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How to handle a negative client experience

DEC 14, 2020

I'll begin by saying that upwards of 95% of my client projects turn out to be wonderfully positive experiences; even if there happens to be any minor conflict throughout the process, it can usually always be solved with a quick discussion and often can push the designs to be something even better, however not everything will be positive and it's important to set boundaries and stick to them from the very beginning of your design process to best avoid a negative situation turning into something even worse. Here's my story:

A client who had booked with me earlier this year came back to me after reading through my contract and brought up that they didn't want me to share the designs I would work on for them, mostly due to their industry being quite competitive. It's a huge deal for me to be able to share the designs I work on for many reasons, but the main two are that:

01 I worked for a long time at a design studio where I was unable to keep any of the work for my own portfolio, as it was essentially created under the studio, so when I left I had no real work to begin with. Passion projects were a godsend, of course, but I always felt sad that some of the work that I was most proud of could never be shared as my own, and..

02 I wouldn't be where I am today without being able to share the projects that I have worked on for the wonderful clients I have worked with. I grew a career from nothing and by sharing client work and having the support of my clients (recommending me & cheering me on amongst other things, as I do them) I have managed to grow a business that I am extremely proud of. Being able to share the design process & final works of the projects I work on is important to me and a project dealbreaker, which is why it's outlined very clearly in my contract.

I informed the client at this early stage that I completely understood her stance on privacy, but that I was not happy to proceed and clearly stated my reasons. I also mentioned that to work under complete confidentiality can tend to incur a higher rate on a project and that my rates didn't reflect that. I said I would more than happily refund the deposit and recommend another branding specialist who may be able to accommodate the request. The client came back and said that after considering my reasons, they could understand and still wanted to proceed, so the contract was signed.

Out of respect, I didn't share any of the work in progress and after work was completed, the client was very happy with the outcome (as was I, another reason I love to share the designs I work on) and I asked then if I'd be able to share the final designs. The client informed me that they needed to trademark the name and asked if I could hold off until that had happened to which I agreed. In the meantime, they regularly got in touch with me asking for advice on how to use their branding and for help with the copy for their upcoming website redesign (something I don't generally offer as a service but I'm more than happy to help my clients if I have available time, as I do with the majority of clients whom I have a good working relationship with) so I happily obliged.

This weekend, the client's business launched; it was a rebrand so they already had a substantial amount of followers in place (over 100k compared to my 3k) and is renowned and known as a business. I was excited for the client to launch their new branding, so I could share my support for them with the designs.

I reached out to express my congratulations and ask if they would be happy for me to now post the designs, to which the client replied that they were no longer comfortable with me sharing them, again due to the industry being competitive (I can't put words into their mouth, but can only take this to mean that they wouldn't want a competitor finding and using me themselves, which saddens me because the large majority of my clients are happy to recommend my services when asked) regardless of our previous correspondence discussing and agreeing on the matter.

I reminded the client that we had discussed this previously and that I had continuously made them aware that I wouldn't have been happy to proceed, so it felt unreasonable that they had suddenly changed their mind, completely disregarding the contract and our spoken agreement. The client told me that it would hurt their business if I went ahead to share the designs but begrudgingly ended with but go ahead then, to which I replied I wouldn't be comfortable sharing them across social media without their respectful consent, regardless of the contract, but that I was extremely saddened and disappointed by the change in circumstances.

I am one of many small businesses and I rely on the support of my clients. My audience, compared to this particular clients', is very small, and not being able to share designs that I work on would heavily affect my engagement and in turn, my business. I laid out the terms from the beginning and it was unfair for the client to suddenly change their mind once work had been completed and I'd respectfully waited months to be able to share them.

Please, please have respect for your designer as a business. We are there to help you grow and reach your goals, but we'd also love for that support to be reciprocated, to become a partnership of two businesses helping one another, not competing or hindering one another. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence for me, with the large majority of my clients being extremely supportive and a joy to work with (as well as becoming good friends) but it does tend to be the negative experiences that we recall.

I will be sharing the project on my portfolio, as the signed contract states I am able to, but I won't be sharing the designs across my social media without further consent from the client (which I don't imagine I'll be able to obtain), however I will also no longer be working with this client moving forward and have recommended they find another designer to help with any further work. Boundaries are important, and saying no when your boundaries have been pushed is more than ok. Thanks to having a contract in place, and being respectful throughout, I feel as if there wasn't anything I could've done differently and if nothing else, it is an experience I am able to learn from.

I wanted to share my story so that those at the beginning of their freelance journeys know that negative experiences will always happen in any business, that it's ok to insist upon certain rules and boundaries that you feel strongly about, as long as they are made clear from the get-go and that contracts are incredibly important. It can feel tough to experience at the time, but you can turn the negative into a positive to grow as a business in the future.



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