Illustration is like any other service-based profession that requires working directly with clients, and so illustrators are presented with several forms of challenging client relation situations. Some illustrators might go as far as to say that the one drawback the profession has is dealing with clients. Client relationships involve an additional skill that is in a largely not a part of an illustrators educational background – they demand business skills.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
Dealing with a problematic client can actually take more time than producing an illustration for them. This kind of time is referred to as “time off the board” or non-billable time. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how much non-billable time a new client will require. Success as a professional illustrator requires excessive client time to be kept to a minimum.
Generally speaking, one of the best ways of dealing with a client who poses problems is to identify which kind, or kinds of problem client they are. Another is to try to head them off at the pass by communicating with them clearly and frequently while a job is in progress. Email exchanges are a great way to minimize misunderstandings and document when the exchange of information occurs.
The Time Waster
As the name states, this type of client wastes time, your time, and valuable time, time that you need to produce a professional quality illustration while still meeting the project deadline. To effectively deal with a time wasting client it is important to know which type of time waster they are. And there are two types: Type 1) Naïve time wasters who are absolutely clueless as to what the process is for producing an illustration and how long it takes to do. The time and skills needed by an illustrator to produce an illustration are a mystery to a time waster; and Type 2) Malicious time wasters who know what all is involved, but just don’t give a damn. They have little respect for you as an illustrator; you are merely a supplier to them.
For a Type 1 time waster creating a tightly set schedule with dates and times when decisions must be made is essential, especially at the start of a project, constant education will also be very beneficial. Demystifying the process of how you work can often elicit respect and support for your creative needs. It can alleviate unnecessary red tape.
A Type 2 time waster is much more difficult to manage, because they have little sympathy for your personal time or your creative process. However, there is a way to deal with this type of client. For a Type 2 time waster, it’s all about money, their money. So alerting them that the additional time they are adding to the project will result in an additional cost will not only get their attention, but will quickly get them to develop a respect for your time, especially if they are held responsible for keeping a project on budget by a superior.
The Needy Patron
Most of us are familiar with needy children, needy family members, needy friends, etc. Well there are also needy clients. These clients exhibit their needy behavior for several different reasons, and here are a few. First and foremost, inexperience, they need and desire you to guide them through, not only your process, but also the process of commissioning an illustration job in general. Or second, they are a process thinker and communicator which means that project information and input comes in small amounts, frequently, and over time. It is not unusual to receive tidbits of information from a process communicator three or four times in one day. Or third, the client must report to a superior or their own client with updates on the progress of the assignment. Advertising agency account executives usually exhibit this need form of behavior.
Educate the client about your process and provide them with a schedule of checkpoint dates and times that are convenient for you. This will also be productive for the client. This will limit distractions for you and at the same time establish expectations for the client, as well as give your client a timeframe they can pass on to their superiors.
The Micro Manager
Seemingly similar to a needy patron due to the number of times they will contact you, a micro manager is nonetheless quite different. Micro managing clients come in a couple of different flavors. The first is the micro manager that knows all there is to know about illustration. They are quite sure they know more than you do about what it is you do, and they have a strong opinion on how it should be done. This type of client ranks among the worst when it comes to adding difficulty to a commission because they not only want you to do a specific thing, but they want you to do it in a specific way, a way that might be totally impractical for you. The second type is the born micro manager. This is typically a client that is as attuned to micro managing as they are to breathing. Even so, this type of micro manager is easier to deal with than the first example. Successful entrepreneurs, company officers, and owners are the most common. After all they became successful by having things done their way. The thing to remember is, even though they micro manage they are also accustomed to taking advice from consultants, so they should take your advice, especially if they admire your work. Illustration commissions and art preparation are usually well out the client's area of expertise.
A know-it-all micro manager will require a strong personality to offset his or her supervising style of direction. It may take reminding them that you do indeed know what you are doing, and that the quality of the final illustration will be higher if you are allowed to exercise your own expertise. Remember, the client most likely chose you for the assignment based on your past successes, so letting them know your method of working will be best for you and also be best for them. For those micro managers that still persist you can resort to add-on fees for micro managed, time-based additions that the client will accrue in the course of the job.
Now the best way to deal with a born micro manager is to show off your expertise. Let them in on some of the inner workings of how you will produce their illustration. They are usually thrilled to the point that they transition from telling you what to do, to asking you what should be done.
The Indecisive Procrastinator
Another challenging type of client is an indecisive procrastinating one. Extremely reluctant to make a commitment, this type of client can increase your workload and cause more time delays than any of the previously discussed problem clients if allowed to persist in not making a commitment. Their indecisiveness involves a number of aspects that affect an illustration job, but it most often takes place during the sketch phase and the final sign-off phase of a commission. Any procrastination is the result of their inability to make decisions.
Fortunately, there are several effective ways to deal with an indecisive procrastinating client. The first way should be built into the terms you agreed to at the start of the commission – a specified number of concept sketches and a revision limit. This provides a limited space for the indecisive procrastinator to preside over. The second way is to provide a schedule of events including dates/times that are your responsibility, such as a sketch due date; and a schedule of dates/times that are the client’s responsibility, such as a sketch approval time. It should be made clear to the client that any delays they are responsible for during the project will delay the delivery of the final illustration. Another very effective way of managing an indecisive client is to assume a role of authority regarding the nature of the illustration commission. Indecisive clients often desire assistance, respect expertise, and are open to suggestions and persuasion. They also need information for when they must report to their superiors.
