If you’ve been a freelance web designer for any length of time, you’ve likely discovered that the old adage “the customer is always right” is most definitely not true. Sure, there are amazing clients out there, and you probably enjoy working with the vast majority of people that hire you. However, you also know that:
There are some customers that drive you crazy.
Though, while dealing with difficult customers is a common problem, not all problematic clients are built the same. In fact, there are all kinds of difficult customers that are difficult for all kinds of reasons.
But it is important to remember that as a freelancer, part of your job is to try and prevent difficult situations from arising in the first place. To help you do that, let’s review how to deal with difficult clients. We’ll go over some of the most common types of problematic customers, as well as how to address their complaints and demands in a professional manner.
Difficult Client #1: They Haggle Over Money and Time
Money and time are two things none of us ever have enough of. But that doesn’t mean that your clients have a right to take advantage of you to save themselves some money and capitalize on your time. This seems to be a common occurrence nonetheless.
Some Difficult Clients are Hyper-Focused on Money
It would be great if all web design clients hired us with an unlimited budget, but that’s just not reality. Talking about money isn’t really a comfortable discussion to have anyway, but some clients make the task that much more difficult by trying to wrestle as much out of you as they possibly can for the lowest possible price.
Money issues can arise at the front or back end of a project. Some clients fuss about your initial price estimate and seem to worry more about getting you down in price than they are about your ideas for their website. If this is the case, it may be best to pass on the job opportunity. If a client comes right out of the gate haggling over the price, it’s usually a good indicator that price will be a sticking point throughout the project. In these situations, it just isn’t worth it.
Other clients wait until the end of the job to dissect every detail of the invoice, asking for an explanation for each hour of your time spent on the project. They may accuse you of overcharging them or adding in tasks that they didn’t want. Still other clients may lollygag and take forever to pay you, forcing you to chase them around and beg for payment for services rendered.
The Solution: If money has become a sticking point, there are several ways you can deal with difficult clients. First, you should invest some time and energy into developing a detailed pricing structure for your services. Whether you charge by the hour or by the task doesn’t matter – just make it abundantly clear what your prices are so the client is well aware up front.
Second, find a suitable system to track your time and create invoices so there is no question as to how much time you spent on what aspect of the website design process. There are many resources out there for freelancers to handle these tasks, some of which are completely free to use.
Lastly, if late-paying clients have become an issue, consider changing your payment structure. A good system might look like this:
Require 50 percent payment on day one before you ever begin any work, with the remaining 50 percent due upon delivery.
Or, if you charge by the hour, think about sending weekly invoices, with continued work contingent upon previous invoices being paid in full. If all else fails, hire someone to collect the debt. Sometimes a well-placed call from a debt collector is the kick in the pants a late-paying client needs.
Some Difficult Clients Have No Concept of Time
Another type of difficult client is the one who seems to believe that their project is the only one you’ve got on your schedule. These clients want everything done yesterday and might even pester you with inquiries about why it’s taking so long, even if you’re well within your agreed-upon deadline. These clients are usually in such a rush because of their own inability to get organized and get things done in a timely fashion.
These difficult clients might also not respect time boundaries and call you or email you after business hours or on weekends. Some clients mistake “freelancing” for being on-call 24/7, and this simply is not the case.
These clients drive freelancers crazy on two fronts:
One, they don’t respect your time, and two, they don’t respect boundaries and try to contact you whenever they please.
The Solution: To avoid falling into a situation in which you’re fielding off-hour calls and working frantically to meet a client’s unrealistic time demands, it’s important to have a frank discussion with the client about how long it takes you to complete a project. Always provide an estimated timeline for completion before you ever begin any work. And emphasize that it is only an estimated timetable to account for unforeseen circumstances.
Additionally, be abundantly clear about your office hours. If you work 8-5 Monday-Friday, tell your clients that. Include it in the contract, on your invoices, and on your website so there is no confusion about when you are and aren’t available.
The Bottom Line: The more you’re able to explain up front, and the more detailed your invoices can be, the less leeway clients have in arguing about the expenses or the timeline. The same goes for establishing boundaries with regard to your time and when you will and will not be available to work.
