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How To Explain To Clients That They Are Wrong

GIFs of spinning @s on the “Contact us” page. Common usability mistakes for the sake of visual appeal. Splash pages. Fancy search box. No whitespace. Music on page load. Homepage banner of a jigsaw-puzzle globe with a piece missing. Sometimes you just know that what a client is requesting is wrong and that you have to find a way to tell them. But how?

Is The Client Wrong? Link

Before getting into how to explain to a client that they’re wrong, ask yourself, “Is the client wrong to begin with?” Just because you don’t approve of the direction they’re taking or of a request they’ve made doesn’t necessarily mean it is not a step in the right direction for the project. To be able to answer this question effectively, you need to train yourself to be completely objective and humble when dealing with client requests.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

First of all, appreciate one critical thing: the client probably knows their target audience a lot better than you do. Just as web professionals quickly learn personality types among their own clients, your client interacts with their target audience on a daily basis and knows what makes them tick… and that may be just what makes you cringe.

You can begin to establish if the client is wrong simply by exploring why the client is making such a request and what the business case for it is. It could well be a situation in which they spoke to many people in the target audience demographic, and they all said that they were more likely to click an animated Flash banner link than a static one, or that they felt more engaged by a website that had stock images of smiling people everywhere.

It could be that the picture of the jigsaw-puzzle globe with a piece missing actually sums up the client’s sales pitch quite well and that similar messaging has proven to win over potential customers in the past.

A Rubix cube style graphic with a heart logo and one cube piece fallen off
Image source: Lady Madonna5

Of course, when faced with such a situation, a good web professional would understand the business driver and suggest alternative solutions that convey the same message and achieve the same goal but that are unique, original and creative.

Whatever the case though, always keep an open mind. Don’t assume the client is wrong before seeing the evidence. One guarantee in this business is that the more you design and develop websites, the more often you’ll find yourself in situations where, six months after a project’s launch, you hear that the most positive feedback from users wasn’t the cool bit of JavaScript you implemented using groundbreaking technology, but rather something that you considered boring and unoriginal but that excited the client during development. We deliver websites for the client’s target audience, not our peers in the web community: sometimes painful to swallow, but always true.

That scenario aside, let’s put our cool hats on again and assume that the request for the jigsaw-puzzle globe has come in, and that it clearly has nothing to do with the client’s business, and that it has made you curl up in a corner of the room, banging your head against the wall, muttering “Why? Why? Why?”

What approaches can you take to explain to the client that, in your professional opinion, they’re wrong?

Speak The Client’s Language Link

One of the most common problems, especially among freelancers, is an inability to speak the client’s language. Being able to speak in a way that relates to the client’s business sense is crucial at all stages of managing a web project, but never more so than when challenging a client’s decision.

If you’re trying to explain to a client that a rotating banner (or any other feature) may not be the most effective use of their budget, rather than say something like, “I just don’t think it will work,” or “I’m not sure you have the budget,” ask instead how they think implementing it will benefit their business, generate more quality leads or increase conversions.

Always emphasize the main goals, or KPIs (key performance indicators), of the project. You’d be surprised by how often such a question will result in a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, as the client realizes that they want the feature because they think it looks cool, when in fact they can’t connect it to a KPI.

Building a website or web application should be treated in the same way as growing a business:

  1. Know what you want to achieve.
  2. Define some measurable KPIs or goals.
  3. Develop a plan.
  4. Begin executing the plan.
  5. Evaluate every decision along the way to make sure it supports a KPI, thus taking repeated steps towards achieving the project’s goals.

By maintaining this approach, you will also radically change the client’s opinion of you, from that of a creative hippie-type to a business-savvy web designer or developer whom they should listen to if they want to stay focused on the purpose of the project.

A screenshot of a Buzzword Bingo board

Being able to speak the client’s language will undoubtedly help greatly when the time comes to tell the client that they’re wrong. Beyond using Buzzword Bingo6 words with confidence, you need to be able to back them up with valuable advice drawn from your area of specialization.

Establish Yourself As The Expert Link

One of the most important ways to make the ordeal of explaining to a client that they’re wrong as stress-free as possible for both parties is to establish yourself as the web expert. If you do this, the client will completely trust you and your recommendations without a moment’s hesitation. Perfick!

But even if you are a web expert, the position is not always easy to establish, because it usually only becomes apparent over time, after you’ve gotten a few successful decisions or projects under your belt with the client. It doesn’t help either that many clients still regard creative digital agencies and freelancers as either kids living in their parents’ basement or shady professionals out to take them for every last penny.

Though a challenge, you can establish your credibility quickly using a few methods, some of which are relatively simple to do.

Be Professional Link

Before they’re convinced that you’re a digital professional and that they should trust your recommendations, you must first demonstrate your professionalism by doing the basics well:

  • Be punctual at meetings and teleconferences.
  • Always speak in a professional manner.
  • Deliver pre-sales paperwork on time.
  • Present all documents and images on professionally branded templates.
  • Use correct grammar and punctuation in emails.

You’d be surprised by how quickly clients pick upon deficiencies in these basic business skills. Their perception of you and your recommendations will be immediately affected. Unless you come across as the consummate professional early on, shaking off this reputation will be difficult.

Don’t Be Shy About Citing High-Profile Clients Link

You could well be a digital guru who has spent years working in the industry and earned the respect of the web community, but most clients won’t understand what this means. They have never heard of websites such as Smashing Magazine or magazines such as .Net, and they probably won’t grasp the gravitas that comes with being a speaker at web conferences such as SXSW.

However, all clients tend to respond when you say you have worked on a high-profile brand website. When clients hear that you’ve been hired by a big name that they’ve heard of and whose products they perhaps use, they sit up like a meerkat and think they’ve hit the jackpot. Simples!

