Ouch. That was a rough experience. Still, I don’t think most freelancers get one bad client (or three, or five) and then immediately start relegating all clients to “hell.” Sure, I’ve had my fair share, but that hasn’t colored my opinion against ALL clients in any way.
Clients Are Not Demons From Hell
Thanks to the collection of anonymously contributed client horror stories that make up the now famous Clients From Hell website, freelancers everywhere have a place to vent their own frustrations, laugh at other unbelievable, but true tales, and breathe a momentary sigh of relief at the reassurance that we are not alone. Sooner or later, if you haven’t already had at least one nightmarish client experience, the odds are that you most likely will. When that time comes, it is a catalyst of extreme emotions, ranging from anger to disbelief to frustration to anxiety and more.
In freelance circles it is a common topic of discussion, often infused with a certain level of disdain for the clients and their lack of respect for those who they hire. While this can be therapeutic, it can also lead to developing an incorrect and misguided attitude toward clients in general, which can in turn negatively impact a freelancer’s approach to customer service and put them on the defensive rather than encouraging an expectation of the best.
This post seeks to remind us all that, although there are definitely clients that can drive even the most flexible and patient freelancer insane, clients themselves are not demons from hell but people, just like you and me, and therefore should be treated as such if a positive outcome is to be achieved.
One of My Recent Client Nightmares
One of the main reasons I am writing this post is because of an experience I had recently in which the client belittled my expertise and experience at each step along the way, questioning decisions and disregarding my advice for their own obviously awful ideas. At each point of contention, I made a clear and concise explanation of exactly why I was recommending things, over-explaining and educating this client well beyond what I should have had to do in this situation. Yet one by one, they overruled my suggestions and made demands that I eventually complied with, against my better judgment.
The project was a new WordPress website for a client of a consulting firm I have partnered with. It started out as a rush job, with a deadline of less than a week. I took the job only because the client was more than willing to pay up front and with a substantial increase in price due to the rush priority. However, within 24 hours of starting I was ready to refund everything and let someone else take this beating.
The troubles began when it was announced that the client’s wife was a graphic designer and had been working on a mockup of the website as well as a logo. Of course, this was revealed to me after I had already spent several hours creating a mockup of my own. Next, it came to light that the wife had never designed a website in her life, which meant a considerable lack of understanding of what is involved and what makes web design different from other types of design. Even more disturbing were the files she sent over with instructions of what must be included in the website.
Now I will be the first to admit that I am not the world’s greatest logo designer, but this logo was sorely amateurish, utilizing dated ideas and styles as well as a poorly designed font. The website mockup was even worse, and next to impossible to try to accommodate within a WordPress theme, much less to be completed in a matter of days. Immediately I responded with a detailed explanation of what could and could not be done, along with my recommendations and accompanying reasons for each. Typically, when I do this most clients will admit their lack of understanding or experience and yield to my expertise. In this instance, however, the client’s wife was insistent and chose to ignore a majority of my recommendations. She did, however, realize that she was in over her head when it came to web design and graciously withdrew her mockup to see what I could come up with.
So I began designing a mockup around an awful logo, and it wasn’t long before I realized this was going to be one of those projects that I would never put in my portfolio or let anyone know I had anything to do with (other than anonymously sharing about it here.) I did my best to maintain my personal and professional standards of quality and design, but it was a rough battle. Thankfully, the client’s wife approved the first mockup with minor changes, but once the site was built she decided she was going to create her own header image to replace the one I had created.
Shortly thereafter, she decided she wanted an intro page. You know, the annoying, death-to-user-experience, increase-the-bounce-rate intro page with a video of her husband welcoming visitors to the site. Again, I gave a detailed explanation with articles supporting my recommendation to refrain from using an intro page, only to be instantly dismissed.
Finally, the site was launched and the client was very happy with their end result. I was not proud of the work, but it was a quick project that paid extremely well, so I really could not complain. Besides, it was finally over. Or, so I thought.
Less than one day after launch the client himself decided the intro page was annoying, along with his acknowledgment of several other previously-ignored recommendations. He hired me to take down the intro page and go through with some of the suggestions I had originally made to his wife. I resisted emailing an “I-told-you-so” message and happily commenced with making extra money and improving the site along the way. In the end, it is still not something I will include in my portfolio, but instead a lasting memory of bitter frustration and hopefully something I can learn from.
What I Learned
This leads me to the point of this post. Every step along the way when the client made decisions that showed a blatant disrespect for my experience and knowledge, my immediate reaction was one of defensiveness. I took offense that someone who obviously possessed less knowledge than me in these areas was still making choices they believed were best, in spite of my advice otherwise. I saw this as truly insulting, and I wanted to remind her that I was hired because I am good at what I do and because the client does not possess the skills, experience and knowledge that I do. Several times, I came very close to picking up the phone and initiating this conversation.
