Difficult clients and how to manage them
Some clients might be difficult to please or work with, but they need not be difficult to manage … or dismiss if necessary. The common thread among difficult clients is disrespect. I recommend that people hire a web pro they trust and respect. As a web pro, you must also be willing to drop clients who disrespect your time, value, education, knowledge, expertise, experience, investment, process, ethics, or boundaries.
You can easily identify difficult clients by what they do and say. Disrespectful clients:
- Want quality work, but don’t want to pay what it’s worth.
- Have great ideas in need of urgent implementation, and assume you don’t have any other clients, so are always available to handle their request.
- Expect free or discounted work for non-profits, friends, and family.
- Think they know your business, and want to micro-manage your work.
- Push back on your recommendations, and continually seek second or third opinions to challenge you.
- Look only at the time to do a task, not the education and experience required to do it correctly.
- Can’t specify what they want, and present you with an ever-evolving target.
- Stay hands-off, even when you actively solicit input or feedback.
- Frequently tack on additional out-of-scope tasks or features, while expecting the cost of the project to remain the same.
Disrespectful, difficult clients say:
- “I already spent my budget on the previous designer who did not deliver, so I don’t have much to spend with you.”
- “I don’t think this one little change should take so long.”
- “I’m sending this on Friday so you can work over the weekend.”
- “We’re a nonprofit and can’t pay, but can provide visibility.”
- “The client is always right.”
- “Can you show me how to do this myself so I can save money?”
- “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
- “I’m sure whatever you do will be fine. You pick the direction, call me when you’re done.”
Your best strategies for managing difficult clients are the same ones successfully used to manage all clients.
You can’t refuse to work with all difficult clients – in fact, you can’t always spot them immediately. However, with the following elements included in your business model, you’re better prepared to deal with them – either by avoiding troublesome behavior from the start, or having a ready response when it surfaces. And knowing what sets off your “not a good fit” alarm can discourage an engagement you’ll later regret.
Knowing your value, articulating rules of engagement, and enforcing policies sets clear expectations with clients and can head off problems.
Know your value
Create a thorough pricing structure for your services, including details about deposits, payments, late fees, and rush charges. Whether charging hourly or by the project, clearly spell it out before any work is done. Know your competitors’ pricing, and have justification as to how you compare. Be upfront about charges for urgent or unplanned rush jobs, especially those outside of stated business hours, or that force you to rearrange your scheduled priorities.
Pro tip: Document and demonstrate your experience, expertise, education, and recognition on your website, in proposals, and even in your email signature (mine includes links to my book, and my articles on this blog).
Put it in writing
Present proposals clearly spelling out the project scope, specified number of revisions, timeframe, milestones, and deadlines – with consequences for scope changes. Require contracts for all projects, with acknowledgment from both sides regarding cost, schedule, and feature set.
Articulate your rules of engagement
Remind clients of your policies early and often – on your website, in proposals and contracts, and at a project kick-off meeting. Set boundaries. For example, if you don’t answer email at night or on weekends, set up an auto-responder letting clients know their message was received, and you’ll process it when returning to the office.
Pro tip: I require all requests by email, to track arrival in the queue, and keep records of all related conversation. Requests by text or voicemail are rejected with a request to re-submit by email.
Track. Absolutely. Everything.
Detailed records enable substantiating decisions and invoices. I diligently track dates, tasks, accomplishments, time, and out-of-scope requests daily.
Pro tip: I save all of my sent emails, maintaining a record of commitments, agreements, and responses.
When clients violate anything you’ve already defined:
Return to the paperwork.
Refer back to existing documentation, including proposals, contracts, emails, and your website.
Embrace teachable moments.
I feel responsible for educating clients on my business processes and policies. I’ve developed a comprehensive reference library of personal blog posts, web pages, email messages, and GoDaddy blog articles that explain basic issues – allowing quick reference to reinforcement, without starting from scratch.
Speak precisely, listen forgivingly.
Err on the side of over-communicating, and give clients the benefit of the doubt. Assume they don’t know any better, and offer them a graceful exit from an offense or faux pas – often simultaneously with a teachable moment. I’m not a mind reader, and neither are they. But after a warning, further violations can warrant severance without blindsiding clients.
Three strikes and you’re out.
For most offenses, first and second infractions get a clear and immediate response from me, and a reminder of consequences upon the third strike. But sometimes one strike is enough. A request to do something unethical or illegal can be enough for me to immediately back out of a deal.
Be willing to fire a client to save yourself
Wondering whether a client has crossed the line?
- Is their behavior or attitude impacting your productivity, earning ability, or work satisfaction?
- Are they asking you to sacrifice integrity or violate ethical standards?
If the answer is yes, it’s time to contemplate severing the relationship. When considering the impact of losing an income source, I know I’m usually better off investing time in clients who value my work, pay promptly, and consider me a business partner.
If you’ve followed my suggestions, everything is in place to request a change on their part – with minimal effort on yours – and with an understanding of non-compliance consequences. The less time you spend managing difficult clients, the more time you have available to partner with the ones who make your work enjoyable, profitable, and satisfying.
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