While some web folk aren’t always comfortable selling themselves, and while big brand experience is not always proof of ability, it almost always resonates with clients and makes them see you as more credible. This reinforces your position as an expert whose advice should be heeded. After all, if big brand X thought you were good, you must be, right?

Sometimes, of course, no matter how much credibility you demonstrate, a client may choose not to listen to your recommendations. But perhaps they’ll listen to others…

Back Up Recommendations With Evidence Link

How often in life have you volunteered your point of view to someone for months, only to be beaten down each time; and yet when someone else comes into the picture and says the exact same thing, their advice is seized upon as revolutionary. This is human nature and happens just as much when explaining to clients that they’re wrong.

If a client is, for whatever reason, unpersuaded by your arguments, you might want to consider going all CSI on them and producing evidence that backs up your recommendations.

This evidence can come in many forms. For example:

  • Blog posts from world-respected web experts.
  • Statistics from large usability studies.
  • Well-known cases where the same thing was tried and had negative results.

A screenshot of the Five Second Test website header7

This kind of evidence is obvious. But sometimes, the less obvious kind can be just as effective:

  • Guerrilla usability testing, by asking the client to obtain feedback from employees within the company.
  • Using free tools like Five Second Test8.
  • Submitting designs to communities dedicated to providing design feedback, for example Feedback Army.
  • Feedback from customers with whom the client has a good relationship.
  • Setting up a poll on the website that presents both ideas.
  • Web analytics from the current website.

Common points of contention will be which browsers to support, which screen resolutions to optimize for and where to put the fold. But no matter the debate, backing up your point of view with trusted third parties can sometimes tip the balance in your favor and improve how the client perceives your dedication, enthusiasm and passion for getting it right.

Sometimes, Being Direct Works Link

When all else fails, you could always tell the client flat out that they’re wrong. This is always a risky move, because clients will react differently. Some will appreciate it, while others will find it disrespectful or personally insulting. But if you feel strongly about it and you’ve tried every other method, being direct might do the trick.

Personally, I’ve been in situations in which I’ve had no alternative but to tell a client that their request is “naff9.” To my surprise, despite the ferocity with which the client initially defended their opinion, they backed down immediately and thanked me, saying that this is what they were paying me for: to be strong and stubborn and to tell them things like this. However, merely saying that something is naff and nothing more is not ideal; you have to offer an alternative solution.

Use this approach with caution. Take into account your rapport with the client, and be passive in your tone of voice. Also, choose your method of communication wisely; for example, being so direct by email is usually a big mistake because of the possibility of misinterpretation.

A close image of the Hulk character with an angry face
Image source: Darren Hester

If possible, be direct with the client face to face or by telephone. This allows you to deliver the message directly and set the right tone. You will also be able to observe the client’s body language or hear their response instantly and then quickly adjust your approach if needed. Generally, if a client turns green with fury, their nostrils emit a trace of steam and their clothes rip at the seams, you may want to back down and move swiftly to the next item on the agenda… or call an ambulance because they may be ill.

Of course, sometimes no matter what you say or do, a client will overrule and insist that you follow their request. You know what? That’s okay. It happens. That’s life.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the debate!

Know When And How To Admit Defeat Link

Occasionally you’ll try every known method of explaining to a client that they’re wrong, and nothing works. They’ll continue insisting that you design or develop whatever they want or else they’ll go to someone who will. And yet you feel with complete sincerity that they’re making a mistake that will have a negative impact on their business. This is never a good situation to be in.

There really are no hard and fast rules on what to do in such a situation. Each case should be treated on its own basis. But with experience comes the instinct of knowing when to admit defeat and do as you’re told.

This feeling is never nice, but sometimes that’s how it is. And if you have to sit in the corner and be quiet, do it professionally and politely. Under no circumstances should you throw your toys out of the pram and give the client attitude. Simply explain to them that you have put forward your recommendations and given your reasons. At the end of the day, it’s their business and their decision. It stings, but you’ve done all you can, and your dignity remains intact. But don’t give up yet!

Treat Defeat as an Opportunity Link

Saying that good entrepreneurs view every defeat as an opportunity is almost a cliché these days. But it’s true, and these situations are no different. There’s admitting defeat, and then there’s pretending to admit defeat! Once you’ve been beaten down by a client, accept it, get over it and think positively about how you can turn defeat into a win/win for everyone.

For example, suggest to the client that if they choose to press ahead against your recommendation, then your next recommendation will be to implement some custom web analytics to monitor the outcome of the decision.

A screenshot of Google Analytics graphs and figures showing positive results

For example, if a client insists on giving the home page banner a small call to action that, in your opinion, is difficult to read or not prominent enough, persuade them to let you implement some A/B testing10: one month with their banner and one month with your proposed solution, and let the statistics do the talking. No client on earth would continue to insist on their solution if yours delivered a better return on investment.

If you’re thinking, “What the heck is A/B testing?” even better! This is an ideal opportunity to learn a valuable skill while getting paid and giving your client excellent service!

Summary Link

Explaining to a client that they’re wrong is never easy. It could blow up in your face and damage what was a good relationship. But everyone is wrong sometimes, and clients are no different. Always start by asking yourself if the client is, in fact, wrong. Or are you trying to impose your opinion (based on a narrow web-only view) on what is ultimately a business decision that affects the client’s entire strategy, both online and offline.

If you conclude that their direction is still misguided, open a dialogue with them in language they relate too: business language. Rather than say it won’t work, ask them what goals or return on investment they think the direction will help achieve. Establish yourself as the digital expert from the moment you make contact with the client by conducting all aspects of your work with professionalism. Do everything you can to position yourself as someone who has the experience to suggest alternative solutions. And where possible, back up your recommendations with third-party material and user feedback.

