Avoid Difficult Clients by Fixing Your Process

In all the years I’ve worked as a developer in the marketing and advertising industry, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “this client is the worst.” I’ve heard it said at multiple companies, from multiple people, and about a multitude of different clients. Heck, even I’ve probably said it at some point in my career. But this sort of attitude is suggestive of a much larger problem (hint: it isn’t the clients), and without recognizing it, we can do nothing to fix it.

I get it. Working in these sorts of industries can be challenging, and sometimes, you just need to vent. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some legitimately bad clients out there— clients that your company probably shouldn’t have a relationship with in the first place. But come on, not every client can be “the worst.” So why do we sometimes feel or speak that way?

The problem is your process.

If the majority of clients that do business with you seem like bad apples, then the problem almost certainly isn’t them. It’s you. No, maybe not you as a person, but you as in the way that you and your company operate. This applies not only to developers, but to everyone involved in the website and creative marketing industries.

Many agencies (or even freelance developers) have a terrible tendency to treat their customers as though they are always right when they meet together, then bemoan those same customers as thick-headed imbeciles once the meeting is over. This is a foolish way of doing business that drains satisfaction from both clients and employees alike. So why do we do it? And how can we do better?

Stop being afraid.

Some people seem so terrified to offend a client that they shy away from even offering the slightest bit of advice during meetings. Salespeople (and others whose income is tied to a commission) are usually the worst offenders, of course— and to some extent, that’s understandable (although, in some cases, they’re more driven by greed than fear). But even creative directors, project managers, producers, and yes, developers can fall victim to this altogether unhelpful timidity. Instead of guiding the client toward a product that meets their ultimate goals, we cater to every whim that arises, no matter how counterproductive it may be.

The irony of this behavior is that we’re often so afraid of losing a client that we end up serving them a bad product as a result, which is likely to drive them away down the road (once they realize that their ROI isn’t what they expected) anyway. When we don’t offer our insight and direction, we are ultimately failing our customers; clients can and should offer their input throughout the design and development process, of course, but when we let someone without any real web design or marketing expertise run the entire process themselves, we always run into trouble.

Have a plan.

That is, don’t show up to a meeting with the intent of just listening to the client’s ideas (unless, perhaps, it’s an exploratory meeting at the very beginning of the website process). It’s unproductive, and it’s far too easy to get caught off-guard and commit to something that you probably shouldn’t be doing. If you are presenting something for the client to see (e.g. a mockup), be ready to explain not just what you did, but why you did it as well. Establish yourself early as someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Set expectations. Before any work has even started, explain to the client what the process will look like, when you will be checking in for their feedback, and what you need from them in order to meet deadlines. It may even be worth explaining to your point of contact that your ultimate job isn’t just to make them happy, but to make their organization successful in its goals. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the client’s objectives, and use those objectives to help steer them back on course when it’s needed.

Go into every meeting with a list of the things you’d like to accomplish, and be deliberate about shepherding the client in a direction that is going to help their organization accomplish its goals. Be prepared for them to suggest things that may be unwise or gimmicky (we’re all only human, after all), and politely explain why they go against your recommendations. And be sure the client knows what you expect of them as much as they know what they should expect of you.

In other words, be the expert.

Sure, some customers can be more obstinate than others, but if they’re hiring you to do something they can’t do on their own, then they’re paying for your expertise. If you speak with confidence and are able to back up your arguments, most clients will listen to you and trust your ideas.

The “customer is always right” approach does not work in digital marketing (I’m sure plenty of salespeople would disagree, but that’s a discussion for another time). A client can tell you what they’d like to achieve by through a project, but it’s up to you to get them there.

Establish yourself as an authority on whatever it is you’re discussing (that is, only if you really do know what you’re talking about). You don’t need to be smug about it or lord your knowledge over the client as if it makes you a better person. Explain things with patience and clarity, and be willing to support what you say with hard data or statistics (if possible).

The more comfortable the client is with trusting your expertise, the easier your life will be (and the better their website will end up in the long run). But if you passively look to the client to lead the way on the project, you have no right to whine when it doesn’t go how you’d like.

Control feedback.

My advice is to set specific windows for client feedback, but ask that your client refrain from calling or  emailing you as soon as an idea pops into his or her brain. Have them write down anything they’d like to suggest or discuss, and organize a periodic meeting or conference call to go through their entire list together. This accomplishes four things.

