Trusting your "gut instincts" in avoiding
the possible P.I.T.A. client (Part Deux)

In Part One of "Trusting your 'gut instincts" I shared previous experiences where paying attention to feelings of uneasiness prevented me, as a design professional, from getting involved in potentially bad business situations with possible P.I.T.A. (Pain In The A**) clients. However, it seems that occasionally those "gut instincts" need a tune-up, or at least I need a reminder once in a while to give the signs a bit more credence.

At times a designer may go into a particular situation knowing exactly what they may be dealing with a particular individual or business. Reputation, word on the street, or past business relationship horror stories of others may precede the introduction to the possible client. Such was the case years ago when I was approached to do a variety of work for a potential new client. I thought I was totally prepared to deal with in the situation. I used extremely caution in literally "dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's' in setting up the business relationship documentation.

With a specialized product targeting a male audience, the situation provided an excellent opportunity to design a business identity, create product labeling, write and produce print advertising for a number of high-profile national publications, do some point-of-purchase piece design, and participate in all aspects of the product branding. Unique photos shoots were coordinated and unusual printing processes were implemented in creating some branding elements. I was actually surprised how smoothly the entire project progressed - with no issues arising at all during its course.

The client then asked me to provide an estimate for designing the identity, and creating a complete stationery package, for another business venture. The details were agreed upon and, since an established procedure of simply invoicing individual projects as they were completed was already in place, I didn't require a new project agreement. (That's where I made a mistake.)

The identity portion of the effort was completed and approved by the client. I invoiced the job and was paid. It was then that I was asked to proceed with the design of the stationery package. Rough concepts were presented for a business card, letterhead and envelope. The client then told me that portion of the project was being put on hold due to current financial concerns (Which should have been a "red flag" to me.).

The project was set aside for the time being, and I continued executing work for the original product line.

Upon retrieving mail from my PO Box a few weeks later, I came across an envelope, which I had presented in rough form, for my client's secondary business - in a completed, professionally printed format. I tore open the envelope to find a letter on the letterhead I had presented only as a rough. The communication was from the client's bookkeeper asking for my tax identification information. He must not have been aware of the history behind the stationery package project.

Initially I was stunned. That immediately changed to being incredibly pissed off. I went directly to my attorney's office. He'd helped me carefully prepare the original agreement with the client and I hoped he could provide some advice.

In contacting the print house traditionally used by the client, we found out he had simply taken my rough design concepts to the printer for production and printing, obviously hoping to avoid the expense of me doing the job. The client then refused to take or return my phone calls.

My attorney drafted a letter to the client demanding full payment for the project as estimated. He also requested an additional equal amount, using a great deal of legal-ese justification, or the matter of unauthorized use of my designs would end up in court. Essentially the client was being required to pay double for the project due to his actions.

In a few days I received a check for the full amount requested in my attorney's letter. The client sent along a handwritten note inquiring as to how I could possibly do such a thing to him based on our ongoing business relationship. Huh? I had seen the side of my client others had warned me about and, of course, that business relationship came to an end.

For quite some time I was very leery of any potential client situation that didn't feel "right." I listened closely and carefully to my 'gut instincts."

This past fall, after treatment and recovery from three years of dealing with chronic vertigo - and having completed the writing of my second book, Identity Crisis! 50 Redesigns That Transformed Stale Identities Into Successful Brands - I felt as if I was ready to take on the world. While on an extended vacation in Italy, I received an email from a potential client wanting to solve the "identity crisis" being experienced by their own business.

As explained by the possible client, the project piqued my interest. It involved creating a primary identity, along with a sub-brand and a possible alternative identity with a unique and fun name. In reading the initial email, visual solutions immediately came to mind - always a great sign for me prior to going into a project situation. In fact, 80-85% of the time the final logo for a client is based closely on my immediate mental reaction to the initial information provided by the possible client - sometimes even during the initial client meeting! Still, this particular new business possibility involved an individual in an industry in which, due to past negative experiences, I had told myself I'd never work again. (Hello…Jeff, what are you thinking?). However, this situation sounded like a different take on this industry and a great opportunity to do something new.