If all else fails, be direct with the client. But know which clients you can be direct with and when you will have to back down. Finally, don’t let being overruled be the end of the debate. Suggest testing periods, and let the web analytics do the talking. All clients respond when they see important metrics go up rather than down!

What are your favorite ways of telling clients that they’re wrong?

Footnotes Link

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Sam Barnes is a Development Team Manager at Global Personals. Although a little short for a Stormtrooper, he can be found posting articles at, a blog dedicated to the subject of Web Project Management.

  1. 1

    The rubix cube pic is a from a Threadless shirt:
    …if anyone is wondering.

    (Is it okay to use that picture in this article w/out a reference?)

  2. 2

    Take that one for example .. don’t just assume that they client is crazy – much study was done by the client to deduce that their target audience responds positively to visual diarrhea …

  3. 3

    Gisli Viglundsson

    December 10, 2009 1:06 am

    I’ve had a client that was persistent, and didn’t want to listen to any of my advice, it ended up that I turned him down cus I had other clients that had full faith in my work.

    That company got themselfes a pretty bad website for 10 times more than I asked for, complete morons.
    And it didn’t even look good, or wasn’t user friendly at all.

    If they would’ve listened to me in the first place, they would’ve gotten a website that didn’t cost them 10 times for than they bargained for and I would’ve done it much faster…

    • 4

      I see it this way: If you would’ve done what they wanted to do, you could’ve charge them 10 times what you asked them. You short changed yourself from the very beggining just trying to ve the one who knows it all. It is professional to treat the client for who they are, the client. You’re just providing a service. The client is no always right, the client is the client. Now you just described what’s wrong with this article. Who’s the moron now!?

      • 5

        Yeah, you’re right. But just partly.
        Some people, including myself, just cannot get enough steam power to create something they are sure is BAD and WRONG.
        I have had such clients couple of times, and you know what – those cases has ended as first comment authors case.
        At first, I listen to client. Carefully. After that I describe my vision of concept. If client disagrees with me in any point, we discuss it out and get to compromise. If a compromise cannot be achieved and client still wants CRAP, I usually QUIT.
        Some examples:
        1. An empty splash page with language selection – thats for a news portal! (fail)
        2. Flash gallery with heavy and annoying animation effects for an informational galleries site (fail)
        3. First page (index page) containing info text “about us” – some usual bla bla bla nobody ever reads. And nothing more. For an online shop! (fail)
        And there are more….
        I just CAN NOT do this to my client. It is bad for him at first, and bad for me at second, because of I would not want anybody to know I have created such a bad concept. And I just don’ t do it.
        Peace :)

      • 6

        You’ve done a poor job for the money & now you’re name is associated with that work…nice.

      • 7

        Gisli Viglundsson

        December 11, 2009 1:48 pm

        @JS what work ? You didn’t even understand what I wrote, I did not create anything for this company.

        I quit design work 2 years ago for carrier change, so I don’t care anymore about my name in the design biz, I just do artwork for fun and personal.

        I have had alot of clients through the years, I even coded the websites I designed myself in php…

      • 8


        If you’re willing to produce work that is not up to your own standards, you really shouldn’t be in the business and frankly, aren’t a “professional”. Of course there is a line – and often you do give a little and then a lot… but if you find yourself putting out work that you’re not proud of, it’s going to hurt in the long run. Everything you put your name on is a reflection of your work – do you really want to be associated with work that you aren’t proud of?

      • 9

        I understand where you are coming from. However the one thing is a I personally hate making things I’m not proud of. It can be difficult finding additional jobs when all your past work says bad decisions made by some HR person within a company that doesn’t know anything about design.

    • 10

      You should have charged ten times more and kept your mouth shut! JUST KIDDING!

      Maybe the problem was that you didn’t charge them enough! If you sell yourself cheap, they don’t respect you… you could have charged 10 times more!

    • 11

      @Gisli: Dissing the client doesn’t sound professional no matter what the client did. When you do business, you never burn your bridges.

      I could be wrong, but treating yourself like you are above flaws and imperfections of any kind could be disastrous. Of course if you look at it from a standpoint of your work references, it makes sense, but at the same time what kind of attitude would you be projecting towards your clients. I would guess an arrogant and high-and-mighty one.

      And in the long run, it’s attitude that makes the difference between winners and losers. And don’t tell me you don’t care about winning because you really do.

      • 12

        And in the long run, it’s attitude that makes the difference between winners and losers. And don’t tell me you don’t care about winning because you really do.

    • 13

      Janice Schwarz

      December 19, 2009 9:30 am

      @Gisli I don’t blame you for not not doing the work. What some of those who have responded to you do not realize is that we each have to ask ourselves if any amount of money is worth dealing with a nightmare client. In my experience, clients who insist on using very bad concepts are often not worth the money or headache. I once had a client who wanted things done that were so bad, I finally said, “to illustrate just how bad of an idea this is, if I do it for you, I will not put my name on this site”. She replied, “I don’t care”. She paid me for a very bad site. I’m not willing to deal with that ever again.

      This article did a good job of explaining how to handle clients wanting bad ideas for their site. I’ve done these things myself over the years and mostly, it works. But on a rare day, we’ll get a client who can not be budged from the decision they’ve made. From there, we’re on our own to decide how we want to handle that.

      Those who are berating you for your choices and willingness to discuss what you did are the ones who are making a big deal over nothing. Simply because we don’t all handle clients the same way doesn’t always make one person more or less professional than the other. In some situations, there is not a right or wrong answer.

      Each person has to decide what works for them and stick to that. After all, some of us work for ourselves because we like being able to call the shots and not put up with this kind of nonsense from clients. I have a line as to what kind of behavior I will tolerate from clients too. I have let a client go for crossing that line. IMO, a professional does not allow themselves to be walked all over by clients.

    • 14

      Here is what you do. You say “yes I can”. But, you let them know that no matter what – you do not want your name or your company to be mentioned as ever having a part in their request. This always gets a client second guessing themselves. After that they will ask you for your opinion. That’s when they’ll listen.

