Such a Thing as Crappy Clients?

   Posted by: Joy Alyssa Day in art, studio

You may have heard me beefing on Twitter or Facebook about a recent "Crappy Client" that we had. I'd like to elaborate on that some.

What makes a client crappy? These days, you'd think any client would be welcome, especially for artists who have seen their markets dry up quicker than most "needed" commodities. For a "starving artist", any client is a good client. Right? Well, no. There are some clients that are just bad people, and they want to inflict their sorrow/curse on everyone they deal with. This is especially hard for an artist to take. Artists tend to be more emotional, more committed to their work, and much less able to think that it's "Nothing Personal—Just Business" when it comes to anything related to their creations.

But what makes clients crappy? Is it just because they didn't pay on time? No. But that is a big problem. Artists tend to not have a steady income, so when a paycheck is supposed to arrive, usually many important things hinge on that money for the artist — keeping the studio running, paying subcontractors, purchasing raw materials, buying groceries, art supplies, shipping costs are just a few. By withholding a paycheck when it is due, the client starts a chain of events in the artist's life that further brings worry and hardship to the artist. And what artist can create beautiful things when they're worried about money and trying to collect from someone who rightfully owes them? Our clients withheld payment for a *YEAR*, but we persevered anyway, taking other jobs to support ourselves. Then they complained that we weren't working fast enough. If they had *paid*, we'd have been able to buy the materials that would have let us work on their project and complete it eight months earlier. At the end, when payment was due, they continued to withhold for another month and refused to pay the interest on the delinquent payment. Just not cool.

So then what is it that makes them crappy? Once we were well into working on the big commission for our client, the contact person changed. The teachers at the community college who originally saw our work, liked it, and worked out a commission with us were great. They wanted the piece, were excited about it and understood that it was a special order, not something that could just be picked off the shelf — it would take some time to make. Once we had to start dealing with the administration office, it was clear that they did not share the same good will toward us or the project. They were condescending, threatening, insulting, rude, abrasive, and would outright lie to us. They tried repeatedly to sabotage the project and the financing by giving us fictitious hoops we had to jump through. These actions put our studio and business in jeopardy. There were days that the vitriol and insults were so thick that I became physically ill and couldn't work the rest of the day. There is no excuse for this.

This negativity and outright horrendous treatment of us is what makes them a crappy client. It's actually interesting to think, too, that if you're having an artist make a large scale sculpture for you, wouldn't it make sense to support your own project and keep the artist happy? A happy artist will certainly make a more stunning piece for you than one that has been verbally abused and had their income held for ransom. This was certainly the case for us. While the piece we created was in fact quite beautiful, it was *going* to be so much more. We had planned on adding features and special items at our own cost, to the tune of thousands of dollars, but when the abuse started, we didn't have a warm, fuzzy feeling anymore, so why add in extras? For an abusive client? No way!!!

So, why did we continue? Why not just cancel? That's a tough one. I grew up with a "handshake" mentality. If you make an agreement, and you shake on it or give your word, you do it. No monstrous contracts required. I gave my word. I would complete the project. It is not in me to cancel and not do what I agreed to do. So we did it, even though it was very difficult and harmed our psyches in so many ways.

We also have a saying: "If you have a problem client, even if you lose money, do whatever it takes to get them out of your life." We also did this. They got their piece, but it was *only* what they originally commissioned. Nothing more, nothing less and certainly nothing more expensive to build. And I will never, ever work for them again. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to work for another community college anywhere, just because of the abuse that was allowed to happen from this one.

Should I be ranting publicly about them? That's a tough one. Of course, part of me thinks that anything negative about clients should never be voiced. On the other hand, given this new age of tweets and status updates, I think it can be alright to reach out to your supporters when you need some feel-good mojo, or advice on how to respond. Also, if we *don't* say anything, future artists/contractors have no clue of what they may be getting into. There is an ethical responsibility to do so. If bringing out what has happened to us saves some future souls from being abused the same way, I'm all for it. I wish someone had warned me!

I also have found that people have, maybe not "enjoyed," but at least appreciated the progression of ups and downs that we go through as we're making our artwork. The successes and failures both bring one's supporters into a better understanding of life as an artist.

I might mention, too, that I also LOVE to tell everyone about the really great clients we have, naming them, showing what they got. Most of our clients are fabulous. We've only had a few clunkers over the years, thankfully, so maybe we're good for another few years before the next one comes along.

What do you think? Do you discuss your art clients? Have you had abusive ones? I'd love to hear your views on our situation and how you have dealt with yours. It's all a learning process, after all.



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6 Responses to: Such a Thing as Crappy Clients?

  • Alyson B. Stanfield Says:

    Joy: I think it's my trying to be complaint free that makes me tingle a little at this post. I guess I'd like to see a post that is a little more positive since they say that focusing on the negative only brings negative energy and more bad stuff. I'd love to see a post that says: "The clients we love do this/ The clients we'd rather not work with behave in this manner." Too pollyannish of me? Perhaps. But that's my perspective from far far away.

  • BJ Says:

    It'd be just wonderful to be able to "rise above it all" and, if money were no object, you could easily do just that. But when your very livelihood; your home and your workplace and your business, is at stake because of what someone did to you, just to validate themselves and try to look good to their boss, the situation is just a bit more difficult. That notwithstanding, allowing them to just get away with this type of treatment by sweeping it under the rug is what they bank on... literally. They'll keep on doing it as long as everyone keeps their mouths shut. Doing so is allowing them to do the same to the next person and that is just plain not right. Sure, you can just turn a blind eye, not say anything, protect your karma and let the next to come along lead with their face but I believe that we all have a responsibility to others. That responsibility is all too easily sluffed off these days and that hurts your karma too. You knew and did nothing.

    Standing up for what is right and good is difficult sometimes.

  • Victor Milán Says:

    Yes, you did the right thing. In delivering what you contracted for, only what you contracted for, and in refusing any further dealings with that clients.

    Isn't it more important in tough economic times not to do business with clients who cheat, or even abuse you? Even if they eventually pay off as agreed, your time and effort hassling with them costs you. And if you're like me and most creators I know, the hassles enervate you and make it harder to do your work, imposing additional real costs.

    Have you heard of the "80/20" rule, otherwise known as the Pareto principle? It's way trendy right now, but for once, for good reason. It holds, basically, that 20% of your customers provide 80% of your income. That makes it worthwhile to carefully keep an eye on your clients and the efforts you expend on them - and especially makes it worthwhile to ditch the bad ones.

    Are you familiar with Tim Ferriss and his book THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK? He explains the 80/20 rule quite clearly, and frankly advocates firing unproductive clients. In fact there's a great deal of value in the book for people trying to make it through their own enterprises.

    So don't feel bad; you did what was necessary. Moreover you acted bravely, in the fact of those fears that counsel us that in a depression every client is precious - which is utterly untrue.

    In light of your experience with the community college administration, you might also ask yourselves, can any bureaucracy be loyal, grateful, or trustworthy.

    Good fortune and happiness to you!

  • Jennifer Corio Says:

    Joy, I appreciate your honesty in this blog post. We haven't experienced a crappy client yet in our business, but it's inevitable. I hope my skin is thick enough, but it's hard not to take things personally when it revolves around one's own creativity & artwork. The bright side is that you learned a ton from this experience such that the next time you have a Customer Crap you will handle it differently with less much less burden on you.

    Artful wishes to you!


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