What to Do When the Client Is Wrong

what-to-do-when-the-client-is-wrongSooner or later most freelancers will have the pleasure of working with a client who seems to have forgotten why they hired you in the first place. This client may ignore or overrule all of your recommendations and even dictate decisions on the project that you, as the experienced professional, are certain will be detrimental to its overall success. Despite your objections, explanations and warnings, the client steamrolls the project toward something less than what your normal standards would require, all the while assuring you that they have a better idea and understanding of what their project needs than you do.

How should you handle this situation? Do you refuse to bend and lose or “fire” the client, refunding any payments? Or, do you submit to their demands and hope for the best?

The Client Is Wrong, Now What?

Maybe you’ve experienced this before, or maybe your time is yet to come, but most freelancers eventually have a story similar to the one described in the opening paragraph. I have participated in quite a few discussions with other freelancers about this and have had my own experiences. Ultimately, I believe every freelancer will have their own unique way of dealing with it when their time comes, but I have come up with a formula that incorporates some of the primary elements that contribute to determining what to do.

The Magic Formula

As I see it, the key elements to deciding your course of action are:

  1. Your own standards of professional excellence
  2. How badly you need the income generated from the project
  3. Your personal patience level and tolerance for the lack of respect for your professional input

Thus, the formula for proceeding would be: Action (a) = Standards of professional excellence (s) divided by your Financial necessity (f) multiplied by your personal Patience level (p), or a = s/f X p.

How Important Are Your Standards of Excellence?

This is probably the first question you should ask yourself. Depending on the project and its visibility, your professional reputation may be at stake.

For instance, I have designed websites that I would not personally consider my best work because the client wanted certain elements included that I advised against. In my opinion, the finished product suffered from their decisions. I had to decide if I would include the work in my own portfolio, as well as weigh the amount of traffic the site could receive. In the end, I simply delivered the project as required by the client, but removed any obvious association with myself so as not to tarnish my professional reputation.

Is that acceptable for you? For my purposes, it has worked fine and, although I may have been disappointed due to the amount of time and effort spent, the client was satisfied. You have to decide for yourself how important your own standards of excellence are to you in every project you undertake.

How Badly Do You Need the Income?

This is always a critical question in determining how flexible you are willing to be. On one hand, no one wants to be thought of as someone who is willing to do any type of work for a quick buck regardless of the quality, working conditions or type of project. On the other hand, we all have financial responsibilities that must be taken care of, and, for many freelancers, turning down a project can be devastating when dealing with the pattern of feast or famine we often endure.

So what are you willing to do or not do in the quest for income? This is a very serious consideration for any business, and one you should definitely ask and answer regularly, as your experiences and methods grow and change. I would suggest even creating a written list of your “open-handed” and “closed-fisted” values. In one column, the things you don’t mind wavering on that you hold more loosely in your open hand. In the other, those things you are absolutely certain you will or will not do that you will fight battles for, holding them firmly and tightly in the death grip of your closed fist. Revisit and update this list often, especially after a particularly trying project.

Next time you are faced with a situation where you need to decide whether you should start or continue a project due to the potentially destructive micro-managing of the client, you can use your list to remind yourself where you stand. I would recommend looking at every project individually, rather than approaching each one with a blanket ruling. Equipped with your predetermined values, weigh each situation on a case-by-case basis and make a well-informed, unemotional decision. Each project is unique, so I encourage you to keep an open mind and make wise decisions toward the best choice for each one.

How Patient Are You? (Be Honest)

This final factor may be the most difficult one to measure, yet it is critical to the formula for figuring out how much micro-managing you can withstand.

Are you short-tempered? Easily frustrated? Or, do you have a higher tolerance than most for criticism and can handle it with ease and grace?

While I am not a fan of being criticized, I am an extremely patient person. For me, this means I may be able to handle a client belittling my knowledge or experience with more poise than someone else. It may mean that I will have more tolerance for my suggestions being argued against and for greater lengths of time before finally calling a project to a halt. I know this about myself and can factor it into the formula to weigh my options when in a situation that merits its consideration.

Evaluate your own patience level, and then use it to create your personal formula to determine your course of action when difficult decisions are dictated by your client.