  4. 15

    Design Informer

    December 10, 2009 1:07 am

    Excellent post Sam. Now, my question is this: Let’s say for instance, the client wants a pink website with yellow and green and blue text. How many designers actually tell them that they shouldn’t do that because the colors clash.

    Most designers usually just skirt around this and just do anything that the client wants, even though they know that it isn’t good. I think we as freelance web and graphic designers need to start telling the clients our opinions and that some of the decisions that they are making is wrong. That’s why they hire us, as experts.

    • 16

      Great post Sam!

      In regards to Design Informer’s comment about telling the client is wrong about design related issues. I think you should address these before you even start design. Why has the client picked these colours to target their audience in the first place?

      As Design Informer mentioned most clients are hiring you based on your expertise and experience and will greatly value your contribution this is the added value designers provide.

      If a client is hiring you purely for your knowledge with the applications there is something wrong, you’re just artworking and pixel pushing.

  5. 17

    Gisli Viglundsson

    December 10, 2009 1:09 am

    How about that, they still got the old website intact.
    This was about 8 years ago I could’ve helped them re-design their logo and website.

    They payed over 100 000 SEK Kr for this pice of crap

    • 18

      What is that crap> It’s not even in English – lol

      • 19

        James Headrick

        December 10, 2009 5:34 pm

        They…aren’t an American/English company. Why would it be in English?

        As for the site…yeah..they got screwed BIG TIME. Looks like it was done by someone who just started learning o.O.

      • 20

        Gisli Viglundsson

        December 11, 2009 1:54 pm

        It’s a Swedish marketing research company.

        Can’t believe that they still got that crappy page someone else did 8 years ago…

        I offered them my proffessional advice, I even came to their office and sat down in a meeting with 2 of the ceos.
        They didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say and were completely rude.

    • 21

      Omg! That IS a horrific site! Someone should bring those guys to this decade and century.

  6. 22

    thanks….a very essential article… keep up

  7. 23

    Callum Chapman

    December 10, 2009 1:13 am

    Excellent article Sam with some great humor, too! I love your choice of photos used throughout the article ;D

  8. 24

    Smashing Share

    December 10, 2009 1:25 am

    Nice article. I usually speak with client if there is something wrong what he is saying. If if he insist on wrong thing, I don’t take the project

  9. 25

    Yes, Thats Right.
    Thanks SM for wonderful article.

  10. 26


  11. 27

    Sam, this is so true… respect!

  12. 28

    I usually find that explaining the theory behind certain design principles works wonders. It may be 90% mumbo jumbo to the client, but it drives the point home that critical design choices are more science than art and instils confidence in your decisions in the client. Suddenly, (exaggerated example) it’s not about green being a ‘nice color’ (which anyone can rightfully disagree with) but about green making the customer feel at ease and more susceptible to buy the customer’s product.

    After all, you’re not hired just to make something people think is pretty. The customer wants your expertise to make something pretty THAT WORKS.

  13. 30

    Great article !!!!! very useful

  14. 31

    Fantastic post. I have these clients right now and it’s very irritating. Guess who they are? Friends of friends! The worst kind of client.

    It’s peculiar, it’s not actually the client, but the clients partner! He always insists on making ridiculous suggestions. So, without being rude, I’m now ignoring the partner and only acknowledging, talking to and arranging meetings with the client when she’s alone. It’s working great. I just wish he didn’t have access to the email.

  15. 32

    This article could not have come any sooner! I’m currently ceasing a current project due to hostility that grew after the design process. I tried being professional – but sadly they couldn’t do the same. SBO’s are the worst.

  16. 33

    excellent article, some things i wish i’d know instinctively when i started out in this game! many thanks for an interesting read.

  17. 34

    Good article, of course in practice some of it is harder than it first appears, but there’s a few things mentioned I’ve not considered before that i’ll have to try.

    In a perfect world I’d be sacking clients that made too many ‘wrong’ decisions as it’s likely it won’t ever get better.

  18. 35

    Yes, it´s awosom, a great article and Smashing mag rocks and keep it up and you are so right and Thanks for the excellent research and thumbs up and anyway, I like to comment things. It rocks and is awosom. Did I say it´s a good article and that it rocks?

  19. 36

    Seyfi Cem Baskın

    December 10, 2009 4:14 am

    I’m a motion graphics designer and nowhere near being a web coder/designer, except my 10 years old basic html skills. But hey, I read every single post, article written on these pages. Most of them takes me rolling down till I hit the footer.
    An excellent article again. I’m trying to implement this to my customers now, which is not so hard as other technical stuff.
    I’ll be around, hoping that, one day, you will dig into technical stuff for motion graphics as well.
    Until then.

  20. 37

    I have someone from the marketing department, with no web knowledge, whose requirement is to use a Calibri font size 10px on a 100% width for an online shop. He’s going to flood with painful to read text where he should be concentrating on making money and allowing myself and the designer do our jobs.

    he’s completely wrong and hopefully these tips above will help me tell him so.

    Usually i say ‘that won’t make money’ in as a polite way as possible.

  21. 38

    Two of your points in particular go a long way:

    Speak their language
    Be direct

    The latter is a real no-brainer, and learning to practice that will do WONDERS for your business

    The former is the most important, and the one people have the hardest time with. Everyone’s position differs, and thus so does their language. Learn to bridge the gap, and you win. A lot.

  22. 39

    Michael Wilson

    December 10, 2009 4:38 am

    Fantastic post!

    Sam i really like your writing style and you have given a lot of really great advice here.

    I always love to get other people’s view on client relationships and yours is an excellent one!

    Thanks you

  23. 40

    Excellent article! Well written and your solutions are spot on.

