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Turning All Clients Into Dream Clients (or Common Client Difficulties)

Clients can be tough… real tough. Working side by side with some clients can be an agonizing experience — an experience so painful that you often wonder what exactly you have gotten yourself into. On the other hand, some clients are an absolute dream to work with. Every day spent working with them reminds you why you became a web designer and just how enjoyable your job actually is. The question then is, how do we take our most difficult clients and turn them into dream clients? The answer may be easier than you realize.

Clients often require a bit of hand-holding. When dealt with correctly, this is not too overwhelming; it just calls for some simple guidance. You may be surprised by how a few extra emails here and there can make a world of difference. Outlined here are some of the most common client difficulties our Twitter followers have run into and how to best resolve them.

Also consider our previous articles:

Common Client Difficulties Link

Doesn’t Know What They Want Link

Client does not know what they want.6
“They have no idea what they want!” (@daveom7)

More often than none, clients have no idea what they want and look to you for your expertise. For a designer, it can be annoying. Then again, how many times have you been to a restaurant and had no idea what to order and asked for a recommendation? Clients are no different. They are looking for recommendations, not fixed solutions. Talk it over with them, get all the details, and then start making educated recommendations. As ideas start to bounce around, one will hit home and provide a base from which to work.

It takes a great deal of patience, but getting all of the necessary information and building a solid starting point will not only help you throughout the project, but also reassure the client that they made the right decision.

Feels Left Out of Process Link

Client feels left out of the process.8
“They never feel ‘in the loop’ — so to solve this, I try to call them each week for an update and a chat.” (@jaaved9)

Communication is the foundation of any successful client relationship. When this foundation starts to slip, the relationship begins to crumble. Starting a project on the same page as the client is easy, but staying on the same page throughout the project requires tenacity.

At the beginning of each project, create a calendar outlining a timeline of events for the project. The calendar should explain when the client can expect certain tasks to be completed and when they will need to provide certain information. A calendar is just the start to keeping the client in the loop; it should be followed up with regular emails and phone calls. If you are making a change that will take up to a day or two, send a quick email to let the client know. A quick email takes only a minute to send, and it assures the client that you are indeed working. Simple and small efforts such as these keep the client happy and informed of the entire process.

Changes Mind Midway Link

Client changes their mind midway through developments.10
“Clients agreeing to the brief and all suggestions, and then changing their mind when they actually see it built.” (@hawkpie11)

It’s bound to happen sooner or later: you start a project, things are going well, and then the client gets a new idea. They request that you scrap what you’ve done so far and move in another direction. All of your hard work and effort, which the client originally wanted, is wasted — or so you suspect.

In reality, merging what the client originally wanted with the new direction may be completely possible. Keep an open line of communication and work out the reasoning behind the new direction. What they want might not be far off from what you’re actually doing, and mixing in a few new details may not be too difficult.

The initial shock of a request for a new direction is often worse than it seems. Keep a good attitude, and work it out with the client professionally. If the client refuses to meet you in the middle, you should have a solid contract to back up the project, and bill them for the extra work accordingly.

Doesn’t Understand Web Design Link

Client does not have a general understanding of web design and development.12
“General lack of knowledge.” (@robbclarke13)

When I take my car into the shop for a repair, the mechanic knows to speak to me in terms I will understand. If they go into detail about how my carburetor is not getting the right fuel-to-oxygen intake ratio of 14.7:1, then I look at them as though they are speaking a foreign language. The same is true with our clients. If I explain to them that the layout is based on a 12-column 960-pixel-wide grid, in which everything in the left column needs to stay within 220 pixels, then they would look at me as though I was speaking a foreign language as well.

Our job as web designers is to educate our clients. That is neither easy nor glamorous, but working with an educated client is much more pleasurable. When a client fully understands what you are doing and why you are doing it, then they are much more welcoming of your changes, and they’ll often even offer quality suggestions. Remember, what is obvious to you may not be obvious to them, so be as accommodating as possible.