The generic email response I send to possible identity design clients includes the following information:

The process usually begins with getting as much information as possible about the client, by way of a Identity Client Survey I have created. With a signed project agreement and a deposit of 35% of the project estimate I will begin work on the logo project. I then present 4-5 rough design concepts and the final image evolves from there. This usually includes three sets of revisions in the process. With most long distance clients the entire process can be done through emailed PDF files or the overnight delivery of concept printouts. When the process is complete I supply the client with the logo in black & white and color on disks for both Mac and PC.

This information is usually more clearly defined, with additional information being obtained and shared by both client and designer, as the potential client evolves into an actual client.

I was sent the logo that had identified the business for the previous decade and a half. There was no question the entity was having an "identity crisis." In my book Identity Crisis!, and when speaking to design-related groups the Jeffism I share is:

Never tell your client that their logo sucks.

In this case, I think a much more tactful assessment would be that the existing logo was certainly not projecting the level of professionalism required to represent the efforts of the businessperson in question.

A meeting was set up and I arrived at the appointed time. The perspective client was quite a bit late (Never a good sign for me - it often tells me the client feels their time is more valuable than my own.). When the potential client arrived I tried to size up the individual and I really wasn't sure what I thought or felt. (Usually I get an immediate sense of whether I like the person or not and if we will "click" in the course of a project.) I gave the person one of my marketing packets, including a cover letter explaining how I work (which is the text of my initial generic email), a blank copy of my estimate sheet and a copy of my project agreement. In the meeting discussion it was discovered that the person knew some individuals with whom I had worked almost two decades ago - and they were a major P.I.T.A. (This information should have been a big "red flag" to me and didn't even register until much later.)

I gave the possible client a very rough idea of what I thought the cost would be - with the courtesy of a "group rate" discount for the multiple project elements and said I would get a project agreement sent their way. The response was "It's more than I wanted to pay, but if that what it takes I'm willing to pay it." (That statement caused a momentary "blip" on my radar - but I took it to mean the value of my work was actually going to be appreciated.)

When I left the meeting I found a $16 parking ticket on my car. (I never get tickets - I assume this was yet another unheeded warning about this project.)

About this time I began experiencing some email problems - like my email program crashing - and it had been repaired when I emailed my project agreement. I explained in the accompanying email I'd had some technical email issues, and that with a signed project agreement and deposit of 35% of the project estimate I would begin work on the project. I was actually wondering if there had been a change of heart in regards to the project, until the deposit check arrived ten days later. Just the deposit check - no signed project agreement; which I thought was really odd. I again asked the client to send the signed project agreement. (This was a MAJOR "red flag" - I don't think I'd ever had a client send a deposit without a signed project agreement.).

I don't start any project without a signed agreement - and always tell other designers they need to do the same. However, the client wanted the project to proceed, I wanted to get my initial concepts to paper, and, having the client's deposit check, I thought the client could be trusted to get me the documentation. Upcoming holidays were going to be interrupting the project schedule and we needed to get things in motion.

At this point the tiny voices in my head should have been yelling "Don't start the project without a signed agreement" or "Politely decline to take on the project without a signed agreement in place!" Every hair on my body should have been standing on end in warning. Flags should have been popping up and hitting me repeatedly. I should have been almost sick to my stomach with "gut instincts" tugging at my insides. Instead, I still thought this was to be a fun and interesting project. Besides, I had some incredible ideas to share with the client.

My "gut instinct" mechanism must have been really out of whack.

Read the ongoing saga of a designer needing an "instinct tune-up" in the upcoming Part Tres conclusion..

© 2008 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

1 comment:

Adrian McCluskey said...

Really enjoyed your PITA articles. Thanks and all the best to you.