can for what they can afford.

If they treat you badly, kick them to the curb. Just make sure that you aren’t the one being the chop 🙂

Feel free to contact us if you need advice.