Apply the Formula

Now let’s take the three elements I’ve described and apply them to our formula. I will use myself as an example.

While my standards of excellence are high, the real question is how important are they to me when considering a job. I believe they are extremely important, but there are very few jobs I would refuse simply because the requirements appeared to be below my standards. Of course, I would weigh the project and its potential for impact on my professional reputation, but ultimately I would probably say that on a scale of 1-100 this element would rate a 65.

When it comes to financial needs, my top consideration is providing for my family. This one is easy for me. Money is not the driving force behind my desire to be a freelance designer, but within the context of the formula I would rate it a 90, leaving room for the few projects that I simply would not do no matter what the price.

As I stated earlier, my patience level is pretty high. I have come to realize that it takes a lot for me to lose my temper, and even on the occasion when I actually do blow my top I tend to remain relatively calm. I believe my patience level would be a 90.

Inserting these numbers into the formula, it would read 65/90 x 90 = ?

A quick calculation brings the number to 65. What does this mean? Actually, it doesn’t really mean anything at all. There is no magic formula. I just made it up. As far as I know, all of these elements cannot be broken down into some mathematical method for a freelancer to determine which projects they should take or which clients they should or should not work with. Yet the fact is that the three elements I’ve listed are essential to important self-evaluation and will equip a freelancer with a solid understanding of their value system and its relevance when faced with a client who demands bad decisions.

Maybe you can come up with a way to make the formula actually work. Whether you can or not, the truth behind it still stands. Take some time to evaluate yourself in these three areas and you will face difficult client situations with more professionalism, more finesse and more productive results.

What Do You Do When a Client Is Wrong?

Do you have some past or present experiences where a client has demanded you produce a project in ways that are against your recommendations? How have you handled it? Be sure to share your experiences (without sharing your client’s specific information) and tips in the comments below so we all can learn and grow in how we handle these types of situations.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve actually been holding off from freelancing for a while because my last client was so miserable to work with. I designed a very professional looking site for them and they just kept wanting things to change until it looked like it was designed in the 80′s or something. It’s difficult to work with people like that and I’ll admit that I struggle to know what to do. How do you fire a client? Is that possible?

  2. says

    I had to let a client go before we even got the project started. It was a small project, not much money, but it seemed like he was going into this as if I were an adversary, not a partner in helping him achieve his goals. I think when a person goes into a working relationship with that type of attitude, it can’t turn out well. They think you are out to get them, cheat them, screw them over and do a bad job and nothing you can do can convince them otherwise. I wrote a blog piece about my experience: http://flackchick.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/i-had-to-fire-a-client-and-someday-you-will-too/.

    It sucked and I needed the money, but I value my piece of mind more.

  3. says

    I had lots of clients like this in my time with BT. I was in the unfortunate position of not being able to tell them i can’t do that.

    What we found works best is to deny all knowledge of the website and its existence. Our managers told us to leave the company name off the website, taking no credit for it.

    I found this way you do what the client wants without people thinking you do showdy work, lol.

    Its not ideal, but as you say some clients just don’t listen to you and what you have to say.

    There was one website is one where the client told me i didn’t know what i was doing, by putting all his content in the one colour and putting it all nicely on the site in one font size.

    That was possibly my worst client ever.

  4. says

    First at all, sorry for my terrible english!

    In Argentina, ALWAYS happend this. All Argentinian clients think they know design, that they are knowledgeable of the topic. Always they say to us: do this, do that, change this, put yellow there, etc.

    What we do? First at all, we say that in “web design” this is not a good idea, because that reason or because this reason, for example. If that doesn´t work, we try with this one: is not SEO friendly. And in the 90% of the times, works! and the client simply say: ok, forget it!

    “Is not SEO friendly” is our principal weapon when the client is wrong.

    Take care,
    Fran.

  5. says

    I’ve had clients and clients. Most of them come to me after seeing my portfolio and realize that I do my stuff well and, since I am the “specialist”, they should let me do my job. My best designs were for such clients, who trust me completely and let me create without hindering me. These are the best clients one can have, since they give general guidelines and ideas and then let you do the “wonder”.