    Clients who know me will know that if I’m proud of the result it gets added to my portfolio. If the client insists on things that I know won’t work it doesn’t get added to my portfolio.

    All you can do is offer your expert opinion. If they fail to take heed then I will still go ahead with the job because I did my best to warn them. Chances are they will be back to me when they see their bounce rate in the 80’s instead of the teens.

    May I offer another solution?

    When I’m sure they are making a mistake I will sometimes compromise and say once it is done can we A/B test their version and mine and see which one produces the best sales and lowest bounce rates. This can be quite an eye opener for them and will prove beyond doubt that you really do know what you’re talking about.

  24. 41

    Hey Sam.
    Really nice job with this post.

  25. 42

    Great article! I particularly like the section on establishing yourself as the expert. I think a lot of folks fail in the “being professional” area.

  26. 43

    Interesting article.

    I personally wouldn’t make that much of a trouble though, trying to convince a client he makes a mistake. I would simply explain once.. After that, if he doesn’t get it, it isn’t worth the trouble trying to convince him in my opinion and doing so could harm the relationship. Even when using statistics, because: people don’t like to be wrong. And people don’t like people desparately trying to prove they are wrong. You have to think about your own interest here as well.

  27. 44

    Additionally, when the client later arrives at the conclusion he was wrong after all, he won’t blame you bacause you mentioned it and he didn’t listen. Then he will ask you to correct the problem, which you will, off course, happily do for him.

  28. 45

    Great article, but I think it there’s an important point that has been left out: “Know when to let the client go”. Clients can be utterly stubborn, and not always you have to settle down and do what the client wants. If you know that what the client is asking will be a stain on your profile (or a really hard blow to your professional ego), then you should think carefully if it’s really worth it, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

    Also, I think that is OUR responsibility to teach the client, even if we end up not taking the client’s project or vice versa, and if we dumb down our speech, it will only make the clients ignorance not to go away (and maybe even assure it), and harder for us.

  29. 46

    To conclude: just because clients do not have your level of IT knowledge does not mean they are stupid. Some folks here seem to think that. They will usually actually understand that your request for A/B testing is intended to prove them wrong. And they will also usually understand that it is mainly your professional reputation that you are trying to save, and not their ROI. Pretending you are solely trying to save their business with your testing and searching third party opinions is being an absolute hypocrit, and people don’t like hypocrits as well. Next time, they will hire someone else.

  30. 47

    Great post :)

    I always work with my clients to create what they want. If I happen to change their mind about what that is along the way to better help their needs and create a better piece of work in the meantime, then all the better.

    If they want something that’s not so good and they can’t understand why its not so good (when I explain to the best of my abilities), then I still give them what they want once I’ve aired my concerns. Some people (me) can’t afford to walk away from work.

    You can always go back later and point out why its not working, suggest a few changes (which you may have suggested the first time) to improve it, and get more work. You end up with more money and the chance to improve the work to a standard to go in your portfolio, they end up with a better understanding of what works on the web and realise they should listen to your wisdom… everyone wins!

  31. 48

    This is a really good article, and it helped me right away, Thank you!

  32. 49

    Loretta Oliver

    December 10, 2009 7:19 am

    What a great topic, and something we have to deal with as service providers pretty often. It’s not always easy to get your point across.

  33. 50

    Good article with some solid advice. Sometimes the client will tell you the HTML color code they want for the homepage…not much you can do about that…but at least when their browser wasn’t supporting my CSS I was able to prove w/ Analytics only 1% of their users was using that ancient version of Safari, so they upgraded. Win some lose some. :)

  34. 51

    “If you’re thinking, “What the heck is A/B testing?” even better! This is an ideal opportunity to learn a valuable skill while getting paid and giving your client excellent service!”

    I have yet to see a client pay for the two banners when they think theirs is the correct option. Giving them the right result for free… yes, that’s good and makes them realise how excellent your service is, but it doesn’t get you paid!

  35. 52

    First lines of this artice: “GIFs of spinning @s on the “Contact us” page. Common usabiltiy mistakes” — check spelling for USABILITY… spell checker??

  36. 53

    This is a great article!! All design professionals have been in this situation at one point or another and this article gives great tips that covers the topic from all aspects!! Nice job!!

  37. 54

    just wondering why you don’t give photo credits for the pictures you’re using?

  38. 55

    I am surprised at the amount of folks saying they would refuse a job because they did not like what the client asked for. I work in a different situation where that is not an option. We have sales reps that sell the site and I have no choice, if it’s sold I am building it, end of story.

    What typically happens is we get a client asking for something that does not work, I will usually explain alternatives and the advantages of doing it that way and typically that is accepted. As mentioned in the article there is that occasional person that will not listen and in those instances I just try to solve the issue as creatively as possible.

    If they want a lot of flash style animation I will do something as similar as possible with javascript for example. I guess im luckly though to live in an area where most clients do NOT know what they want rather then being stuck on a bad idea, especially with the visual design. The best way to go is to always try and meet them half way or come up with a solution that will give them what they want but still work well for customers viewing the site.

  39. 56

    I’ve been down this road quite often with clients. What works in one web environment does not always work in others. As the developer, we “owe” it to the client to complete a full assessment of their needs, likes, dislikes and current web presence. Most of that stuff is covered in my initial design questionnaire. One of the most important questions most clients overlook is “What do you want your website to accomplish or improve for your business?” You will be surprised how many overlook this question and give a full 3 paragraph answer on how they want their social network pages highlighted and why.

    In any event, I’ve had to let a few clients go in the past because they were more trouble than I wanted to handle. I rather have a happy client intead of an unhappy client.

  40. 57

    Ramon thompson

    December 10, 2009 8:39 am

    Thanks for the great article! Effective client communication is something that, as a person just starting out, is a valuable skill!

  41. 58

    Total respect for the Doctor Who reference!

