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When you’re out hunting down work because the well is drying up, it’s tempting to take on whatever comes through the door, rings the phone or chimes the inbox. There are loads of reasons to take on a job you probably should have passed up. Here are just a few:

• The fridge is empty
• The landlord’s knocking on your door
• Creditors are calling to say, “hi”
• You go to your car only to see Guido in a simply stunning black-on-black ensemble accessorized with a white tie and holding a tire iron

The list goes on and on. You find yourself in a slightly financially embarrassing situation and you need to turn some cash. The gig staring you in the face might just be your ticket out.

Don’t do it.

Taking on a bad project can make matters worse. Potentially, a lot worse. Take it from me … the old guy. I’ve taken on plenty of gigs I knew I shouldn’t have over the years and they rarely turn out well.

So, what is a bad project and what should you look for during client hunting season? Here are a few big red flags waving in the winds of angst and anxiety:

The Prospect Doesn’t Have A Clear Idea of What They Want

This one is easily spotted. When you hear, “I’m not sure, but I’ll know it when I see it.” Tell them to have a nice life, then turn and run.

Sure they’ll know it when they see it … after 47 rounds of revisions, spousal input who has a curious obsession with the color blue, along with various project delays and all usually done for a buck and a quarter.

When a prospect doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want and why, it often means you’re off on a first class trip to Hades or at least Purgatory. This is the type of person who goes to a Chinese restaurant and stares at the menu for forty-five minutes trying to choose between Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

The Prospect Doesn’t Have a Budget

You’ve heard this one, I’m sure. The designer asks, “What’s your budget for this project? The prospect replies, “I don’t really have one.” Sure they don’t. That would be too easy.

Handle this one by tossing out a number. “Well, from what you’re describing, I’ve had previous projects like this that ran in the area of $6000 to $8000. How does that sound?” The prospect, who is getting up off the floor, replies, “Wow! I was thinking more like half that.”

All of a sudden, they have a budget.

When a prospect says they don’t have a budget it can mean a couple of things. Neither are good. First, they haven’t thought the project through, and two, they don’t want to spill their guts because they think they’ll be taken for a ride. This, unfortunately, may be the designer’s fault, in part. The designer hasn’t taken the right steps to build trust. Either way, take on this gig and you’re bound to have a few headaches shortly down the road.

They Have a Budget, But They Won’t Tell You

This is similar to the previous headache-inducing hassle, in that it boils down to a trust issue. It’s important – very important – that a graphic designer do what they can to build trust. Working with a new designer can be a lot like bringing your car into a mechanic whom you’ve never used before and you’re not all that familiar with the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. “Will this guy try to pull the wool over my eyes?,” “Will he price-gouge me?” and similar thoughts go through your head. It’s normal.

Trust is so important to the client/designer relationship, especially in the beginning when there hasn’t been any Show and Tell. Sure, they may have seen your portfolio, but they haven’t seen any deliverables for their project.

To build trust, you’ll need to do some things and here are just a few:

• Do what you say you’re going to do. (no-brainer)
• Be punctual with meetings, phone calls and emails.
• Make yourself available during business hours.
• Answer their questions as best you can. If you don’t know the answer, say so, but also tell them you’ll find out.
• Strive for clear communications that are trade jargon-free. When a client or prospect says something that’s a bit fuzzy, reply with, “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying …” Then repeat your understanding of what they just said.

Is There A Realistic Project Budget?

If the timeline to complete the project means you’ll need to reschedule other work or labor into the wee hours to complete it, you may want to consider passing. Taking on a rush project or one without a reasonable window can mean putting your other clients’ work on the back burner. That can result in upsetting them, missing a deadline and often both. Rush work can also open the door for errors. Beyond this, the pressure to complete a rush project can make a designer angry with their client, even though it’s the designer’s fault for agreeing to the time frame.

Is the Prospect Asking You To Do Something You’ve Never Done Before?

This is a tricky one. You have the opportunity to learn something new and that can mean additional future income. But, can you afford to take the time to learn it and then pull it off with confidence? Can you afford the learning price tag? Is the prospect willing to pay for your learning curve?

Has the Prospect Worked With A Graphic Designer Before?

If the prospect has never worked with a graphic designer, that means you’ll need to educate them. Can you afford to invest the extra time needed to bring them up to speed? Novice clients are notorious for not having a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish with a project and that usually means a lot of revisions. Will you be able to bill for those revisions?

Is the Prospect the Final Decision-Maker?

Here’s a lousy situation. You work hard to build a relationship with a client contact. They’ve implied several times that it’s their project and they’re the decision maker. You’ve become an important resource and demonstrated your value. Everything appears to be moving in the right direction. When the time is right, you submit a proposal, but while meeting with the contact, they tell you they’ll need to run your proposal by their boss, committee or others. Your heart sinks. You’ve invested time and resources wooing the wrong person. In all likelihood, you’ll need to start from the beginning with a new person or persons.

It’s human nature to want to appear to have more authority than one really has. Your contact probably wasn’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They just wanted to feel important. All this could have been avoided with a spin on a simple qualifying question. Early on, ask your contact, “Who, beside yourself, will be responsible for giving approvals?” Asking in this manner provides a graceful way for your contact to save face while you get the correct information you need.

Does There Appear To Be A Good Personality Fit?

You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person and it helps if you can get along easily. Plus, people buy from people and usually people they like. This doesn’t mean the contact needs to become one of your personal friends. That can happen, but the main thing is that your personalities gel enough to get through the project.

What Does Your Gut Tell You?

Gut feelings are often correct. If I had to gander a guess, I’d say it’s due to our collective, yet somewhat unconscious, experience in dealing with people. Look for all the reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. This may sound counterproductive, but will keep you safe.

When you come across a prospect or employer who gives you the heebie-jeebies, turn and run. Do not walk. Similarly, if you go for a job interview and the employer takes you on the obligatory office tour, take a good look at the employees and their surroundings. If you see employees who tend to keep their heads down, don’t smile and are working in a pigsty, it’s a safe bet it’s a lousy place to work. If the person interviewing you, often the owner in a smaller shop, has the demeanor of Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street or Hitler’s illegitimate son, it’s probably a good idea to pass on that one and head for greener pastures.

Saying “no” is a tough and often delicate thing. You don’t want to alienate [most] folks completely. Burning bridges, especially during the beginning of your career, can hurt you later on. Be as graceful as possible. But remember, inasmuch as you can’t be all things to all prospects, clients and potential employers, neither can they be such to you. Learning to say “no” here and there can help you in the long and maybe short run.