    I’ve had clients who were feeling like they hired a janitor. These are most likely to get the boot. I am not sweeping floors, I am actually doing something requiring talent/experience/skill. Fortunately we’re talking very few people with whom the relationship was pretty short :D

    There’s the occasional know it all, who knows a bit of front-page and think it qualifies him to tell me how to create a unique wordpress theme for instance. Or skin a forum. From these people some realize in few days that I actually know my stuff and let me do the work. Others keep on changing and messing the design. Usually I am a patient person, but I am known to have kicked some clients and fully refund them even. I don’t care for losing some money, as long as I have the time to spend with other people who are not making my life a living hell. I had to chose in various occasions to either “drag” a project and waste valuable time from excellent clients I was working with, or kick the client, refund and say goodbye.

    I came to the conclusion that sometimes my peace of mind is worth more than a couple hundreds bucks :D

  6. says

    Nicholas,

    I haven’t had to “fire” a client yet, but I think it would involve canceling your involvement in the project and probably refunding any payments. The choice would be up to you whether or not the income was more important than your peace of mind, as FC pointed out. But ultimately you as the freelancer need to be in control of what you are willing to do or not do.

  7. Luke says

    I wonder – do you believe that “potential for blowback” is also a factor in the calculation? I know that you touched on it with the “financial necessity” variable, and the client turfing you for a disagreement would be both blowback and a negative financial situation, but I am also talking about blowback with regards to negative publicity.

    It seems (in my limited experience) that the crazys tend to be the ones with the loudest voices (and most free time) when it comes to spreading bad feedback about your products/services/etc. So upsetting a craxy & wrong client can have a notable effect.

    Again, I also wonder whether the magnitude of the change or work required has a bearing on the potential to fire or correct a client. Sometimes, I have done a change, as directed, even though I have known it is wrong, so I can show them the effect of their change, the reasons I protested against it, and then show them how my suggested solution resolved the problems. Yes, more work, but do it once or twice and the client starts realising that their “latest great idea” is really horseshit and keep their mouth shut.

  8. says

    @Fran, “Is not SEO friendly” is absolutely brilliant, hah, I’m gonna have to hang on to that, and use it the next time some frivolous or unreasonable edit comes in.

  9. says

    Luke,

    Good point! I think you should definitely consider the effect that negative publicity could have should you decide to “fire” a client and they react by trying to blast you publicly. But I would think that your reputation should be able to withstand the potential abuse of one bad experience as long as you have enough good ones to counter it. Hopefully most potential clients will not be quick to judge based on one angry tirade.

    Definitely something to consider, though.

  10. says

    Hahaha! Thanks bottleHeD and Brian!

    This “weapon” doesn´t work when the clients have some knowledge of SEO. When this happends, we try to use phrases like: Is not what YOUR client is looking for, and you want to attract more clients to your website, right?”.

  11. says

    It is my opinion that the client is always right and you should give them exactly what they want. However what they want is up for interpretation, do what you think looks the best, when they question you, let them know exactly why you did what you did. 80% of the time they see your view and agree.

  12. says

    I had a client which was forcing me to grammatical errors.
    I dumped it even if it it owes me 5 Euros. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes
    to see the scam isn’t it?

  13. says

    Good points Brian!

    It’s important to remember that when something goes out with your name on it, like it or not, that project represents you and your business. This is true for writers (like myself) as well as developers and designers.

    Also, sometimes walking away is not an alternative (as you point out). Removing your name from the work can be a good solution if you wish to remove any association between the project and your business.

    Thanks for tackling this difficult issue that many freelancers face.

  14. says

    Brian,

    Thanks for getting back to me. That’s the main reason that I don’t want to get back into Freelancing. What if it becomes so horrible again that I have to get rid of a client? Do I loose the many hours in a project that I’ve already invested? Is my time worth nothing because they are hard to work with?

    I’m sure it’s an amateur question, but I’ve only freelanced per se a few times and I would certainly like to do it again as I learn more.

  15. says

    That’s a very tough call but really only when the loss of income is involved.

    For me, it never has been worth it to maintain a bad client since they always seem to always be gnawing away in the back of my head even in times of relative peace.

    If I do experience one of the perps, then I plan an exit strategy of making sure all the bills are paid, work is done, loose ends tied up and then a polite “See ya” to part ways.