Doesn’t Provide Enough Information Link

Client does not provide sufficient details or information.14
“Asking specific questions and getting vague replies, then clients thinking you’re slow in some way when you ask again.” (@Shellra15)

Client requests are not uncommon. If a client is not a fan of a blue button, they will tell you so. Being such a polite designer, you change the color of the button. But upon changing it, the client mentions that what they really meant is that they want the button to stand out more. Again, being the polite designer, you make it stand out more. Following this change, the client says that you are getting closer to what they want but that they would like to see the button in blue. Not so politely anymore, you want to know what the problem is. Your button was blue to begin with — what really is the problem?

This type of situation happens all too frequently and is extremely frustrating. The client thinks you are senseless for not understanding what they want, and you think the client is ignorant for not giving you all the necessary details. The quarrel could go on for ages, and no one would win.

When a client provides insufficient detail, go back to them and explain in great detail that you are not too sure what they are looking for. Explain that the more information they give and the better they describe what they’re looking for, then the better you can deliver what they want. Ask for an example or approximation of what they’re looking for. Make sure they understand that the more guidance you get, the better. If you feel you are not getting the details you need, don’t be afraid to jump on the phone with them to hash out the details. Playing the guessing game is the quickest way to burn out. Avoid it at all costs.

Expectations Are Too High Link

Client sets too high of expectations.16
“How about expecting the earth on a shoestring budget and wanting it by 5:30 pm.” (@fruitymilk17)

One of the most difficult parts of being a web designer is managing client expectations. Clients will often come with a list of requests that they presume is not all that difficult to achieve… and that they expect will turn their website into the next best social network. On top of a laundry list of demands, the client also informs you that they are working on a very limited budget and short timeframe. To them, you “do this kind of thing all the time,” and so doing it for them should be a walk in the park. Sadly, they are wrong, and no one but us is at fault.

Christina Krasovich puts it best: “If you don’t manage client expectations, you will never exceed client expectations.” If we do not regularly communicate with our clients about what we are doing and what is feasible, then no wonder they think we have the power to move oceans. Continually keep them informed of the project’s progress, and discuss complications as they arise. A client who is kept in the dark will not know how difficult anything is to accomplish. They will be dumbfounded when you balk at a request.

When negotiating a new project, explain to the client the difficulty of what they are requesting. Let them know that the task they would like to be performed requires time and money to complete. Correctly managing expectations keeps the client at bay. Exceeding expectations will have them praising you.

Struggles to Pay on Time Link

Client struggles to pay on time.18
“Paying on time is my biggest difficulty with clients, especially with larger companies.” (@thefunkhouse19)

Staying afloat is extremely difficult when a client struggles to pay on time. Even one late payment is enough to cause a great deal of suffering. But as in any industry, when you take on a job, you run the risk of not being paid in full. You never expect not to be paid, of course, but you can take certain steps to soften the blow when a client struggles to pay.

To begin, keep your expenses as low as possible. Do you really need an account for stock photography, or are enough free resources online for you to work for the time being? Just because your income is at a certain level does not mean you need to spend it all. Save your money for operational costs the next time a client pays late.

Also, write a solid contract, and request a decent deposit before starting. If a client is sluggish about making a deposit, this may be a strong indication of things to come: proceed with caution. In the contract, clearly state when payment is due and what are the penalties should the client pay late. Review this part of the contract with the client before signing it, making sure they are fully aware of the penalty.

Be open and honest with the client about payment. Stay on top of them, pleasantly reminding them when their invoice is coming up and when payment is due.

One Day At A Time Link

At the end of the day, the very least you can do is treat your client with respect and hope they treat you in turn. All of the communication and assistance in the world will not mean a thing if it is done with contempt.

Some clients will be rougher than others, and that’s fine. Keep your head up, and don’t give in. Continue to work with them, educating them, making compromises and working together. When you and a client are happy with each other, the opportunities are endless. Before shrugging off the next client who throws a fit, take a different approach. With a little extra effort, you never know — they may just end up being the client of your dreams.

Additional Resources (And Laughs) Link


Footnotes Link

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Shay Howe is a professional web and user interface designer currently living in Chicago, IL. He writes about web design in his own blog over at letscounthedays and would love to hear from you on Twitter.