Somewhere along the way, amidst all of the emotions and struggles, it struck me. I had been missing something here, and the revelation has impacted how I view clients ever since.
The client could not possibly know that they were insulting me with their decisions to ignore my advice, because they did not know enough about the process, or have enough experience to fully understand the depth of what they were communicating.
In other words, the client’s lack of understanding–and the reason they hired me to do the job–was not only the reason they made poor choices, but it was also the reason they could not possibly have a clue that their poor choices were an insult to the one giving the advice they were ignoring.
This revelation helped me to see that although at times this client seemed to be a demon from the pit of hell in her dealings with me, the reality is that she just didn’t realize what she was doing. Clients are human beings, not demons. Human beings make mistakes, poor decisions, and often succumb to selfishness. We all do it. So why should clients be the only people to whom freelancers show no tolerance, compassion or mercy?
Sure, there will be the occasional exception when a client is just plain mean, but the thought that there are a multitude of demonic clients waiting to ruin every freelancer’s life is a prejudice I prefer to free myself from. Instead, thanks to this learning experience, I choose to move forward with expectations of the best from each and every client that comes my way. Innocent until proven guilty, and then forgiven even when proven obstinate. Because in those worst moments, the likelihood is that they don’t even realize that their lack of knowledge on a subject, combined with a desire to control the process toward what they deem a satisfactory outcome, could quite possibly be insulting the professional freelancer they have hired to fill that void.
What If It Happens to You?
What if you’re faced with a “bad” client? How will you choose to move forward?
Share your ideas in the comments.
Image by Shutterstock
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April 30th, 2010 at 8:36 am
April 30th, 2010 at 8:56 am
I think you learned the golden rule of the internet vs. non-understanding internet folks. They simply do not understand the process and what it takes. I find that using analogies works well.
April 30th, 2010 at 9:18 am
Where did you get that photo? It’s great!
April 30th, 2010 at 9:29 am
Nice story (with a happy ending :).
I agree with you that clients are not from he’ll, rather they keep our business goin and we should be thankful for that.
I had my own experiences with some clients who had no clue how to build websites but they were still making poor decisions, but in the end, I made it work.
April 30th, 2010 at 9:39 am
Whoa, your experience was creepily familiar with a client I had a while back… and had the misfortune of having a 1-year contract with. *Sigh* Oh well… you win some and lose some and hopefully along the way you learn.
Great post, made me chuckle.
April 30th, 2010 at 10:21 am
Good Artcile is very Helpful
April 30th, 2010 at 11:20 am
Great post, Brian. I had a similar project once–where the client (the one doing the contract signing and check writing) wasn’t the ultimate decision maker. Nope, that went to his “has worked as a graphic designer” wife.
One of the interesting elements about your story is that the client came back later and had you ‘fix’ some of the wife’s elements. Kind of makes you wonder about that marriage.
April 30th, 2010 at 11:27 am
I shared a similar experience recently but, unlike you, didn’t choose to learn this lesson, so thanks for sharing what I should have learned!
DebbieApril 30th, 2010 at 11:28 am
Thanks for this Brian. This is just what I needed right now, dealing with two clients that don’t have very much computer/Internet experience. I need to take a step back, breathe, and be gracious rather than fume and move their requests to the bottom of my to-do list out of frustration.
April 30th, 2010 at 11:45 am
Very interesting post, Brian! We all benefit from hearing your story and the important realization you made. I’ve been to freelancer meetings where the tone regarding clients was one of “we’re better than the client” or “clients don’t know anything.” Well, isn’t it up to us to help them understand? Aren’t they paying us for our experience? As a freelancers, if we approach clients with an attitude of us vs. them, it’s never going to be a happy story.
April 30th, 2010 at 11:49 am
I did a site for my my husbands boss, for the company, he was absolutely horrible to work with, it all began great and then he wanted blinking text, a waving flag, flash, you name it- if it was tacky he wanted it. I managed to talk him down from a lot of it, but the end result was horrible, I will never put it in my portfolio or share the address…. and because he is my husbands boss, I had a hard time working with him in general LOL
What did I do? Well he was the third ‘difficult’ client in a row and I wasn’t charging nearly enough anyway so honestly- I quit- it was about 8 months before I took on another client, at the time it just wasn’t worth my time. But about 6 months ago I decided to try again and start charging a little closer to what I am worth (still working on the self confidence to charge ‘enough’) But I have been steadily busy and only had a few bad apples and have been able to deal a lot better after my ‘break’.
(sorry for the book!)
April 30th, 2010 at 11:51 am
nice topic…useful read as well
April 30th, 2010 at 11:53 am
very interesting post…loved it
April 30th, 2010 at 12:02 pm
LOL I am actually writing a guide to help web professionals with the issue and wrote about it in my Top Website Mistakes Small Businesses Make due to the conversations I’ve been having with designers (I sub-contract out SEO).
