Hiking to show that you need to focus on the end results when handling unhappy web design clients.

Tips for handling unhappy web design clients

5 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

The customer is NOT always right. But in the end, the customer is always the customer — and that fact may outweigh being right.

Many client requests don’t require right-or-wrong evaluation. They can be taken at face value and implemented as requested. However, when presented with dubious client requests or comments, I have only to pose three questions to my web design clients to determine my next steps:

1. Is the client justifiably unhappy with my work?

“Justifiably” is the key word here. If I have not delivered the promised work as per our agreement, then I must take responsibility, and initiate remedial action. End of discussion.

But more often than not, it’s a situation where the customer is uninformed, misinformed, unaware of consequences, or has unreasonable expectations. And that could be a far cry from a “right or wrong” situation. In these cases, my goal is to steer the discussion away from “who is right,” and toward “how can we achieve the best results to our mutual benefit?”

2. Is the client’s request contrary to his best interests?

Requests that I consider contrary to the client’s best interests include those which:

  • are not the most efficient or lowest-cost alternative that will achieve their desired result.
  • put the client in the situation of doing something illegal or unethical.
  • are potentially harmful to the client’s image or reputation.
  • negatively impact the quality of the site visitors’ experience.

Many client requests are really about end results, even when they mistakenly focus on specifying an implementation method. Every web designer has heard “I want Flash on my home page” when what the client really wanted was a slideshow, and implementation technique was irrelevant.

3. Is the client’s request contrary to my best interests?

Requests that I define as contrary to my best interests fall into just two categories:

  1. Those that do not fairly compensate me for my work.
  2. Those that place me in the situation of doing something illegal or unethical.

Every project begins with a contract or agreement that specifies scope, deliverables, financial requirements, and expectations. If the client attempts to violate that agreement in a way that negatively and unfairly impacts me, I am obligated to speak up. If the client doesn’t realize or agree this is harmful to me, we must return to a discussion about expectations.

Approaches that work

Armed with answers to the three key questions, think about how to take action once you know these answers.

Keep everything on track by constantly focusing on the best possible end result.

Here’s what works for me:

Manage expectations toward optimal outcome

I know that I must set clear expectations to avoid an affirmative response to Question No. 1.

If expectations were communicated but not understood, I evaluate whether I am willing to make concessions and propose a compromise. Even if I think the customer is not right, I know that attempting to prove that might win me the battle but lose the war. And once the customer is unhappy, I run the risk of negative Yelp reviews, trash-talking to other clients, and the stress of losing the client and future potential income.

Relying on the proposal is key to discussing expectations.

If necessary, I’m willing to review it line by line with the client, to identify the point where it did not set expectations as planned. When a client balked at my invoice line-item of $190 for stock images, I showed him where his signed agreement said “I do all of the design work using free watermarked comps, and when the client approves the photos, I purchase them on my account and invoice the client for the cost, separately from the fees for my work.” After that, he agreed that he should pay that amount.

Present alternatives that most benefit the client.

I explain why my presented alternatives will still achieve the client’s objectives, while saving time or money, enhancing their brand, or improving the experience for their customers — at the same time, keeping them out of hot water. I stress the value of our business partnership with the mutual goal of collaborating in the client’s success.

I like to position my suggestions as improvements on the client’s request: “Great idea! Let’s take it to the next level by adding…”

Be gracious when using pronouns.

I will generously give the client a graceful exit by starting my response with: “You may be unaware that…” I will gladly defuse a potentially volatile solution by accepting responsibility for any possible miscommunication: “I’m sorry I did not communicate this clearly before…”

When discussing the actual issue presenting conflict, I remove individual players from the statement, and focus on our partnership. Instead of saying “your idea is bad” or “my idea is good,” I’d go for “Here’s another option we can consider.”

Target those individuals most important to the client.

When explaining alternatives that improve the experience for those interacting with the website, I focus on readers, visitors, audience, customers, or clients. Rather than using the generic term people, I emphasize solutions that relate to the specific individuals the client cares about most. So I trade “my way is better” with “this way is better for your audience.”

Vocabulary choices are my secret weapon in presenting options.

I avoid the word problem at all costs, choosing instead issue, challenge, concern or situation. Why use fix, when address, improve, solve and enhance are so much more solution-oriented? Whenever possible, I show clients worked examples on other client sites, which addressed similar situations. This provides the opportunity to base recommendations on experience, and demonstrate how another client benefited from a similar approach. “Here’s how we solved this challenge for another client…”

What are your strategies for dealing with web design clients who are not right? Please share in the comments.