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On Being a Bad Client

May 21, 2010 In Design By Thomas Lewis

Perusing all the design blogs I follow, I always happen upon “Fire Your Client” and “How to deal with bad clients” posts. In fact, I often enjoy reading Business Guys on Business Trips, which takes a snarky look at dealing with clients who don’t get it

I love these posts. But the thing is, they always come from the agency or designer’s side. Here, I intend to give you a little insight from the bad client’s side. Because even though I think most of my agency partners find me pleasurable to work with, I sometimes see myself in these “bad clients” posts. I thought maybe I could help bring some perspective to the relationship.

Bad Client Behavior #1: They Want a Ton of Changes At the Last Minute

You, the designer, probably did exactly what you should do. You went through a business requirements gathering exercise, then talked to some actual users (yes, you were that lucky) and delivered an amazing set of wireframes (on time!). And what did you hear from your client? Crickets.

So you pressed ahead. You sent over the visual comp of the homepage expecting everything to go smoothly, when BAM! Suddenly Mr. Bad Client’s feedback is flowing and he’s telling you, “We’re way off track here!” You get more and more frustrated as the delivery date looms heavily and you have to cancel your plans to see the Human Centipede movie this weekend.

Here’s the problem: Most of the time, your bad clients are super busy and just can’t wrap their heads around a wireframe. In fact, they probably scanned it for about two minutes and declared it good. The visual comp is the closest thing to a real site in their heads,so that’s when they begin providing the feedback you needed earlier in the process.

The fix? I recommend getting to the visual comp phase as fast as possible,and allowing room in the schedule to deal with feedback on the design.

Bad Client Behavior #2: Ugh! They Want You to Build a Site Without Content!

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m guilty of this. I’ve actually read Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web. But I’ve been in situations where I was the primary contact with the agency, and my stakeholders just didn’t have the content ready before putting together the site. Sorry Kristina!

After I apologized profusely, the great agency I worked with did the next best thing: They asked what kind of content would go in the various content blocks, and tried to use existing content instead of lorem ipsum. It actually worked out pretty well.

I was able to give them some guidance and examples of content we used in the past. For example, Microsoft is notorious for using long product names, titles of posts and titles of session for our events. So the typical “Lorem Ipsum” filler text wouldn’t work for us. We were able to plan for that.

I believe that you should have your content prior to building a site. But sometimes reality sets in, and you have to adjust to the situation. This agency has a special place in my heart for working with me vs. lecturing me.

Bad Client Behavior #3: They Want To See 10 Different Comps

As a client, I have to admit I like the idea of having choices. And yes, I will always want a Frankenstein of a web site that combines the best of the three you have shown me. Sorry!

But you have to remember: Most clients are not keeping up-to-date on the latest design trends. Helping give them exposure is a good thing.

Also, remember there are a ton of stakeholders (especially in a large company) that have a say-so in the design (or at least who sign my paycheck). So although you may have created one concept to rule them all, it may be more fruitful in the end to let me choose from different concepts.

Bad Client Behavior #4: They’re Obsessed With “Above The Fold”

First of all, let me just say: I’m with you on this one. Also in this bucket is:

  • Can you make the logo bigger?
  • It just doesn’t “pop” for me.
  • Can you make it more clean?
  • Hey! You left some empty space! Can we put a blog roll or a puppy picture there to fill it up?

These are critical moments for educating the client. Explain the “why”. Another great agency I worked with was really good about explaining what was not on the page, and why. This made it very easy to go back to the stakeholders and explain why something was done (or NOT done).

Bad Client Behavior #5: They’re Just Idiots

First, your clients are not idiots. They probably know their knowledge space just as much as you know yours.

That said, I do believe in firing really bad clients. If they don’t pay up, if they don’t respect you, if they burn you—by all means, you should never do anything for them again. I recommend Zeldman’s 20 Signs You Don’t Want That Web Design Project.

But take time when you are frustrated to look at it from the client’s side.

Now Say You…

Do you agree? Do you disagree? Please let me know what you think in the comments below. I would be particularly interested in bad clients you have dealt with. Did you “fire” them? Did you have a Jedi-trick you used to get over a rough patch? Please tell me about it below!

Also, follow me or MIX Online on Twitter if you like.

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12 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach said on May 22, 2010

Your final comment is the most telling -- look at it from the client''s side! You can do this before you finally "let them go" as you say.

You can do it long before that to understand how your approach can change to better interact with *all customers.

Before founding my professional practice, I was a systems design analyst in IT for major pharmaceutical company. Our customers were internal to the company yet exactly like the customers you describe above. Newsflash: This behavior is absolutely normal.

Clients operate in their world. To deliver services to clients:
a) Learn from the interactions to make all the future interactions less stressful

b)Last minute changes? Discuss this early on with the new customer in a non-aggressive way. "Our experience is that many customers have last minute changes. So let''s discuss the timeline from that perspective because last minute changes cost you more and may not even be feasible depending on our workload."

If you start thinking that clients are "idiots" it will come across in your demeanor even if you don''t say it. I agree with your reminders Thomas and will RT this post on Twitter.

