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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. Home page 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.

You may want to take a look at related articles:

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 .Net7, and they probably won’t grasp the gravitas that comes with being a speaker at web conferences such as SXSW8.

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 header9

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 Test10.
  • 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 “naff11.” 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 testing12: 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?

  • What to do When Your Client Is Wrong
    Ramona Iftode discusses how to communicate with a client that they may be making a wrong decision.
  • 10+ Tips to Improve Interaction with Clients
    A collection of handy tips from admixWeb to help you deal with clients.
  • Getting Design Sign-off
    Paul Boag presents a video describing techniques and processes you can use to get clients to buy into a vision that achieves their goals.
  • Clients from Hell13
    A collection of anonymously submitted client requests that are just wrong, and wrong in such creative ways! These situations probably could have been avoided with better client management, but they’re still a giggle to read.
  • 13 Tips for Effective Communication with Clients14
    Steven Snell gives some excellent tips that should help you when talking to clients and capturing requirements.
  • Designers and Communication Skills: Why and How to Improve15
    A post from Vandelay Design that explains why communication skills are so important and ways you can improve them.
  • How To Communicate Design Decisions To Clients?16
    Brian Armstrong gives some great advice on how to guide a client through your design decisions that should leave them feeling confident in your recommendations.

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

    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…

    • 3

      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!?

      • 4

        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 :)

      • 5

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

      • 6

        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…

      • 7


        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?

      • 8

        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.

    • 9

      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!

    • 10

      @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.

      • 11

        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

      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.

    • 13

      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.

  3. 14

    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.

    • 15

      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.

  4. 16

    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

    • 17

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

      • 18

        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.

      • 19

        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.

    • 20

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

    • 21

      Muhammad Usman

      August 28, 2010 11:23 am

      really bad very bad…

  5. 22

    thanks….a very essential article… keep up

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 25

    Yes, Thats Right.
    Thanks SM for wonderful article.

  9. 26


  10. 27

    Sam, this is so true… respect!

  11. 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.

  12. 30

    Great article !!!!! very useful

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 33

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.


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