How to deal with unhappy clients as a web pro

Web ProCategory
6 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

Let’s get real: In the web design world, complaints come with the territory. If you’re selling a product or service based on creative design and interpretation, you’ll eventually encounter an unhappy client. And keeping clients happy is key to providing exceptional customer service.

Most complaints fit into one of these categories:

  • The client is uninformed, misinformed, or unaware. Opportunity: educate and resolve.
  • You did not deliver as promised. Opportunity: make it right.
  • The client has unreasonable expectations. Opportunity: address the issue and (hopefully) escape with the relationship intact.

My recommended process in all cases:

  1. Receive feedback with grace
  2. Respond with finesse
  3. Collaborate thoughtfully on resolution

Receive feedback with grace

Give them the benefit of the doubt

Sometimes they’re wrong. I’d still rather assume they’re misinformed or inexperienced — as opposed to intentionally being difficult. If I can offer an easy exit from a faux pas, wonderful. If I can turn misunderstanding into a teachable moment, even better.

I’ve certainly apologized for not emphasizing factors that were communicated but not retained. If they signed your contract without reading, that’s on them. Saying, “I’m sorry, perhaps we should have reviewed the contract together in more detail” often helps complainers back down.

Keep an open mind

Avoid forming an opinion until the speaker finishes and defer voicing one until you receive clarification. When disagreeing with their comments, it’s a normal response to jump in with corrections — but if you’re already plotting your response while they’re still taking, you’ll most likely miss what they’re saying. Before rushing to judgment, step back and ask clarifying questions.

Resist the urge to be “right”

Who doesn’t want to emerge from conflict victorious? Then again, you’re on the same side here: both seeking a successful outcome. Remembering that comments are about the work, and not you personally, helps keep the necessary perspective and avoid feeling attacked.

Respond with finesse

Acknowledge their feelings

I shoot for a first response referencing their feelings, ensuring they understand that I acknowledge their viewpoint. Try starting with these phrases:

  • “I understand how you feel.“
  • “I can see why you felt that way.“
  • “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, let’s see what we can do to take care of that.“


It’s always possible you misinterpreted what was said — especially if via email and not a live conversation, where inflection, nuance, and facial expressions can alter interpretation. Begin with paraphrasing:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying …”
  • “What I’m hearing you say is…”

Seek to understand

Once you’ve understood their complaint — even if you disagree — try to determine the real message behind it. Listen to their words. Are they unhappy, confused, annoyed? Try asking “What would clear up your confusion?” or “How can I remove the annoyance?”

Show you care about resolution

It helps to respond using positive words, such as:

  • definitelywill make sure that gets addressed
  • absolutelyagree with what you’re saying
  • I can certainlymake that change
  • completelyget where you’re coming from
  • I’ll get this resolved quickly
  • That’s exactlyright

Collaborate thoughtfully on resolution

In most cases, the responsibility for resolution rests squarely on your shoulders. Even so, bringing them into the resolution process ensures buy-in, and it can be helpful to emphasize that you’re business partners.

I typically phrase solutions as “recommendations” or “suggestions.” So instead of telling them what comes next, suggest what comes next and get their buy-in. And instead of chastising them for something they should or could have done, phrase it as a recommendation for next time. I’ll sometimes mention I realize the problem faced was a common challenge with other clients.

Common complaints and next steps

Typically, complaints stem from a disconnect regarding expectations. And where are expectations most likely to vary? Cost, time, and appearance. So often, the first step is managing expectations toward a positive outcome.

I know it’s on me to set clear expectations with clients. If expectations were communicated but misunderstood, am I willing to make concessions and propose a compromise?

Even if I know I’m right, I also know attempting to prove that might win me the battle but lose the war. And unhappy customers can result in negative Yelp reviews, trash-talking to other clients, and the stress of losing the client and future potential income.

“It was an expensive project and I didn’t anticipate additional costs”

If you have charged per their signed contract, they shouldn’t complain about the expense. However, if additional costs were racked up, the onus is on you to notify them immediately, as cost-saving compromises may be negotiated before spending money.

Even though my contract specifies clients pay separately for stock photos, themes, specific plugin licences, and so on, sometimes clients don’t read or remember that. Before any purchases are made, I always remind them that it will be added to the final invoice and discuss possible alternatives.

“It took longer than I expected”

While precise schedule prediction is challenging, you should immediately notify clients of potential slips during the process, to avoid delayed surprises. If schedule overruns are impacted by clients not providing deliverables on schedule, or delaying in giving feedback, they should acknowledge shared responsibility.

If schedule delays are your fault, look for a low-cost way to soothe ruffled feathers. Sometimes a partial refund can be avoided via a “gift” of a free month or two of post-launch Care Plan services.

“It didn’t look the way I thought it would”

Design work is challenging if only because everyone’s interpretation of “good” design varies. Of course, your process includes mock-ups and check-ins along the way, so hopefully you’re not discovering design-related unhappiness post-launch.

If your contract specifies client sign-off milestones, use that to open the discussion, where options include staying with the approved design, or redesigning for an additional fee. Then it’s the client’s decision.


To help avoid complaints or unhappiness, remember to put your expectations in writing, remind clients of your policies early and often, and set boundaries.

Then the next time you’re faced with feedback or criticism, keep this easy three-step process in mind — gracefully receive feedback, respond with finesse, thoughtfully collaborate to resolution — and may all their complaints be quickly resolved!