Remember one way to build customer loyalty and loads of referrals is to "save the customer''s day". Loyalty and referrals are emotion based. Here''s a post to expand on this:

Hone your negotiating skills to better deal with the pesky problems noted above and then move on to delivering great customer service!

Best wishes,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

Thanos Thanos said on May 22, 2010

#6 They know exactly how to design their project and for that, they are willing to pay little. They just need your hands!

#7 They want to create a website with red - purple - yellow - green and blue, because it''s their favorite colors!

#8 They expect to be in the first page of Google in all keywords they can think off, within 48 hours, because they need it.

fjpoblam fjpoblam said on May 23, 2010

The "jedi trick" is to have a "killer contract". This was oh-so-expertly described by Andy Clarke in his "24 ways" web page. It''s a great read:

Mack Mack said on May 23, 2010

#4: They''re Obsessed With "Above The Fold

Wow, great write up. #4 are my favorite type clients. I seriously helped build a site that was jammed packed with puppy pics (so to speak) above the fold. The atmosphere changed so dramatically the further you scrolled down. It was very annoying.

At some point though you just have to give the person paying the bills what they want.

Tami Tami said on May 24, 2010

I think you''re absolutely right on these points, and I think there is a fine line between a bad client and a designer or agency that doesn''t know how to explain things well. A good designer is going to have solutions. You want to see multiple comps? That''s fine, but you''re going to pay for them and that''s going to be discussed up front. And content strategy should be approached by any designer/agency themselves, if it means hiring out a copy writer and/or content strategist. Lorem Ipsum is problematic for a number of reasons, but a big one is that content for lorem ipsum is still usually not done by launch date. The earlier this is made a priority and addressed, the sooner it can be resolved and not hold up the process.

Michael Michael said on May 25, 2010

TBH most of what you''re outlining above isn''t uncommon. Most of the difficulty comes that the timeline for a project is decided before it''s properly scoped (must be online by dd/mm/yyyy).
The inflexibility of launch is often a myth. This places lots of pressure on design/development/client to push forward at pace. Which means necessary revisions get missed at the earlier stages and knock into later aspects. Nice post too :)

ilithya ilithya said on May 26, 2010

Great insight regarding the "bad client".
I think I''ve never read an article from this point of view. It''s interesting to see it from this perspective as you said.

I agree on all you mentioned, and that sometimes "we" as designers should think as a "bad client" (who might not know nothing about design/is very busy/etc) before we start planning our design project/proposal. But, of course, if you bumped into a real jerk, there''s not really a go around that.

Heidi Strom Moon said on May 27, 2010

Thanks for this article--it''s always good to think from the client''s perspective. (And it''s ideal when both client and agency can think from the *user''s* perspective.)

In the spirit of trying to bridge the gap between client and agency points of view, I recently wrote about how to give comps feedback to an agency in a way that (hopefully) will yield the most constructive results:

Ian Muir Ian Muir said on May 30, 2010

I think you''re dead on with how/why clients do these things. However, I think in most cases the solutions can be a bit trickier.

I''m involved with 2 different work "teams". I have a full-time job at an agency and I do a good chunk of freelance work on my own. While these problems are rampant in the agency work, they are rare in my freelance work. In the end, it''s because most of these issues arise from communication problems.

With freelance work, I deal directly with stakeholders and can educate and inform them as the make requests. I can easily explain why something is a bad idea or how a change will affect their deadline before it''s set in the clients mind.

With agency work, the client talks to an Account Exec, who talks to a PM, who talks to me. In most cases, by the time it gets to me, the client has already been promised something.

Clients often become bad because somebody is enabling them to be bad clients. If you''re working on a team, and you''re annoyed by these things, make sure you educate the rest of your team.

JeanSFleming JeanSFleming said on Jun 2, 2010

As a former agency gal who is now client side, first let me say AMEN. Great post. Thank you.

The big a-ha for me crossing over (some would say to the dark side, tho not I) was that the work I give an agency - the fun work - is the stuff I wish I had 10 minutes to think about, but most days I don''t. I am in meetings, wrangling feedback, getting buy in and setting strategy. And then rinse, repeat. Also working on pricing, research and usually about 15 things that have frankly little to do with marketing, but fall to me for reasons I don''t quite fathom.

So I totally agree with the tip on getting to design faster. It''s the only phase I will show internal stakeholders because it''s the only phase they understand or care about. Plan for feedback at that stage, understand that the process is iterative, and please get over it.

The other big a-ha, and this is what makes client side genuinely fun, is that I have real skin in the game on all my projects. ROI is no longer abstract. I am thrilled when I moved the dial, despondent when i don''t, and always curious to see what we can do - together - to move it further.

Here''s my list of don''ts for agencies:
- don''t assume the client doesn''t understand marketing or creative or copy - we do
- don''t forget to do basic inquiry: what do we hope to gain from this project, what''s at stake, what are we trying to fix, accomplish or avoid
- give us good, better, best options and associated costs

Trust and communicate.

Turning All Clients Into Dream Clients (or Common Client Difficulties) - Smashing Magazine said on Jun 10, 2011

[...] On Being a Bad Client, from MIX Online [...]

Global Sfp transceiver supplier-OE Solutions Ameirica Inc. said on Dec 12, 2011

I agree with Lewis