Anyway, in my former business I found that problem clients were due to not qualifying and clarifying at the beginning of the relationship.
In some cases, there are clients you should just refer out and thank your lucky stars that you are not working with them.
I recently fired a mico-managing client who now calls to try and get my opinion on things because she had no idea how good she had it until she was out in the “real world.”
It helps sometimes to chat with a pal to bounce things back to reality, my friend last night told me what her expectations would be on one of my projects simply because she doesn’t “get” the reality of it.
Anyway, I am doing a series of videos whose ultimate goal is to explain away some of the issues web professionals face.
As I told one web designer, it is not your job to explain or tutor your clients–they can take courses or buy books to learn–your job is to do a great job so that the website or whatever product or service you provide actually works for the client and accomplishes the goal.
I now have a page up on Facebook (http://www.guerreroink.com/facebook) so feel free to follow me or use the info there as a reference–and I included the link to the article above in my name so you can take a gander.
Feel free to add any tips or mistakes for me to include in the guide which will be freely distributed.
April 30th, 2010 at 12:06 pm
Brian, you make a great point about seeking to understand rather than vilifying another human being. Yes, there are people who are just plain mean but even then there is something behind those actions. I really try to screen for the right fit so that I create an environment where I do my best work but I have had challenges like everyone. The book, Be The Hero offers great thoughts on managing challenging relationships. Thanks Brian for inspiring us all to exercise grace even during those tongue biting moments!
April 30th, 2010 at 12:10 pm
Crazy story! Even though I have had my fair share (or more) of the “Client from Hell”, I still treat every new client like a new client. I now ask questions such as “Have you ever worked with a web designer or developer before?” and give them some insight to the process etc. I will admit that the questions don’t always help with a smooth project but it does give me some insight into who I am going to be working with and allows me to change my approach with future questions and recommendations. Great post Brian!
April 30th, 2010 at 12:35 pm
Eek! Sounds rough. I think you handled it the right way. In the end, the client realized his mistake and you got paid to fix it.
April 30th, 2010 at 12:37 pm
Shouldn’t this read, “Clients are not ALL demons from Hell”?
April 30th, 2010 at 1:04 pm
Wow. Great timing with this one, Brian. I’ve had an unusually hard batch of clients lately which have literally made me resort to googling “support groups for freelancers”. ha! Your article has definitely helped me feel a little more centered about dealing with these less than desirable clients and it’s also helpful to know I’m not alone. :)
HarApril 30th, 2010 at 1:06 pm
@Brian McDaniel: Wait, wait… I actually don’t think demons from hell are actually looking like demons… Why would something do that? (HOWEVER there are always exeptions, e.g. if you’re the annoying devil and earn a lot of money by annoying people and doing that kind of stuff. http://www.google.com/search?q=annoying+dev )
Anyway, if even really BAD criminals look very different from each other and in let’s say 90% of the cases you can’t see it by just looking at their faces…
How is it ever possible to see a Demon client???
April 30th, 2010 at 1:08 pm
I have a new client who’s overseas, so our main method of communication is chat. Further complicating matters, his English is shaky at best. He’s under a lot of deadline pressure, and he was starting to get very short tempered when I misunderstood some of his instructions due to the language barrier.
Furthermore, rather than trying to explain in different terms, he would REPEAT HIMSELF IN ALL CAPS. (Like the math teacher repeating himself louder, as if your problem was deafness rather than lack of comprehension.)
Finally, I responded to him very bluntly: “Bill, I understand that you are frustrated. I am too. I am not stupid, and do not respond well to being treated like an idiot. Please treat me with respect and you will get much better results.”
It worked like a champ. I earned his respect by standing up for myself in addition to doing good work for him, and the relationship has been excellent (and very lucrative) ever since.
April 30th, 2010 at 1:13 pm
This is spot on. Thanks for sharing this nice article.
April 30th, 2010 at 1:43 pm
great post Brian – thanks for the read.
indeed, i’ve had one or two clients that have been difficult, and i’ve found your approach to be the best way to deal: explain your rationale, educate the client, be sincere in your attempts to understand their point of view. ultimately, the client should get their way, even if they don’t agree with your sound design advice – they will likely realize the depth of the lack of understanding down the road.
freelancers like to talk about Clients From Hell because it makes for good gossip and is sometimes entertaining in a one-upping-you sort of way. we all know of a lot of freelancers who aren’t willing to work to serve their clients. as in any service industry, you’re going to get the occasional rough client, but the vast majority of folks mean well.
if i’m a server at a restaurant and a customer wants 5 different kinds of cheese, i might politely suggest that it’s too much. but if the client insists, i’ll certainly give them what they want. when the customer comes back and says there’s too much cheese, i’m not going to say i-told-you-so, i’ll just fix it and make it how it should be. sometimes customers like too much cheese (intro page, animated gifs of Mr. Kool Aid). there’s no accounting for some tastes. just provide good service and hopefully you’re there when they want something better =)
April 30th, 2010 at 1:54 pm
Feels so happy when i come to know its not just me who have such CLIENTS !!! There are some rare cases, where i was forced to “DESIGN RUBBISH” and was not able to put up in the portfolio. The results kind of web 2.0 along with web 0.01 ! hehe Nice article by the way !!!
