Designer beware. Just ask yourself, is this client legit?

Designer beware. Just ask yourself, is this client legit?

I’ve been working in this business a long time and have seen my share of successful entrepreneurs and thriving companies. Every once in awhile, I come across a potential client with a business that just doesn’t add up. They could be wildly successful with lots of business coming in the door and plenty of people staffing the place, but for some reason you get a vibe – a weird vibe.

Now, generally I am a very positive person and love working with all kinds of people. It’s not in my nature to think badly of someone I’ve just met. I also believe in good karma and I want to maintain that overall good vibe and treatment wherever I go. But in business, sometimes you’ve got to use your intuition.

A few years ago, I got a call from a long time creative director colleague from my agency days. She had moved on to a client-side job with a nutritional supplement company. Not just a supplement company, but one that has lots of products to sell with slick, produced infomercials and individual endorsers. They were selling a lot of product, in spite of their rather rudimentary branding design. She had brought me in for some consultant work with their creative direction and ultimately wanted me to create a new logo for the parent company.

They had the quintessential large staff that was busily putting together the assorted collateral and website materials, all going on in the office background. She had explained to me how she was brought in to re-shape their creative department and bring some of her experience to the rather schlocky-looking packaging and design. We’d had a long, trusted business relationship and she had always been great about referring me to new clients, but almost from the get-go, I was getting a strange feeling about the whole thing.

After a handful of times meeting with her, I starting looking around a bit more at the corporate offices. Interestingly enough, there was no sign on the outside of the building, nor was there a sign in their lobby indicating who they were. This was a pretty established corporation, not some shoestring start-up venture. Most companies can’t get their logo big enough to emblazon on the top of their shiny beacon of success. Not them. Hmm.

They also weren’t real big on handing out business cards to anyone. I had to write their info down in my notes. They kept saying that they were working on getting new ones designed. Which is entirely believable, but a little odd.

Then, the president of the company was never around when I would show for meetings, although he was very involved with the projects I was working on. Mostly he would be changing things, after approving them – again.

I got to talking with another colleague of mine and she encouraged me to do a Google search on the company. Although we all know that not everything on the internet is true, you can’t deny several lawsuits that all have the same type of claim. Seeing several articles about some questionable backgrounds of key corporate players. Uh oh.

Then, there were the product benefits. I was trying to do some illustrations for some collateral work. When I asked what a particular ingredient was (because I had to make a logo character out of it), they couldn’t really explain it to me very well – or much at all. Plus, there was the informational tap-dance we had to do to make sure we didn’t imply certain benefits or attributes about the product. Not unusual in many market segments, but shouldn’t we be able to be rather transparent about nutrition? Am I dealing with an incompetent product manager, or are they hiding something?

Eventually after things started adding up, I was feeling kinda icky about doing any more work for the company and decided that it was time to sever my ties. I certainly did not want to end up getting a subpoena one day for being a part of something that may be illegal. I would never feel right about helping market something that was genuinely duping people into believing in a possible snake oil salesmanship scam. I prefer to sleep well and not have to look over my shoulders all the time.

So, I did – and I’m glad. Fortunately, my colleague and friend got the same hunch and decided to look for employment elsewhere. I was glad to hear that, and we kind of chuckle about those days now. Strangely enough, about six months after her departure, the company is being investigated by the Federal Government, on you guessed it – fraud. Guess my gut really did have a good sense about these things. I listen to it a lot more often.

Take some of your own precautionary steps, just to make sure.

Ask around. What do your colleagues know about them? All it takes a quick call or an e-mail to find out if they’re good to work with. Do they pay on time? Are they nice people?

Did they mention a referral? It’s always a good idea to ask how someone found out about you. Being referred is a nice thing, but make sure you check back with your referral to find out how their conversation went and any background on the referred client.

Know who you’re working with. Do a Google search and see what comes up. Is there a website? Are there any derogatory articles on the person/company, like a lawsuit? Were there any judgements?

Can you visit their office? What is it like? Sometimes people like to meet with you in person at a coffee house or restaurant. That’s fine, and there’s nothing at all wrong with it, but if other pieces of the puzzle start to show, that might also be an indication of something fishy.

What are they like in person? Just like a job interview, they are checking you out as much as you are them. What’s your first impression? Do they come off as organized, friendly, business-like, etc.? You’re a designer and you notice things that others don’t. Use your intuition and get a read on them.

Is it worth it to do a background check? It really depends on you. If the project is a pretty significant sum, perhaps it’s worth it. There are ways to find out different background information on a business. You can check the Better Business Bureau website to see if anything comes up. Or, you can have them provide you with references before starting any work.

Get it in writing. Always have your clients sign a well-appointed and very specific project estimate, before starting any work. If they have a problem with it, explain your policy and stick to your guns. If they are still hesitant, then maybe you should beware.  A well written contract has been a great deterrent of less than desirable clientele. It’s also been a great, positive way to start a new business relationship.

Know when to walk away. This has got to be the most important step. Even though you may really need the business, do you need the potential hassles and trouble later? You can’t always let ‘what could have been’ rule your decisions, when your gut says walk away. It just might save you on this one.

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Have you had any experiences like this one you’d like to share? I’d love to hear your comments.