    The last time I came across a client that wanted to implement a lot of naff ideas (in fact, she wanted to start up a new site in an already overstaturated niche market), I emailed her, pointing out that she was going to be up against some serious competition, and didn’t she maybe want to reconsider her approach?

    She didn’t seem to get my point, so I just shrugged it off and went along with her plan. Clipart graphics, mismatched colorschemes and logos sent in PDFs, the works. Ultimately I was getting paid to get *her* vision online (not mine). And at the end of it, I’d made my money, and she’s gotten her website, and we were both happy about it.

    Naturally, I skipped over the “done by” footer link. You don’t necessarily have to directly associate yourself to *every* piece of work you do…

  42. 59

    We designers need to establish credibility with clients as early as possible. Use your proposal, contract, and information-gathering materials to demonstrate professionalism** and knowledge of your subject.

    If a client can’t be bothered to read your proposal or help you do your job by supplying info for, say, a creative brief, what does that tell you? That they don’t respect the process and, ultimately, your expertise. Sometimes it’s better to see the red flags and bail early.

    **Professionalism means all your materials have your logo and contact info, are impeccably designed, and are well written with concise language and proper grammar. Being a designer, you can handle the first two. If you can’t write, hire somebody who can. Anything less will not do.

  43. 60

    LuckyFish Media

    December 10, 2009 8:51 am

    This was a great article. If a client requests something that is out of the ordinary or something I believe will hurt their online site and not help it (like splashing ads all over, etc.) I try to get to the root of what they are really trying to achieve. Most of the time it involves them repeating something they heard at a conference a few years ago that was told to them to make sure they get when they get a website.

    Most of the time a compromise is met, but I agree with previous comments that you are being paid for a service and they are the client. It is your job to give them what they want even if you disagree with it. I always say, “it may not be a good idea to put a refrigerator next to your bed, but if that is what the client wants, then I will put one there.” Great article, and good comments


  44. 61

    or as Zammo would put it … Just say no!

  45. 62

    Great article on a never ending battle. The more perspective the better when dealing with these types of situations with clients.

  46. 63

    One of the best articles I’ve read here yet…and on a very relevant and existing issue. Good work!

  47. 64

    This post is great because it applies both to external clients and, for those of us who work in environments with other people (a la Sarte’s No Exit…), this is a great guideline for interacting with internal clients and bosses. Perfect timing on this article, too, since I’m dealing with this exact situation at work this week… again.

  48. 65

    one additional item/strategy that has gotten the WIN for me many times… Tag team! If the designer alone can’t win, call in your head web developer or your all-business/straight-talkin’ boss to concur… but definitely make sure this seems like a casual exchange or they’ll feel steam rolled.

  49. 66

    “To be able to answer this question effectively, you need to train yourself to be completely objective and humble when dealing with client requests.”

    I agree, but the implication is the client is afforded subjectivity? No snakry-ness intended.

    If more clients trusted and deferred to the professionals they hire to do the job to begin with there would be more successful endeavors and less bull. It’s a good thing for designers to have a no nonsense approach to clients, which includes firing them. The fact is they don’t always defer and I am not saying they absolutely have to, but a balance should be struck. Some clients are demanding and abusive. Some clients threaten to go else where while saying really nice things like I love your work, BUT…[insert retarded client comment]. This is the business of design we love where there are few GOOD clients and the rest are just clients. I believe, though I don’t have quantitative data, that the clients that defer to a pros meet KPIs. I believe these relationships should be partnerships anyway which affords accountability both ways.

    Granted, I am not speaking to the designer that has no business acumen right. I speak to those that not only understand design but what goes into building a business – MBA not required.

    My uncle a very well known award winning package designer said it rightly “the client is always right, but you need to let the client know what’s right”. That my friends is genius and if you TRULY know what’s right you’re obligated to tell the client though client has the right not to listen.

    My 2 cents.

  50. 67

    Great article!!

  51. 68

    Amber Weinberg

    December 10, 2009 1:13 pm

    I’ve found that a lot of times and explanation into why such and such isn’t a good idea is often enough to deter a client. Many simply don’t know what can or should be done on the web. I had a client who wanted music on their site, and just by explaining that it’s bad usuability and often annoying enough to visitors to make them leave, she’d agreed not to do it.

  52. 69

    You know what? This might be the most important post on Smashing Magazine that we read. Dealing with this kind of stuff is relevant to all of us.

  53. 70

    Now that was a very cool post I’ve seen lately.. Everybody was just writing about “client is always right” and stuff like that.. This is something I really wanted to read about..
    Great stuff, thanks ! :)

  54. 71

    First of all this is a great post and it absolutely fits this week. New client, bad redesign coming up, had some recommendations, were completely turned down.

    The problem is not that my recommendations were not accepted but rather that I was really annoyed of them not accepting my “professional” opinion. I was so secure that everything I said was absolutely correct that I completely stopped listening. With all the posts about how awful some clients can be (Clients From Hell, etc.) my ego was pushed too far. I was thinking that I was part of the “really cool guys developing websites” and that the client has no idea what he was talking about.

    I was wrong to think like that. I am not part of “the uber awesome web developers” and by thinking I would be I had proven that I wasn’t.

    Rather than making a total idiot of myself I should have acted professionally and find out if my help wasn’t needed / wanted / good enough / presented well and then deal with it.

  55. 72

    The thing that I see in the comments is a lot of people who are dismissing their clients. This is a very dangerous game to play. Turning down a client in a huff because they are idiots or bad clients can cost you a lot of credibility. My personal rule on getting rid of a client is if they are affecting my ability to help other clients.

