Being choosy in a declining market can be tough, this just doesn’t go for the design field but really any market. When you first build your business you take on any work you can to get the ball rolling, to get the clients in the door and do what you can to establish community rapport.

As your business builds, you start to release “C & D” clients so you can focus on your “A & B” clients. In this market however, just getting people to commit to a project can take 3-4 times longer than it use to — so what do you do? On one hand, you want to be selective to hone your client base to a quality grouping, but on the other hand you want to keep the lights on.

A lot of design firms/businesses are between this rock and a hard place predicament and finding themselves taking projects they normally wouldn’t have just to keep the cash flowing. This doesn’t mean you have to take every project that comes your way. Look for hard red flags to help the project decision a lot easier for you. Below are some hard red flags we’ve used to help us decide if taking the project will help you or having you committed to the insane asylum.

Red flag 1: Avoiders: Will your potential client tell you what their budget is, if not — why, if they don’t know — why don’t they know?

Red flag 2: Ditchers: One of our biggest selling points is communication, oh the nightmares we hear about MIA design firms that never return calls or weeks between email responses, it makes us cringe. We’re sticklers on getting back to potential and current clients. The door swings both ways on this, if you are courting a potential client and the response time to hear back is days, weeks or months, that’s something that won’t get any better. If you run a tight ship and expect to hit a deadline and phone calls aren’t being returned or emails replied back to you, a 4-6 week project will end up being 4-6 months if your lucky. Run for the hills.

Red flag 3: Stringers: We’ve all had them, clients that love your work, ask a ton of questions, make you jump through hoops, request referrals, have you send over multiple versions of the proposal, have you lock in at a good price, are interested in starting immediately and after you’ve invested all of this time… a week goes by, then a month, 3 months and all of the sudden you can never get a hold of them. You’ve done all you could to help the project get moving and feel like you handed over your first born and nothing ever comes of the project.

Red flag 4: Invisible Potentials: These are clients that contact you through your website or leave a voicemail, provide you with their phone number, email address, budget & time line but for some reason will not respond to your phone calls or emails about the project when you follow-up. This one baffles me every time. They contacted you in the first place but when you contact them the same day or next day and do several follow-ups (literally) not once can you get a hold of them. It’s very frustrating.

Red flag 5: Chasers: These are clients that you really want to work with and they desperately need your services, and you’re willing to wait it out for them even if it takes 50 check-backs.

After a long period of time (when we say long it can be a year or even two) they have finally decided that you are the only choice for the project. They’ve done their homework with other firms and you are the only design company that stayed interested in their project over this long period of time.

You get to the finish line and are ready to get that check cut to you and they realize for some reason your estimate wasn’t the number they thought it was. Now, they are second guessing the entire idea of hiring you because of thier faux pas — even though this is the same proposal you sent 2 years ago and again a year later when they requested it a final time a month ago. You ask yourself, really? Is this really happening?  You’ve been chasing their business for all this time, they are willing and ready and now the unthinkable happens.

Again you’re now stuck between a rock and a hard place. There was a huge difference in the price in what they thought vs what you sent them three times previously, so you can’t hit that number without adjusting the deliverables. Yet they still want everything you promised at a drastically reduced price. Was this a clever last minute ploy or truly a huge oversight? At that point you just need to thank them for the opportunity, wish them the best of luck and have no regrets about walking away. Your services and creativity hold great value, you can’t just give the away. Case closed on this one.

Those are our five major red flags that send up warning signs for us to ultimately and politely say “no thank you” to the project. If you have any of your own we’d love to hear from you.