GUEST CREATOR: Andrei Serchis
6 Signs Of A Toxic Collaboration
Out of all the people-facing jobs and service businesses, the creative industry is one of the trickiest in terms of collaborative compatibility. Most signs that you and your client are not a good fit will appear during your collaboration rather than before.
Clearly, this “misfitness” doesn’t lead to the best possible outcome – if the energy between you and your client is off, you won’t be able to produce your best work and the client won’t be happy enough to further recommend you. Even worse – it could lead to conflict, and it often does. Sometimes that client turns out unsatisfied enough to ask for a refund or even sue.
After countless interactions with incompatible prospects and clients, we ended up learning many of their behavioral patterns and eventually became better at spotting mismatches from the first signs. Disclaimer: it involved trusting our guts more than our brains, opening our eyes more than our door, and listening more than talking.
These are the most common signs that your prospect or client is not a good fit for you and your business:
- They don’t give you enough detail before asking for a price quote. All they need is your menu, your standard price list where they can quickly find out their financial investment and make their decision solely based on that.
- “A logo and a website” is not a goal, it’s a tactic towards a goal. Logos and websites are some of the tools used to achieve goals like boosting sales or building brand awareness.
- “I’ll know it when I see it” is a brief, firm way to say that you don’t trust the provider and/or you dislike their past work. Shooting blanks takes time and effort, both of which could serve better towards a concrete direction. It also dissolves any means of measuring your customer’s satisfaction. You’ll know it when you see it.
- They’re new to this, inexperienced or all over the place. These are usually the high-maintenance clients, who never worked with someone like you before, who often have unrealistic expectations, involve multiple decision-makers or even micromanage you throughout the collaboration. RUN!
- “I looked at your offer and I only need [part]. Just do [part] for me, I don’t want the whole package”. Needless to say, this goes hand in hand with “it should take you [this] long” and “I need the [part of part] ready today”. They will try to adjust your product, timeline and price to best fit their needs, yet they will expect a discounted list price rather than a custom quote.
- “Yes, but” signals “I agree with you only if” signals conditional satisfaction. They might insist on you signing an NDA before the discovery phase, using their contract model instead of yours, or adjusting the time/money/quality trifecta to their liking. A very common example are those who eventually agree on your list price after a tough, unsuccessful negotiation, but want priority or speedy delivery as a special thank you from you to them, for they accepted your price.
- Their feedback is abstract, biased, chaotic or null. It can come from their spouse, their parents, their friends, their co-workers or even their neighbor. It can also come as a simple “I don’t like it” or “your work sucks”. This type of feedback is unproductive and impersonal – it creates tension and ultimately conflict. If you give them a feedback form and they refuse to fill it out, there’s your answer.
- They’re here just for the solution: logo, website, brochure, marketing campaign, whatever. These are the self-diagnosed gurus, who think they know exactly what they need – but solving a problem entails both carrying a thorough diagnosis and implementing a proper solution.
Sure, you might know a thing or two about cars, so when you’re at the mechanic you’d tell them “change the oil filter” rather than “my car is broken”, and you wouldn’t pay the diagnosis. But a car is something simple compared to a brand – everything is tangible, you can find instructions and spare parts, whereas diagnosing a brand requires larger mental effort, zero physical, and involves deep understanding of intangible concepts the brand is built upon.
- They expect you to be available all the time, especially when you’re the founder of the business. They usually have day jobs that prevent them from contacting you during your business hours (except some time zone differences) and they call, text or email you in your free time, whether it’s 9 PM or Sunday, expecting you to be all ears about their project. After all, they feel like they’re paying for your bread and your business is still running due to their generosity – it’s the least you can do to repay the favor. Wake up!
- They have a degree in micromanagement and there’s no way you can know better than them, even if it’s your daily job, not theirs. You will go through so much back-and-forth with these clients, and there’s no guarantee of success; unless success is measured in them breathing down your neck.
- Their project has to be prioritized over anything else and they don’t understand why you’re not working day and night on it. They fail to grasp both concepts of you having multiple clients at the same time and them not being the center of the universe. Of course, they could pay for this said urgency, but why would they?