April 30th, 2010 at 2:45 pm
That’s a great story, and I’m glad you made good money on the project. I had a similar experience lately and also coming to realize that most clients don’t mean to be insulting. Some of the times, they actually think they’re trying to help by contributing to the design. It is still frustrating sometimes, but I’m learning to cope with it :).
April 30th, 2010 at 3:08 pm
Thanks for sharing your story (and its lesson) with us! I TRY (emphasis on the try) to remember to apply two things:
1. We don’t know what we don’t know
2. Seek first to understand
Sometimes I fail miserably with both, but your article is another reminder that we don’t realize where we are ignorant and MOST of us don’t wish any harm by it.
Aside from learning how to handle client relations from a psychological perspective, have you also gained insight on how to best guide a seemingly difficult (or truly difficult) client to better decisions?
April 30th, 2010 at 6:48 pm
Very nice article. I can relate to your story all too well, especially about wanting to feel defensive, but the final point you make is where the frustration should hopefully turn into learning. And kudos on getting a good payment and more with further changes. Given the nightmarish qualities of the story I am surprised they were that generous.
May 1st, 2010 at 12:26 pm
I had a similar experience Brian – in the end, despite exhaustive explanations, suggestions, etc. I had no choice but to comply (tired of wasting my breath and time) and I was of course not happy with the end result – the client however, thinks it is great.
At the end of the day, after all the billable hours I had put into the project I was not going to walk away (fire the client and refund) without getting compensated. Sometimes one is forced between a rock and a hard place, and in the end good business sense has to prevail, as well as preserving one’s reputation, no matter what one personally feels about the client’s insistent and/or ignorant design decisions.
I simply don’t display the site and have not put my name on it either. C’est la vie
mahmoud abMay 1st, 2010 at 2:16 pm
but i just don’t get the issue of having intro pages
would you mind pointing me to the references you provided to your customer
May 2nd, 2010 at 4:59 am
Great read, I think too many freelancers miss the point when it comes to bad clients.
One of my regulars who contacts me on a monthly basis for new custom pages, flash panels and content updates is a great source of passive income and referrels for me. She is also a lot of fun to work and completely patient with my suggestions of alternatives.
I often think, to the kind of designer posting on CFH, she would fit that profile because of the amount of requests she makes, the (clip)artwork she sends through.
In reality, she is an enthusiastic businesswoman who finally has a website she is proud of and excited about using. The fact that she’s happy to hire me on a monthly basis just to “try things out” also shows that she has a great deal of faith in her designer.
There are some hilarious and horrific stories up there and I love the site, but I tend to find clients like mine above thrown in there and it makes me wonder how many ungrateful prima-donnas we share and industry with
May 2nd, 2010 at 12:23 pm
@Bruce – LOVE the cheese analogy!! Well said. I must have missed reading it on Friday!
@Brian – if I ever learn the secret (I suspect there isn’t one) I will certainly share! I think you’ve actually captured the secret – we do the best we can to rationally educate, we do our best to be respectful, and we try to continually see their view point. And in the end, we give them what they want.
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:11 am
Ah, I used to be as naive as you.
My absolute worst experience started in a similar way but with the opposite motivation. The client, having done a little web work a few years ago, thought that meant he knew better than me and knew it all. By the end of it the client was ignoring all my questions and advice, and then questioning my professional and personal integrity for my failure to deal with the questions and advice he had refused to answer! It was blatantly obvious what he was up to. He was wanting me to do all the difficult groundwork and coding on the web site, then leave the project so he could finish it and take credit for it himself. I left him to it, but not before taking him to court for nonpayment.
The sad truth is that some bad clients know damn well what they’re doing. It’s up to you whether you take their antics at face value or see them for what they really are.
JessicaMay 11th, 2010 at 6:38 pm
Thanks for sharing your insight. I’ve had a similar type of client. I put up with his micro-management and questioning of every decision for about 3 years. Finally I looked around at the stress building up in my life and saw how it was impacting my family. Honestly, the pay was so minimal to the stress it was creating. I stopped working immediately for the client. When I explained the situation to a mentor, he said to me, “well you fired a client.” :) It is amazing how much less stress I have, how much happier my home life is, and how much more creative my work has been with my other clients!
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