Has a client ever told you how easy it was to implement a feature they’ve asked for, how fast you ought to be able to finish their project or even given you instructions as to how to do your job? There’s nothing more frustrating than unqualified people giving you their two cents about your professional expertise, but as annoying as this bunch is, they’re nothing compared to the level of annoyance frustrated designers, developers and marketers can muster. I can relate and completely understand how hard it is to work with difficult people and  can certainly understand how difficult it is for those who work in various agencies and have to find a way of dealing with clients from hell. However, most complaints come from freelancers, project managers and managers; you know, the people with the power to tell said awful client to sod off. We blame the clients but how much of it is really their fault and is there something you and I can do about it?

 Ignorance and arrogance

We all know you want to create an eCommerce store that converts every visitor and, of course, you’ll make my content go viral and improve awareness about my brand on all channels but what the hell does all that fluff actually translate into? If you’ve browsed a handful of websites that twitch in the same market segment, you will have noticed that most of them don’t just seem to be doing the same things but they’re using almost the same words to describe their services. That’s because working proficiency somehow now translates into complicated technical lingo that is often lost even on people in the same industry. So what could a client, someone who’s had little to do with web development or online advertising, understand from phrases like “We build websites that make you stand out from your competitors”, “Our team delivers strategies that perfectly position you for long-term organic growth”? That you’ve got a content writer with a good vocabulary but that’s about it.

Daze and confuse – The client acquisition strategy from hell.

When you’re being vague about what you do and how you do it, your clients will get precisely that, a very vague idea of the services you render. Not understanding what someone is doing on their dime, means clients will start to bug you with what you’ll consider “stupid” questions and if you become arrogant and talk down to them, you’ve got yourself a classic example of a communication breakdown. Learn to simplify the way you talk about your services and make sure you have a very firm grasp of what makes you different from others in the same industry and can easily put it in layman’s terms. When a client asks you to “make the website look fresh” and sends you 5 photos of meadows as an example, don’t point and laugh or drown them in techno-babble. People use associations with familiar things to describe unfamiliar concepts so ask guided questions and try to figure out what elements they’re trying to point out. Just because it’s self-explanatory to you, it doesn’t mean the same applies to everyone else.

Respect and entitlement

One of the biggest sore-points among digital professionals is being told how to do their jobs by people who haven’t got the foggiest idea of how to go about it. In other words, you want your professional status, your working experience and, therefore, professional opinion respected, right? Well, folks, respect is earned, in this industry as much as in any other. These people don’t know you, they’ve never worked with you. At most, they’ve seen a portfolio or a demo but that’s it. So what exactly have you done to ear their respect? What’s even worse is they don’t understand your job and, therefore, are having trouble with anyone in your position.

Let’s take the case of someone who’s never, ever done more than superficial browsing, has been delegated to “find someone to build our online shop” and now finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to describe what they need, their business goals and expectations. This guy won’t be able to provide you with a detailed, highly-technical brief and, contrary to what you might think, they shouldn’t have to. A good project manager will whip out their Dev-to-Human Vocabulary and, by asking the right questions, will gather actionable information for their team. Simply put, don’t ask the client what other websites he likes; it’s highly irrelevant as you’re not building the website for the client but for their audience. 

Most clients cannot and should not contribute to the design and strategy of a digital project, because they are not qualified to do so. What they should bring to the table is their own business expertise and a much deeper understanding of their product. That’s the valuable knowledge your clients have to offer and asking them to provide you with feedback from a technical, functional or strategic standpoint will result in him offering personal opinions and, eventually, in him telling you how to do your job. Bottom line? If you don’t want to work based on a client’s opinions, then don’t ask for them and if he freely offers his 2 cent’s worth, take the time to explain why this is not an opinion-centered industry.

Promises and experience

In its first stages of development and sometimes even as far down the road as the launch itself, a digital product is nothing more than a promise. The developer promises your eCommerce module will work in a certain way, the designer says it’ll solve this problem or the other and the advertiser says you’re campaign will bring [insert result]. It’s always a promise and it should never be a guarantee. However, in many cases, past experience has taught clients that promises last only so long as the project is ongoing and the money keeps lining the service provider’s pockets. Obviously, someone who’s been disappointed before is sure to be less trusting, more demanding and, all around more annoying to work with than someone’s who’s had a productive collaboration. The same is true for a service provider who’s been cheated out of getting paid in the past.

Do something crazy and be honest.

In both cases, you’re not starting a project from scratch. You are, unfortunately, in the uncomfortable position of having to disprove all the misconceptions that unfortunate past experiences have taught your client. It’s very important that you are extremely clear about every single stage of the development process and that you are able to meet every single deadline. Most clients don’t have specific time-frames in mind  giving you the freedom to set deadlines as you see fit, so make sure they’re realistic. Don’t make excuses for delays and don’t try to talk your way out of delivering on your promises. Be honest and truthful from start to finish and 9 times out of 10, you’ll have a happy client on your hands.

The Bottom Line

As you may have already deduced, I don’t believe in Clients from Hell any more than I believe in the Tooth Fairy. I believe in actions and reactions, and the behavioral patterns they lead to. A difficult client can be a product of many things; past experience, ignorance, hostility, arrogance and quite a few other things in between.

The most important thing that escapes us in labeling them as “clients from hell” is that there’s always more to the story than just someone who’s a nightmare to work with so you’re faced with a choice. You can either give up and move on to a more compliant individual or take a problem-solving approach, figure out why you’re having trouble working with them and find a solution. The one thing you shouldn’t waste your breath on is throwing a pity-party in the hopes that the world will change on its own.

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