Difficult Client #2: They Don’t Know What They Want
Sometimes clients will come to you with a varying degree of uncertainty about exactly what it is they want. Fortunately, for most clients, the design process helps answer many (if not all) their questions. Unfortunately, some clients persist in having no clue what they want or need. This kind of indecisiveness can cripple the design process.
Some Difficult Clients Always Need a Second Opinion
It could be that your client wants to compare your prices with another freelancer. Perhaps they want their wife or sister or dad to chime in on the draft design you’ve submitted. Or maybe your client just wants to be sure you’re the right designer for their project. Whatever the case, some clients will want a second, third, fourth, and twentieth opinion before they commit to making a decision.
The Solution: Provide your clients with as much information as you possibly can up front, in writing. Pricing, timing, your policy about revisions, your commitment to timely communication…give them as much information as you can about anything that might help clients make up their minds.
Some Difficult Clients Hate Your Design But Don’t Know Why
Some clients express their indecisiveness by telling you that your draft designs aren’t what they want. The problem arises when they can’t tell you why your design doesn’t fit their vision. Working with these kinds of clients is like taking random stabs in the dark, hoping to hit your target. It can turn a simple, short-term project into one that drags on and on, seemingly forever.
The Solution: Again, the key to working with this type of client is to provide as much information upfront as you can. Your contract should stipulate exactly how many revisions are included in the price, and how much additional revisions cost. Also clearly define the parameters of what you will do – narrowing the focus of your duties will help streamline the process and give your client fewer things to be indecisive about.
Some Difficult Clients Keep Adding to Your To-Do List
Most freelance web designers have encountered the client that hires you to do a “website refresh,” who then continually adds more and more work until you’re doing a full-blown site redesign. While the additional work is welcome, the ramifications it has on your schedule to have constant additions to the project can be tiresome.
While most clients might have a change here or an addition there, it is the clients who keep piling on and piling on that cause most freelancers the most headaches. It can be a particularly bad situation if the client believes that the additions shouldn’t cost them anything extra.
The Solution: Although it may be tempting to agree to the first or second or even third addition, there has to be a line drawn at some point. Reminding your client of the parameters of your contract can help reign in their requests for additions. If they still insist on making changes, inform them in a calm and professional manner that additions to the design require additional funds. Remember:
It is your job – not your client’s – to establish what you will and will not do for the agreed-upon price and to share that pricing structure with clients from the get-go.
The Bottom Line: Indecisive clients can be the most frustrating of all. Be patient with them, but also do what you can to focus their attention and get the feedback you need to move forward. Limiting their choices can be a good option, so rather than presenting them with three alternative designs, only give them two. Also get everything in writing – absolutely everything. From the timeline to the price to the tasks you will complete. Never, ever rely on a verbal contract so you aren’t caught in a situation where you can’t prove what work you agreed to in the original contract.
Difficult Client #3: They Disappear
Little is as frustrating as being hired to do a job, only for your client to disappear into thin air. Waiting for responses to emails or phone calls can severely disrupt your timeline, which, if your client is also the type that wants the work done yesterday, can create a really ugly situation.
The problem is especially acute if you’ve gotten initial feedback and a go-ahead to commence work, only to wait for days (or weeks) for feedback once your initial designs are complete. With work partially done, but no direction to continue, you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. Movement forward is impossible without client feedback, but continuing work is not in your best interest, lest the client flakes out on you and you end up working without receiving payment.
The Solution: All you can do is to continue trying to touch base with your client. While phone calls might easier, a good rule of thumb is to use email first, that way there is a record of what you said and when you said it. Also try other means of contacting your client. Send them a tweet, message them on Facebook, or call them at their office.
The Bottom Line: Under no circumstances should you continue working on a project if a client has disappeared! The quickest way to wasting your time and getting stiffed on your fees is to continue working for someone that has become uncommunicative.
Difficult Client #4: They Know Too Much or Too Little
Our clients are seldom ideal. Sometimes they know a lot about technology and design (or think they do…) and try to micromanage your work because they feel they know best. Other times, clients are frustratingly in the dark about anything related to technology and design, which makes explaining what you’re doing and why that much more difficult.
Some Clients are High-Tech
Sometimes, someone that knows a lot about design and technology will hire you. While this might seem like a blessing at first, it can also turn into a nightmare. Sure, you don’t have to explain every little detail to them like you might to other clients (see below), but by the same token, high-tech clients might try to insert themselves into the process, which is not someplace they should be. These clients can quickly become a micromanager and be far too involved in the process for your comfort.