  16. says

    Yep! i am there now. I am a full-time web designer?developer….sorry i mean designveloper!, working for an agency and even though i am not the director, i am working with a right pain in the ass!

    I have changed the mock-up about half-a-dozen times now and a lovely montage i did in photoshop for the homepage has just been picked at so much it looks…well….amateur!

    But i can’t say to much because my director believes the customer is always right. But as i said to her today, it’s like me telling the plumber to make sure the pipes are tightened and bent around properly…..AHHHHHHH!

  17. laszlow says

    In one case …

    Oh, my I believe I have run out of Frutiger. It is on back order however. But lets move on shall we?

  18. says

    I have actually fired a few clients so I guess it is possible. I don’t know if it should be done but it sure is fun at times. You just have to be professional about it. Bad clients/past coworkers actually inspired my latest web site lol.

  19. says

    I tend to be patient with my clients, but at times when a client is taking the micky then the law has to be laid down and you just have to stand your ground and explain that your time and resources are valuable.

  20. says

    Most of the examples here are those classic no-win situations. When a project gets to the stage of becoming a living hell, it’s generally better to find a way of walking away (even if you lose money in the process). Life’s too short.

    One thing I would say, however, is that every now and then – once in a blue moon – it’s the client who’s right and us who are wrong. It might be rare (and probably the worst thing I can say in this comment thread) but it happens. A moment’s reflection from their point of view can sometimes save a project and the long-term relationship.

    Admittedly, this is pretty rare.

  21. says

    Jason,

    I think you’re absolutely right – there are most definitely times when the client’s idea or suggestion is better than than the freelancer’s. I agree, it is more the exception in my experience. But some of the best work I’ve done has been due to the collaboration with the client and using some of their ideas.

    I don’t ever mean to imply that clients are clueless. The best working relationships I know are those where both parties respect the experience, skills and knowledge of each other and listen, communicate and collaborate in a productive way because of it.

    Thanks for the great point!

  22. says

    I think there are lots of situations when the client is right and you should do as they ask.

    I think most of the problems people experience here aren’t even differences of opinion. That is to be expected too in any working relationship.

    I think most of the problems result when clients come to think you are for some reason working against their best interests.

    In my situation, I just wanted to help the person, I gave them a more than reasonable price and they started out like I was an idiot and out to scam them. I didn’t undertand this attitude and knew I couldn’t work with them. I don’t think anything I could have done would have made them happy.

    When you realize this, you are better off letting them go and let them find someone they would be more comfortable with.

  23. says

    This is a great article.

    Finding the right client is a lot like dating. You really need to establish a trusting relationship and have mutual respect for one another. I have had to walk away from certain projects because the scope of the work was too much to handle and went over the estimated time and when I revised my estimates to accommodate the extra time the client was ballistic. It wouldn’t be fair to give more time to a difficult client than others that actually respect your time, creativity and objective.

    So rather than try to work out something that is going to cause you grief, write it off it you do in fact lose money. Then focus that energy on finding and establishing new clients instead of trying to fix a broken situation which will be a mental drain.

    Calmly tell the client that you don’t think it’s a good fit and offer suggestions or other resources where they can find another design. What may not be right for you may be right for the next designer.

  24. says

    Great article and great discussion!

    This situation is a difficult one. I’ve had quite alot of success in asking the client to ‘justify’ thier request. Not in an aggresive manner, but simply to engage them in a discussion. Asking them to think about why they are asking for whatever change it is. WIthin that discussion I’ll proffer my solution along with the thinking behind it (I always have that pre-prepared).

    This has the effect of helping the client to feel that they are fully involved in teh design process, but also demonstrates that we, as the professional / specialist, should be given the abiliaty to do our job.

    The secret, I think, is to try and identify red flag clients at the start of the project. That way you’ve commited less time and effort.

    Oh, I just love the ‘Not SEO Friendly’ answer, that’s definately in the arsenal for the fture :o)

  25. says

    I’ve seen this from both sides: as a freelancer doing web sites, publication design and editing; and as a person running my own business in the allied fields of publishing and web hosting and as the owner of a couple of successful retail businesses.

    So when the multi-millionaire owner of a business told me of multiple instances where he’d employed freelancers and agencies only to find that they ignored all his suggestions (and sometimes the more stronger “requirements”) to go off on their own to produce something they thought was right, sometimes with no time for a second take, I had to agree that I’d seen such things too.