  1. 1

    lol, interesting.. the customer is always right
    the client is king

    • 2

      We are the trusted advisors, and it is our job to to educate clients, as the author wrote above….not only on what we are doing, but what they should be doing.

  2. 3

    Thanks for this article. Very timely as I have a web client who is currently doing my head in, and I wonder what I could have done differently to manager her a little better.

  3. 4

    Well put but there are some inconsistencies. There are some particular situations like the ones where there is a low budget and hight expectations where you need to stop working for that client and end the job, or not take it at all, as it will most likely be a long, frustrating project where the client will be … from hell… and you will end up doing a lot of work for very very little pay (maybe even no pay).

    There are clients to stay away from and situations that can’t be resolved trough the above magic in the article.

  4. 5

    Great read!

    Budget will never be enough if one estimates it exactly. It has to be a little bit higher just in case they throw in something new during development, then you know you are well covered to some extent. Also if you suspect a client will be difficult, try getting 50% down payment, and make sure the contract is non-exclusive. That way, if they don’t collect on time, you are at liberty to sell it elsewhere at a good price. To ensure a 90% smooth run, the contract should spell out exactly what you are supposed to deliver.

    Keep it up smashin mag!

  5. 6

    Thanks for this article! I’m in the process of building a web-design company and this is really helpful.

    And not only that, but as a fashion stylist this is fantastic as well, the same rules apply!

  6. 7

    Indeed! Im with a client from hell right now. It has come to the point where I’m the cursor in Photoshop that she controls. All Web standards are out the window cause she does not know them. Its sad that I need the money cause else I would have fired her. This is not a good project!

    Thats the only thing I think is “wrong” about this article. Sometimes its better to let go than to invest all that money and time in a project you are not happy about or not making money on. Better to look for another client that will pay accordingly than to work with one who wont.

  7. 8

    I regularly have an issue with content.
    Customers want a web site designed.
    I quote – explicitly – for what is included; whether that be graphics, logos, icons, layout, number of template pages. I also list all requirements prior to starting.

    But, some clients seem to think if you have built a site design for them, that that will automatically include not just content migration, but also content creation, reworking existing images and the like.

    It’s like asking a builder to construct a house for you, then asking them to decorate it and move all teh furniture in for free because “all houses have stuff in, don’t they?”

    At least they don’t write out the content on a notepad, scan it into their computer and send over a jpg…..

    Oh wait. My last one did that too….


    • 9

      I had a large project earlier this year where the clients failed to deliver photos, and their “content” consisted of a page of keywords. I thought I had my bases covered in the contract with the required deliverables listed in detail. My only guess is they just didn’t read it, or they just kept delegating the task to someone else.

  8. 10

    Thank you for a well-written article, Shay!

    Too often we just list “Top 10 Client Problems” or bash the general “idiocy” of clients. Some articles will suggest working with them but this one actually outlines how to work with clients.

    And writing from our point of view as clients too was a great way to get the point across (i.e. the mechanic and the fuel-to-oxygen intake ratio, haha).

    Again, thanks. :D

  9. 12

    This is a brilliant post, and an excellent read!
    There will always be clients that would fulfil any if not all types here…there have been some that do my head in, and I just keep telling myself to smile and explain a little more thoroughly, but there are some that don’t appreciate the explanation and only want you to do the work quick, fast, and cheap.
    This industry is like any other industry, you get paid for your expertise, but some just seem to think that it’s possible to pull some work out of your backside and call it great work; process doesn’t seem to be appreciated as much. I don’t know how many times I’ve been on the verge of blowing up!

    Anyway, thanks again for this post! Will surely refer back to this for guidance in the (near) future.

  10. 13

    I have to say, Smashing articles are the only long ones that pop up in my feed that I truly read all the way through. Thanks for being such a fantastic resource!

    I feel like the point on communication and keeping the client very much in-the-loop is a big one, and one I could make a larger effort to do, myself. A client never likes to have to email you and ask what’s happening.

  11. 14

    My favorite clients to work with, are those who want rush coding projects. They always pay very fast and good. Of course, I can code quickly enough, while still deliver quality.

  12. 15

    Completely agree with Mary and really enjoyed reading through your post.

    The “expectations” piece is one I learned many years ago. I don’t want to the lack of client’s understanding to damage our relationship. We take extra time to educate our clients on all aspects of our internet marketing and or social media project so they know what to expect. We have found that sharing case studies of similar projects really help paint the story around what to expect.

  13. 16

    A great way to educate your clients and give them proper recommendations is by showing them wireframes of their site. However, it doesn’t stop there. Annotating your wireframes with reasons why users will benefit from each design decision on your wireframes is key.

    This article shows you how to annotate your wireframes properly.

  14. 17

    Nice article. I have had a few bad experiences with clients but its important to be patient and understand where they’re coming from. They are paying you after all. But sure, it can very frustrating sometimes.

  15. 18

    Thanks for this great article! I havn’t really started working properly with clients, but from my experience, all I can say is that – If you are good at something, don’t do it for free. I designed some posters for the fest of my college but it was a bad experience mostly.
    But I’ve learnt my lessons, thanks to you guys and the circumstances.

  16. 19

    I don’t like the phrase “the client is always right” An absolute indicates that if they made you create a $10,000 website and then wanted it for free, that they had every right to. There are plenty of times where the best thing to do is to politely cut a troublesome client.

    The client is not always right; this isn’t even close to a truism to me.

  17. 20

    the main thing is that clients see the design but don’t understand it. that’s why i always write a bit of a specification alike thing-o, explaning why stuff is positioned here or there, why the colors, yada yada, sometimes some irrelevant statistics to support the idea.
    it works two ways:
    a) _mainly_ clients see this as a thing which should work, not just the thing which should look nice. after reading the specs it becomes more technical, like there’s an actual science behind it. they read the thesis, google a bit and come to understand what i did and why. it becomes logical so it can’t be wrong.
    b) when you don’t know enough about electronics to repair a radio you don’t do it yourself, you pay someone to do it. after reading the specs the design isn’t just “clicking” or “making an image” – it becomes something they can’t understand. so why make yourself look like a dumbass, talking about designing? no… no… it’s better to accept it the way this nice mister says.
    maybe it is a bit of a spin technique but it works.

    of course it’s not like i won’t change anything they don’t like – they are still the clients. but if i see that the design goes downside in quality or attractiveness and i know i won’t add such a thing to my portfolio (because it looks ugly) then i have to intervene somehow, right?
    unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to work with corporate gigs. too many people messing with the design… can’t control them all.

  18. 21

    Sometimes unfortunately you may have to fire a client if you feel that things are not working out. I don’t believe it is worth the aggravation or any amount of money if the client is causing you that much stress. You are supposed to be in business for yourself because you didn’t want to work for someone else and deal with their crap. As a business owner you have a choice, you choose who you want to work with. Many times even though I have felt financially strapped I have chosen to not take on a client when they showed early signs of being a PITA. If don’t compromise your values you leave room for the “right” clients to show up for you when you need them.

  19. 22

    Being a business with a long term strategy, it’s become a daily affair and sometimes a struggle to juggle between the two; dream clients and bad clients. But with the right amount of inspiration, we are able to educate internal staff to handle most situations with delicate care.

    This is helped us build and strengthened our client – us relationships
    over the years.

    This article is great and it’s related links too for those feeling discouraged.

  20. 23

    All of these things can be avoided with contracts and very clear expectations, as well as being a bit selective – you simply shouldn’t take on clients that are not a good fit for you as a designer or as a person. If they want to change their minds – OK! The contract states once a proof is approved, another one is extra $$. They don’t know what they want? That is what your awesome quote form is for that has 20 questions aimed precisely to get that information from them, and if they still don’t know, that is Creative Freedom. High expectations and payment are also managed by contracts and up-front expectations. In fact, I only ever have these kinds of problems when dealing with corporations and never with individuals. The client is NOT ‘king’. Your mutual relationship is, and as soon as it becomes one sided in either direction, it is setup to fail either because you get underpaid and overworked to satisfy them, or because they feel disrespected. The answer to handling clients is simple – balance.


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