The Solution: If you’ve got a micromanager on your hands, it is important to set boundaries for what is and is not okay in your business relationship. Boundaries should be well defined and professional from moment one. Establish how often you will provide updates on the progress of the project.
And like mentioned above, outline specifically what you will do as part of your contractual obligations. It might even be a good idea to amend your contracts to include a clause about clients getting too involved in the minutiae of the project and exactly what recourse you will take should that happen.
Some Clients are Low-Tech
Even though we are well into the 21st century, there are still some people out there that don’t have a clue when it comes to technology. While it’s admirable that analog people are trying to get into the digital age, it can also be a bit of a curse for you.
Low-tech clients often need their hand held throughout the entire process. They may ask for something in the design that is impossible for you to do, and then not understand why it’s impossible. They might pepper you with questions each step of the way, causing you delays on their project and other projects as well. Other times, they may feel as though you’re secretive or uncommunicative when it is their ignorance about the process that is keeping them in the dark.
The Solution: There are several ways to overcome the difficulties of a low-tech client. First and foremost, be patient. Not everyone understands web design as well as you do. Secondly, start collecting common questions that clients have about your services, prices, and the technology you use. Providing a Q&A list to a low-tech client gives them something to refer to when questions arise, rather than hounding you with dozens of emails or phone calls seeking clarification.
But perhaps the best solution to this problem is to not exacerbate it. If someone hires you to design a website, give them something that is easy to use. The Mom and Pop shop in your town doesn’t need a custom-built HTML5 website. Instead, try using WordPress or a website builder like IM Creator. Sites built on those platforms make it much easier for Mom and Pop to take the reigns and make changes to their site when the time comes.
The Bottom Line: A healthy dose of patience, clearly defined boundaries, and a rock-solid contract will help you effectively deal with clients of all types, while also protecting you from backlash from an angry or dissatisfied client.
Be Willing to Fire a Client to Save Your Sanity
Fire a client? Yes! Sometimes there are occasions when you have to let a client go. Usually, it’s the individuals that don’t pay you that go first, but soon you’ll realize that for some clients, there is no pleasing them.
It can be excruciatingly difficult to turn away work, especially if you’ve already begun a project. But what is important to bear in mind is this:
The more involved you get with a difficult client, the less time you have to work with the clients with whom you have a good working relationship.
Sure, it may be tempting to exhaust several hours trying to explain something to a difficult client, but wouldn’t those several hours be more useful working on another client’s project or pursuing additional work elsewhere?
Firing clients isn’t easy, but it is sometimes necessary. In order to protect yourself, include a clause in your contract that says something like:
I have the right to terminate the project, for any reason I deem fit, at any time.
Guarantee that payments received to that point for work that is unfinished or unfulfilled will be returned to the client. That way you can have a clean break if you need to give a client the boot.
Problems will always arise with clients, and most of the time you’ll be able to address their concerns. However, difficult clients will come along, and as much as you strive to avoid them, sometimes you just can’t escape their clutches.
Dealing with difficult clients is just part of the business, and how you deal with them will, in part, define your reputation as a small business owner. In reality, some clients that prove to be difficult at the outset end up being among your most loyal customers because once they see that you are working in their best interest, they don’t want to let you go.
Just keep in mind that it is important to go with your instincts when talking to clients for the first time. If something inside you says that the client won’t be a good situation for you, don’t take the work. It’s surprising how many times designers get into sticky situations with difficult clients, only to say later on, “I knew I shouldn’t have taken that job.” If the client is fussy, indecisive, bossy, demanding, or otherwise unpleasant, just walk away!
What have your experiences been with difficult clients? How would you recommend handling them? Leave a comment to get the conversation going!
Angry-Ann by Josh Janssen via Flickr Creative Commons
Money by Tax Credits via Flickr Creative Commons
Time by János Balázs via Flickr Creative Commons
Untitled by Financial Times via Flickr Creative Commons
5/4/2010: To-Do List by john.schultz via Flickr Creative Commons
Hold My Calls by Matt Reinbold via Flickr Creative Commons
Thingamagoop 2 From Bleep Labs by Kevin Dooley via Flickr Creative Commons
Fired by Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons