How Bad Chemistry With Clients Can Break Your Career

As a designer, you have a lot in common with a chemist. That’s right; you experiment daily in your "lab," testing and planning out the perfect, most thorough solution to your clients’ pressing needs. This is professional chemistry, or perhaps even "alchemy" – chemistry’s, shall we say, more metaphysical predecessor.

Through a process that to many clients can seem almost magical, you turn their leaden design problems into elegant solutions. And when they hand over that "gold" for a job well done, everybody wins! But even though professional chemistry is mandatory for every designer, there’s another kind of chemistry that many freelancers take for granted in the quest for gold: personal chemistry.

Freelancer-Client Chemistry

There are so many different kinds of clients out there. So many management styles. So many demands, so many deadlines, so many revisions, so many contracts, phone calls, emails, scope creeps, suggestions from the CEO’s mother-in-law… it’s enough to drive you crazy!

And with deadlines looming and bills needing to be paid, it’s easy for many freelancers to overlook the vital importance of developing a strong personal connection with the clients they serve. We’re going to explore three reasons why that’s a terrible idea, how it ultimately hurts designers, and what you can do to reverse the trend in your own freelancing career.

1. Starting With the Wrong Elements

First, let’s look at why good personal chemistry is so vital to a successful freelance career. In chemistry (and pardon the vague references – not a chemist) when you combine two elements together, one of three basic things can happen.

There can be a positive (as in good) reaction, like hydrogen and oxygen combining to form water, a negative (as in oh my god) reaction, like an atomic explosion, or no reaction at all, because the elements simply don’t interact with one another.

Staying Positive

We want to have a positive outcome whenever possible, which is why it’s important to start things off with the right "elements," the personality and temperament factors that make both you and your client unique individuals.

First, take some time to give yourself a quick personality test. What’s your temperament like – not just as a professional designer, but as an overall human being? Are you the nurturing type? A bold self-promoter? A sensitive artiste? The "elements" that make up who you are as a person will always determine how you work, and how you deal with other people.

Making The Connection

Next, ask yourself what types of clients you normally deal with, and compare them to the types you think would be ideal. Two brash, temperamental control freaks, for example, should not be teamed up together under most circumstances.

Working against your natural tendencies is never a good idea. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, you want to pair up with clients who complement, not clash with, your personality.

2. Working With Volatile Chemicals

The reason it’s so important to have good interpersonal chemistry with your clients is because you want to create long-term relationships with them. A string of one-off gigs for quick logos, business cards, or WordPress themes might seem like a good idea when you’re strapped for cash, but they’re actually hurting you in the long run.

These types of jobs require more effort to find, they’re usually less lucrative, and they certainly don’t have a continued payoff. All this means that you’re expending more time and energy for less money.

Solace in Repeats

Repeat clients, on the other hand, are people you get to know and appreciate over a long period of time. They like your work, and they like you. They recommend you to their friends. They’re always giving you new and challenging work.

When things aren’t going so well with a long-term client, however, it can turn into a nightmare. Demanding clients, say, the kind who might pay a retainer so that they can have access to you anytime – even if it’s 3 a.m. – can become such a nuisance that they may actually cause you to have an internal reaction all by yourself (we usually call that a meltdown – not pretty).

Mix With Care

Let’s be honest – we freelancers obviously like things a little bit crazy and unpredictable. But too much volatility in your clients can drain your mental resources and make you too tired to give each of them the value they’re looking for. Paring down your client base to the types of people who best suit your style is essential to keeping what’s left of your sanity intact.

3. Not The Right Reaction

Have you ever noticed that the way someone addresses you has an effect on how you react to them? If someone is rude to you, you’re more likely to raise your voice or be more defensive. On the other hand, if they’re friendly and non-threatening, you’re likely to react in the same manner.

These are social cues that rely on and make up a huge part of communication. Like we went over earlier, some elements, when placed together, have a negative reaction to each other, or simply don’t react to each other at all. Getting the wrong first reaction with a potential client can tarnish the entire process.

Being Real

Adjusting the way you communicate can be helpful in small doses, but it makes for a much more genuine and valuable professional experience if you make decisions about who you are and how you present yourself, and stick to them. If this means cutting certain kinds of clients out of your contact list, that’s probably for the best.

There are an infinite number of people out there looking to hire designers, and there’s no reason you need to resign yourself to working with clients who don’t suit you.

In Conclusion

Your so-called "golden" client, who provides a mutually beneficial, long-term business partnership, may not actually exist. But if they do, they’re probably not going to just drop in your lap. No one simply "finds" gold lying around – you have to go discover it.

The types of clients you’ll have the strongest chemistry with most likely behave a bit like you do. Like you, they’re busy providing a valuable service to people they can get to know and trust. Also like you, they won’t be eager to work with someone who’s not professionally or personally ready to receive them.

Most people don’t want to work with generic, all-purpose "service providers" – they want to work with other people. People they like. Surprise them by being your genuine self, and they might just surprise you back.

What types of clients do you usually take on? Got any horror stories about times you decided – and later regretted – to take on a client who was a total mismatch chemistry-wise?