    I do however play the cat-mouse game. I dont design currently, but when I used to get the “Well so and so is willing to build my website for $50.00” I would say “well my price for what you are looking for is XXX, but you are free to go for the $50.00 guy if you want. I will archive what we discussed.”. Then gauge their response and respond reaffirming your sales pitch and why your better. I have had many people go pay for the $50.00 site, and then come back begging for me to work on their site because the kid wasn’t professional and didn’t finish the job and took the $50.00. I have the original information still, I then re-asses it with them and get to work. They love that, I also have had them leave and not return. They obviously wanted the $50.00 website and I dont do that, so they got what they ultimately wanted, while I got customers who payed much more then that.

  56. 73

    Not banging my own drum here but after 20 years in the industry you learn to pick your battles with certain clients. You also become wise enough to spot the trouble makers a mile off too. Sometimes you get fortunate enough to have loyal long term clients who appreciate your expertise and advise – the door does swing both ways though. Don’t always assume the client is thick and you are right. Horses for courses at the end of the day and so don’t approach each client with the same mantra. I have found that more difficult clients require different methods. And most of all remember at the end of the day you are trying to realise the best solution for them … not what will satisfy your own creative ego.

    Peace out :-)

  57. 74

    I like that !

  58. 75

    Sometimes client’s are beyond salvation.

    Cases like:

    Dad who wants to please his spoiled daughter, and says “yes” when she draws on my mockups.
    Then he comes to me and ask me to write what she came up with… the results are terrifying and look as if we are about 10 years back … the period 1997-2000.

    Or the client which wife has so many years of designing experience (of spreadsheets) that I am no match for her skills with tables and animated clip art.

    There are just so many ways for someone to be wrong. But the most interesting thing is that these clients love their sites, and even brought me more customers. Sometimes they are even coming back with some terrible ideas, but after all, what makes us professionals is that, no matter the what the job is, we can make both sides happy – after all “it is all about the money”.

    • 76

      If my job was about making the client happy, and make money for me; then ill be a clown not a Graphic Designer.

  59. 77

    This article is pretty much consistent with my experience, but there are a few grey areas of contention. Sometimes the client is clueless and adamant, sometimes I really need the the work. The article to write when these 2 come together is, ‘Remediating Disputes With Irrational Clients So They Don’t Blame You When you Deliver What They Demanded’

  60. 78

    Sometimes i wish i had a Jedi ‘mind trick’ force ability ; (

  61. 79

    Gilberto Ramos

    December 11, 2009 6:24 am

    Thanks for the article!

  62. 80

    Thanks. This is indeed a wonderful article. Surely will help me a great deal.

  63. 81

    Kenneth Ciszewski

    December 11, 2009 8:58 am

    If what the client asks for is ethically, legally, morally, physically, or technically impossible, then you need to say “no” in a nice way, and tell them why you have to say no.

    If you simply think they won’t like the result once they have it, then you might say:

    “I understand what you are asking, but I’m concerned that you will not like the result once you see it when it’s complete, at which point we will have to redo the work, and that may incur extra cost and take extra time. However, if you think this is what you really want and will sign off on it, then we will make it happen.”

    I once had a client who wanted an unusual feature on a system. It cost more than the more standard arrangement, and I tried to talk him out of it (gently) three times. After he stood his ground, I provided what he asked for, and he was satisfied, so satisfied, that, later on, when the system needed expansion, he paid for that also, and we used the same method, even though it was more costly.

  64. 82

    There is an interesting article found on artlebedev concerning this.

    § 140. Designers and design

    A designer is often easily baffled by a question: “And what if your customer is smarter than you?”

    Designers tend to possess a strong belief that they are artists and their creative ideas are not subject to criticism. Most web designers known to the author mistake their craft for an art. To make it worse, they consider whatever they’ve done valuable just because they’ve hatched it out.

    A bottle—one of the ideal objects—is shaped like that not because some designer suddenly felt his left ball itching and had a creative urge to make a bottleneck narrow, but due to the fact that cork was expensive and had to be used wisely.

  65. 83

    I think you did a really great job dealing with this subject and there’s been some really awesome discussion. It’s like thinking of a job as a design school assignment– you’re presented with a “problem”, which comes with its own set of specification, and you need to find the solution, which will work within those constraints. You wouldn’t just throw out the specs and do whatever you want. The same goes for a client. Of course, if you have a client that fights you every step of the way, the problem is probably one of trust and this is not a client you want to work with in the future. So you finish the job as professionally as possible and move on. Something I think we all learn the hard way.

    A friend of mine and my former creative director Bobby Martin used to say that the user will ask for a result (say, making the logo bigger) instead of pointing out the problem (the logo needs to be more prominent in the design). It’s your job as a designer to decode what the client asks for and provide them with the best solution (maybe it’s placing more whitespace around the logo instead of making it bigger). I think that’s the best philosophy, and if you think of it that way, you’ll never have to turn away a client.

  66. 84

    Thanks for the great article. It’s a fine line between being a professional who offers great advice and someone who comes off as the “I’m always right” type of guy. You’ve offered some excellent tips on how to address a very delicate situation rather than tip-toe around it… which I’m sure many of us are guilty of.

  67. 85

    Great Blog

  68. 86

    Sheldon (Marketing Consultant, NZ)

    December 12, 2009 6:19 pm

    Nice work Sam!

  69. 87

    Thanks for the article, very interesting!

  70. 88


    Isn’t it a bad, bad practice to just swipe images without properly crediting them?

    Not only is the image from a threadless t-shirt and it would be good form to mention it somewhere but it seems you’ve decided to get another person’s photo of it (I won’t assume it’s to avoid crediting threadless, but the thought crossed my mind) and post it without credit, either.

    You didn’t even link to the actual photo but saved a local copy of it.

    Now, considering you’re all experts here, you’re writing an article about how to tell people they’re wrong, how you mention the importance of directness and you consider admitting defeat a trait, how about properly crediting that picture?

    Or must I link to the user’s photo in Flickr?

