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.
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