The Opinion Committee
Some illustration commissions involve so many layers of administrators and individuals that it is difficult to know who is running the show, in other words, who has the final say on an illustration commission. Input and direction come from several people, which in and of its self is difficult enough to deal with. It can be even more maddening when those several people don’t seem to be aware of the conflicting direction you are being given and you have to act as a clearinghouse for their information. This kind of client situation happens by way of two circumstances. The first, which is the simple one, involves a committee of people within one company that have been put in charge of overseeing the project. The second is that there are several companies involved with the project with each company having one or more persons responsible for their aspect of the commission. This second situation is a bit more difficult to deal with than the first, but then again it can be managed.
For situation one, find out who has the highest rank among the committee that is overseeing your illustration project. It may be a VP of marketing, a manager of customer communications, etc. It is likely this person will have the most authority among the other members of the company’s committee. If you are able to make a direct connection with that person, you can get them to be the primary contact and circumvent a committee process for input, criticism, and direction.
For situation two, you will have to get the various people from different sources to recognize who has actually commissioned you to produce the illustration. Once you make it clear that you can only answer to the person who commissioned you, all the other players will have to use that person or agency as the clearinghouse for input, information, and decisions to be communicated -- and not you.
The Invisible Partner
A rather rare client situation is that of the invisible partner, or the unseen client. Represented by a partner or agent who provides all the project input and swears that a client does indeed exist, this client set up can cause the commissioned illustrator to second guess his or her own decisions. The invisible decision maker is either a superior of the person who is handling the illustration assignment or is the person who outsourced the project to the agent or agency that commissioned the illustration.
In this situation, even though there is an unseen “higher authority” who has dominion over the project, and the agency in charge of the project must answer to that higher authority, you are only obligated to the agent/agency that commissioned you. Therefore it will be the responsibility of your project contact to act as the clearinghouse, not you. Alternatively, you can ask if you can communicate directly with the unseen client. You must maintain control of your part of the project by establishing terms with the agent. Make the agent aware that unnecessary delays and changes to the illustration will result in additional fees for the job and a deadline extension.
The Slow Payer
Getting paid for an illustration commission within 30 days used to be the norm and still is with some clients, but more and more studios and agencies are taking 60 and even 90 days to pay an illustrator, and some clients take even longer. Even an additional phone call or two may not result in a timely payment. There is also another tactic that unfortunately has become common these days, which is for clients to ignore the original bill and only pay up when it has been followed by two additional reminders. This is a deliberate tactic to prolong the payment period.
Always present an estimate that contains all anticipated charges. The estimate should also state the method of payment. The payment period should be made plain, and the client should sign off on it before you accept the illustration commission. Also find out who the client’s contact person is for accounts payable. You should feel free to contact that person if you have any questions or if there is a delay in payment. Furthermore, to initiate the payment process promptly, an invoice for services should be delivered at the same time the final illustration is. Therefore the time period for payment begins immediately. Another helpful tip is to state “DUE UPON RECEIPT” on your invoice. This will sometimes achieve a faster response, especially from the people in a company that are in charge of accounts payable.
In the event that you have applied all of the above strategies, and have still not received payment, you still have a couple of non-legal options. The first is to remind the client and/or the accounts payable person that they cannot use your illustration for any purpose until you have been paid for it. In essence they have not obtained the rights to use it without paying for publication or ownership. Now most illustrators allow a client to publish a commissioned image in anticipation of a timely payment, but the official right to use your illustration is granted when payment is received. The second is to call the President of the company, or the parent company that commissioned your work and tell them you have not been paid. In most cases he or she will give you the name of a person to contact, or they may recommend you contact accounts payable. Either way, when you contact the person or department the President suggested you should say, “I spoke with President so and so and he/she directed me to call you”. You will be taken seriously now. And if not, you can call the President back and tell him you did as he recommended, but have still not gotten any action from the person you spoke with. You will get action.
The No Payer
The two most common types of non-paying clients are: 1) clients that never intended to pay in the first place; and 2) those that fell upon hard financial times during the course of your engagement.
Although the advice stated for a slow payer applies here, more drastic measures may be needed, i.e., legal ones if it appears the client will not pay. Unfortunately, legal solutions require time and money. There are those legal recourses that are low impact and those that are not.
For the client who fell on hard times, but had every intention of paying, it may be possible for you to work out a payment schedule they can handle. This may be preferable to having to force payment, or not getting paid at all. For other the type of client, who will most likely refuse to pay, there are other solutions.
The first low impact solution is a simple letter of intention to sue from a lawyer. A letter on a lawyer’s letterhead can sometimes convince a non-paying client that it is probably in his or her best interest to resolve the matter by way of payment. Lawyers can usually draft one of these letters for you in about one hour, for which their fee is approximately $200 based on an hourly rate.
Small Claims Court is another low impact possibility. For filing a small claim, hiring a lawyer is optional, you can represent yourself in a suit against your client, but Small Claims Court is for smaller amounts of money, which may still be more than adequate for your purposes. The average small claims limit among states in the US is $5,000, some states can go as high as $12,000. Township jurisdictions are usually less than the state limits. And Small Claims Court isn't free. There are some municipal fees involved with filing. Each state has it’s own instructions for filing a claim. Contact the appropriate state township for information. A couple of excellent web resources are listed below.
Lastly the high impact solution, which is to hire a lawyer to handle your civil suit for you. This can cost a considerable amount of money, as in thousands of dollars. Also do not expect your court costs and lawyers fees to be paid by the defendant, the client, even if you win the lawsuit. Thinking you will be able to sue to reclaim these fees is a common misconception. You will have to pay your own fees. So unless there is a great amount of money at stake, it is most likely not advisable to engage in a major suit against a non-paying client.