  71. 89

    Thanks for all your comments!

    It seems many of you are very quick to dump a client who refuses to see things your way. All I can say is, although I discuss it, it’s a rare thing when a client can’t be bought around to your way of thinking, and you guys must have great cashflow and loads of new work always lined up to be able to dump a client so easily :) I salute you!

    I believe a good commercial approach is that some things you do for portfolio pieces, and others to pay the bills – you choose what to put your name on and what you don’t – and don’t forget, sometimes these clashes with clients happen during a project, not at the beginning!

    @Design Informer, agreed. I will always look to tell the client that the colors clash, if they resist, I’ll point them in the direction of some color theory resources and get my design team to speak to them – this approach has been 100% successful to date.

    @Peter, you’re right when you say adding your test banner for free doesn’t get you paid, but for such a small job, depending on your feeling about future budget from the same client, I’d say it’s worth it. Not only does it keep you talking to the client, if you turn out to be right, that client will listen to you in the future.

    @Carlos, typo corrected, thanks for pointing it out.

    @Tapper, I bow to the excellent Grange Hill reference ;)

    @Simon Urbina, I see your point, but this section is more to do with keeping an open mind and first considering the client’s request from all angles before recommeding against it. I come across too many people in the web business who think they know best, which is fine and often true, but when they don’t combine that with being a little humble, it really comes across as arrogance to the client rather than collaborative working and education.

    @Brandy @jake @eduo, I’ve now added the image sources. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

  72. 90

    I do the site but dont include it on my cv, my boss refuses to let any developers in the meeting with the client so we have no input. we just charged a client 14grand to plug in a free xml webservice.

  73. 91

    Three Scenarios:

    Nobody’s mentioned this. What happens when you do it the way the client asks for and 3 months later they start blaming you for giving them a bad website?

    Sometimes the designer has little or no contact with the client and has no choice. This kind of thing happens a lot in agency work where designers aren’t included in the sales process and the account reps don’t understand the web (especially if the agency was once primarily print driven). Sales people generally will promise whatever it takes to make the sale. Then you get stuck holding a bag full of bad ideas.

    Freelancers often face a different problem. They really can’t afford to be turning away clients. It’s easy to say doing something you’re not proud of will hurt you in the long run. When you’re trying to scrape up some money to feed your family, sometimes you have to. Unfortunately, Utopia doesn’t exist.

    Good communication with clients is the key to making better sites, but sometimes you just have to do what you’re told and live to fight another day.

  74. 92

    Thats why I complain here

  75. 93

    Henrik Pedersen

    December 23, 2009 6:10 am

    Those meerkats are totaly cute !! xD

    Anyway, nice article. I really think that this is a hot topic, there is nothing more irritating than to explain to a client that he/she is wrong, and the client just don’t get that you have more experience, and you are the pro…

  76. 94

    Sometimes you gotta cram your whole hand up your ass.

  77. 95

    The trick is to make the client believe your ideas are their ideas, then you congratulate them on how good they are and charge them! simple. Clients are always right even when they are wrong.

    There is another trick which I call needs analysis rather the requirements analysis. It goes something like this. To create a requirement a client goes through 4 steps.
    1. They perceive there is an issue which needs addressing.
    2. They need to quantity that issue in their mind first – (they use their domain model to do this(past experiences))
    3. Then they need to describe the issue as a requirement which usually means they want to copy something they perceive already meets their issue.
    4. They then need to communicate the issue to you which becomes a requirement you should meet.

    Most of the time the client makes a bad job of this process because they’re not designers! Its our job to understand steps 1 to 4 and then re-frame the clients solution based on step 1, the original issue.

    Sometimes you can’t do this so you should walk away

  78. 96

    Here’s what I’ve found while trying to protect clients from themselves:

    Clients get confused by my passion for usability, they lose the ability to tell whether you’re giving them essential information (40% of your users squint) and opinion (your text is small).

    I’ve tried showing clients user studies and best practices articles, both to educate and gain trust, but it backfires every time. They feel insulted because they think I’m trying to push it.

    I’ve tried not thinking about the end user experience, and being at peace with getting paid to “hurt” the internet. It’s a huge relief to suspend all objective thought and just make crap, until somebody asks me what I’ve been working on, and I feel like a prostitute. I don’t want to say “ugh it’s such bullshit” and I don’t want to show them, and I don’t want to say “I don’t want to say” either.

    My new solution is to pass the pain back to the client in the form of withdrawn discounts:

    I make a list and say “deviation from these best practices into these worst practices takes your site out of my portfolio, cutting its value to me in half, and I’m charging half the agency standard as a discount for not making me do stuff I can’t show to other prospectives.”

    Web designers are more like house builders and architects than hairdressers and cake decorators. Even clothing alterations people get more respect than we do. Are pixels dirty? I don’t get it.

  79. 97

    But HOW do you ask a client, “…how they think implementing it will benefit their business, generate more quality leads or increase conversions” without sounding condescending? Their answer will most likely be: “I don’t know – just put it there.”

    • 98

      It all goes back to how you set the project up in the first place with the client. From the outset you should explain that the best way (your way) of working is to make sure as many decisions throughout the project should be based on project goals decided upon at the start – project goals that are business focussed rather than design or technically focussed.

      If you lay down this foundation early on, and constantly refer back to it during decision making times (without sounding like a stuck record) then when it comes to this situation it shouldnt sound condescending.

      Of course there are times when the client doesnt care about the original goals, or is getting extreme pressure from elsewhere in their organisation – in situtaions like this you should know when to back down and just do what they say. As long as you have communicated your feelings on the matter then you’be done all you can – pick your battles!

  80. 99

    I’ve always thought the only thing missing in everything is a little understanding. I find this is the best way to approach these situations. If we diligently try to understand the clients perspective, then sometimes these requests don’t seem so off putting.


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