    The first suggestion is that the freelancer should ask himself or herself whether the client has real expertise in this field. Sometimes they may not know the technical aspects of the web or print but they do know the kind of contact they have to have with the customer.

    Saying that you want your name removed from a project is a good ploy and I’ve done that on web site and book editing projects. But if you want to take it further than that you do want to be very sure that the client, the one who is paying, is wrong.

  26. says

    I think one of the hardest moments for me as a brand new web designer with my first client to serve was mustering the courage to discuss all kinds of aspects, especially when my client seemed to be the “know it all” type. Frustration was what I felt and I just didn’t know what to do: tell my client he’s totally off when it comes to that matter or just “suck it up” and do what I am told to?

    There is a time when you need to ask yourself: “Do I tell my clients they are wrong? And how do I do this?”

    Many people who had more experience in dealing with clients told me to shut up, take the money and never mind the problem. Some claimed it’s a bad strategy to point to your client he’s wrong, that your client might lose respect in you and trust in your services.

    I was torn apart. And then got to the conclusion: I will tell them, in a very respectfu / helpful / delicate manner, but I will tell them.

    Over the years I had clients asking for ’stupid’ things, clients who didn’t quite understand some of the most intricate aspects of my job, thus coming with some ideas that were (to say it nicely) quite “science fiction”. It took quite some effort and tact from my part, but I was always able to make them understand the realities and I do believe this made me respected.

  27. says

    Great article, but I am actually someone of a different field than many of you – I am a business owner and personal trainer, My dilemma comes from when clients don’t want to do what I say when it comes to eating right. I just always tell people that you can’t expect to see good results without feeding your body what it needs to compliment the hard work. It’s frustrating and I try to fight it, but sometimes I just accept it and take the money and give them what they want. Personal training is a learning experience for each client. As long as I pull my weight, keep motivating them, and keep supplying them with my service that I promised to give them, whether they choose to follow what they paid you for or not is out your hands.

  28. Matt says

    EVERY client I have is like that. Sometimes I just have to say that I can’t work on their project anymore because their decisions will ultimately impact my reputation negatively.

  29. says

    What I do is I raise my fees sometimes even 3 times to those clients that are hard to work with, to the point that they look for someone else. This way I don’t have to go through the problems of walking away from a project, firing a client and damaging my reputation.

  30. says

    Andres wrote: What I do is I raise my fees sometimes even 3 times ,,,This way I don’t have to go through the problems of … damaging my reputation.

    Doesn’t that just give you a reputation for super-high fees?

  31. minnie mouse says

    Here is a full blown gripe. I am venting because someone else might read this and learn from it.

    I just finished a job with a client who micro managed the entire project running me into the ground. I had already taken an advance. And couldn’t give it back as the work was given to me by someone I am working for. But now, I wish I had returned the deposit before it became such a tribulation trying to please this person.

    It started with a beautiful design which he okayed. Then he took time off. And came back later only to throw out my design in favor of a hideous design idea he had worked up on a free website. With a background that swallowed up nearly every color but black and white. Which he didn’t like. So I had to color each background in photoshop where ever needed to support text colors. Which he changed untiil he was happy. In the last few weeks I have became his slave making twenty or more updates in a day. Tearing apart pages and recreating them. Taking out stuff he was fine with earlier in favor of something else. Make that text blue and italicize this section of it. Put things at the top instead of the bottom. Move that over a few pixels so it looks right. Center everything on this page. My code was a hideous mess. Keeping it in case he went back on his ideas again. In all I am guessing hundreds and hundreds of changes. He says, “Look. Why don’t we just do this…” Like it’s the only thing he has ever asked for. I tried to tell him no once and it didn’t turn out well for me.

    I am completely rethinking my involvement in web design. I cannot go through another situation like this. So I will have to consider contracts. We have done well so far with verbal agreements. But this is something I am not willing to go through again.

    There is a website called poshdaisy.com. Those folks know how to handle clients. They take a couple weeks to plan everything. Get hefty non-refundable deposits. And somehow get the client out of their hair to do the work. I like that idea and hope to create such terms for my future work.

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