One, you don’t have to worry about your inbox being flooded with various email chains that waste precious time and can become very difficult to go back and refer to later (e.g. when the time comes to actually work on a request). You can take detailed notes and have them organized all in one place (no piecing things back together after the fact).

Two, you’re less likely to be caught in a situation where you’ve just finished fulfilling a request, only to have the client change their mind and ask you to revert things (or do something else altogether). The client’s ideas will (hopefully) be more thought-out and well-formulated before they share them with you, saving you both time and energy in the long run.

Three, you can actually be focused on the client and their feedback instead of sending them half-attentive, off-the-cuff answers as the feedback streams in (see “Have a plan” above). You’re much more likely to agree to a bad idea when you just want to get a client off of your back (e.g., when you just want to reply to their email quickly so you can focus on other work). Don’t put yourself in that situation.

Four, you’re managing the client’s expectations and retaining control over the process. You can very easily explain to the client why your process works the way it does (to improve efficiency, to stay under budget, to remain organized, to keep the process moving along, to communicate more effectively, to avoid wasting the client’s time, and, ultimately, to give them a better product). In the end, most clients will appreciate your professionalism (and hopefully be more pleased with the end result, too).

Be hesitant to say “yes” to requests.

I’m not advocating for laziness here. That said, just because something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. For many developers (myself included), our instinct is to nod our heads and agree to anything we know we’re capable of, regardless of whether or not it’s actually a good idea. Sometimes, we’re just eager to show off our abilities (or don’t want to appear inept). Other times, we’re too afraid or to push back against a client’s request. But not every idea will further their overall objectives (and some ideas may even detract from them, as a matter of fact).

Look, you can’t blame a client for a dumb request. Their area of expertise is different than your own (and you’d probably be pretty ill-suited for their job). But if you’ve really established yourself as an authority (see “Be the expert” above), you should be able to kindly explain why a given request may not be beneficial to their overall goals. You won’t always be able to talk a client out of things, but you can at least be diligent, thorough, and professional.

Sometimes, of course, it’s someone else (e.g. a project manager or salesperson) communicating directly with the client, and they promise something that they shouldn’t (i.e. without first checking that it’s feasible or wise). If that person is willing to apologize to the client and say something like, “after speaking with our developer, we decided that this may not work so well after all,” then great. More often than not, however, you’re going to get stuck with delivering on your colleague’s ill-conceived promise.

For this reason, I try to make it to as many client meetings as I can, because it usually ends up saving me quite a bit of time and frustration in the long run (not to mention the fact that the end result is far better). But if this isn’t possible, just remember that the client probably still isn’t really the one to blame (so direct your anger accordingly!).

Don’t oversell yourself

On the one hand, showing confidence in one’s knowledge and expertise is an absolute must. On the other hand, it’s foolish to make promises that you can’t keep. When you’re trying to win someone’s business, be very cautious of how you portray yourself. Honesty really is the best policy.

Of course, you can probably sell more websites with smoke and mirrors, but gaining a client through deception only complicates that relationship in the long run. Yes, you can make money through empty promises and substandard work. But you’re probably only making things more difficult on yourself, and I doubt many of us became developers to build crappy products.

Likewise, you may want to avoid special discounts and marketing gimmicks, mainly because if you win a client with bells and whistles, you’ll need to maintain those same bells and whistles in order to keep them. It may be tempting, when a prospective client comes along (especially one that seems really important or valuable), to make an exception; you want to woo them, after all. But you may want to think twice before giving them expectations that you won’t be able to consistently meet in the long-term. The more effort you go through to convince a client to choose you, the harder it will typically be to keep that client happy.

Fortunately, the best way to make money and maintain your sanity is to simply do good work. It’s far easier to be happy when your clients are happy (especially when they’re willing to pay more for quality), and a referral from a satisfied customer goes a long way (saving you on advertising costs). Don’t mislead your customers or fill their minds with unreasonable expectations. Be forthright, be honest, and don’t be a pushover. That never works out well for either party.

So, instead of complaining about how difficult or demanding your clients are, take some time to examine yourself and what’s wrong with your process. Focus on making your customers happy, but not in the temporary, giving-into-every-whim sense. Fix your overarching approach to managing the client relationship, and you will make them (and yourself) far happier in the long run. Wait and see.