- They show up unannounced at your door asking for a partial delivery of their project. Whether it’s color codes, stationery or “just the logo files”, they don’t have patience until the end, they rush or discard your process and they couldn’t care less about your protocols for project deliverables.
- This could be entirely because they don’t trust you (yet). Despite your client portfolio and record of achievements, they could just not like you, and therefore not trust you. Which logically leads to “why would I pay (this much) for this service?”. Build trust and see if things change.
- They might think your service is not worth the money. Their nephew or ChatGPT could have done it for free. A prospect once asked us for a free business card model, claiming it’s pure mise en place – we just have to arrange some text and graphics on a rectangle – and we shouldn’t charge for it. After all, isn’t everything we do mise en place?
- Your price was too low and you lost their respect. Your service is now seen as a low-ticket investment that won’t do much for their business. You are seen as someone who’s happy with a microscopic paycheck, who doesn’t value themselves, therefore has little value to provide. Do you treat the Gucci clerk the same way you treat the lady you’re buying potatoes from?
- It’s not a priority for them. What you’re offering them is a commodity, not a necessity – it’s something they need to be good enough to get by, not improve or boost anything. They’ll do the boosting. However, you’ll have a difficult, if not impossible, time negotiating a fair price for your collaboration, there will be communication gaps, or they’ll straight ghost you.
- If you’re facing more than 1 competitor when pitching to your prospect, it usually means the deal is still in early stages. “Let me see some ideas” ends up turning into “we went with someone else”, and sometimes those free ideas you gave away end up being used. Always protect your intellectual property and watch out for these free sample thieves.
- They already tried this project with someone else and it was a disaster. You are now bound to demonstrate the exact opposite, yet all the risk is yours. They already took a risk once and look how it went! Beware when you go down this path. Sometimes it can play out amazingly, but other times the disaster persists.
- They keep checking your price tag and this time it’s not because they can’t afford it – it’s because “others asked for less”. Introducing window shoppers and tire kickers, who will not leave that number alone until they don’t tweak it or get some extra bells and whistles included in it. A fair question you could ask them is, why aren’t they working with said “others”? Why are they still here, trying to pinch pennies off your fare?
- Competing with their nephew or AI tools who could do it for free or less.. is not actual competition. Don’t even waste your time with such comparisons. Say “thank you” and move on.
- This could be purely personality-based. You don’t like each other, and that’s completely fine. It won’t work out and you both know it. There are plenty of people whom each of you could align better with – let this one go and let that happen.
- Moral unalignment – you two don’t share the same values or virtues, or their project is off your moral compass. You are entitled to and should stick to your code.
- Their project is too small or too big for you to deliver. Stay in the goldilocks zone – don’t get into easy, low-ball deals that end up boring or bankrupting you, and also don’t take on something too challenging that will eventually overwhelm you into not delivering.
- Your energy is off because of other (un)known reasons. Your gut tells you to walk away from that prospect or client. Listen to it. There’s more honor than shame in quitting in these situations, and running your own business will guarantee you that privilege.
Taking out a prospect from your pipeline or calling it quits with a client during a project never feels good, even when you know it’s the best decision to make. Remember – when you walk away from the people who aren’t right for your business, you’ll be able to focus more on those who are.
If you feel like a peer of yours could be a better fit for your prospect or client, you’re probably right. Instead of forcing the sale, refer them to your peer. This will build trust, and that person may show up later in your life, when they’ve become a good fit. Even if they don’t, they’ll likely recommend you to anyone who is.
However, if you doubt the prospect’s quality, you might want to reconsider recommending someone else. Sometimes you want to do a good deed and it ends up the opposite. Stay awake and don’t let others foot the bill.
Trust your intuition and you’ll end up in the best places.
Until next time,
JOCstudio’s note. With the guest creators’ series on our website, we hope to build a safe space for creatives to share their very personal experiences in the professional environment. Let’s talk about inclusivity, diversity, and equity. How’s your workplace culture doing?