What makes those damn clients so difficult?
Published on October 15, 2000
You know the old saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The same holds true in dealing with clients. Oh sure, Atilla the Hun is out there, but he or she is an infinitesimal minority. (If you're at that point, see Firing Atilla the Hun.)
In actual fact, most of those downright ugly client situations stem from a host of reasons other than the client themselves: lack of planning and communication, poor listening skills, over-promises and unmet expectations, over-confidence and lack of self-confidence, and lack of motivation--on either side. Another reason why some clients can seem so difficult to deal with is because they're people. Sound silly? Believe it or not, it's often overlooked when our main focus is "the project," the work at hand.
Client management can actually become quite enjoyable when we make good use of The Win-Win Kit--implementing useful strategies from the get-go that put everyone in a win situation. This is not to say that problems for which solutions will be necessary won't appear as we move along with a client. They will. Count on them. What using these simple tools will accomplish is a smoother dynamic with the client, one that will quickly convey to them that you are a true professional with their best interest at heart. That's precisely what a client wants and needs to know.
As important as it is to take care of the client, it's also important that we take care of ourselves. It's basic human nature to feel satisfied when we know everyone is happy about a shared situation. It creates a foundation of mutual respect. Following these steps and being thorough about them will prevent almost any problem you would otherwise encounter with a client.
Nail those points down.
Don't create so much as a pixel without first defining all necessary details. Some clients would rather a telephone or in-person conversation than to fill out a time-consuming worksheet. Whatever the case, get the details, details, details. Failing to do this is a recipe for disaster--and it's impossible to establish a price or timeline without them. (If you can't get details and have a sense you're wasting your time, but don't know why, see A word on tire-kickers, charlatans and opportunists.)
Get to know the client.
Part of getting to know your client is about getting to know their product or service. Your interest will translate into a passion that both you and the client can share. As you become more intimate with the details and express excitement for what they have to offer, they'll begin to feel you appreciate who they are and what they're doing. Ask for sample products as well, if that's an option.
Remember the four Ps of marketing - product, price, place, and promotion. You don't have to be a marketing guru; just explore some of these questions while you're collecting your details so you can get a basic idea of where the client is coming from and where they want to go. Where and to whom do they or will they sell their products or services? How do they currently promote their product or service? What sorts of design, packaging, branding, warranties, guarantees, development, etc. are currently in place for their current product or service? What is their pricing structure? In other words, what are they selling here? We can't display passion or promote a product or service for which we know little or nothing about.
Their goals aren't always obvious.
Very often a client hasn't got the first clue about what a website is capable of accomplishing for them. It runs the gamut of "I'm going to be an instant millionaire" to "Is this is going to be a waste of my money?" Because the client's goals aren't always clear, nailing them down is an important step for both of you.
Clients rightly see their sites as a business tool. Their inexperience, however, will quickly change their site to a business "problem," one they'll want to resolve quickly and inexpensively. After having gone through their own problem-solving process, the client very often comes to you with a preconceived notion of how their problem should be solved. Again, their inexperience and/or panic to come to a decision may not afford them knowledge of the best solution. It is, after all, why you're having your conversation with them in the first place.
Ask them point blank what their expectations are. Listen, analyze, listen, analyze. We often make the mistake of putting too much or too little stock in what the client says. Because the client may attempt to offer an already-packaged solution, you'll need to weigh what's logical and what's not. Acknowledge what the client has to say, but exhibit confidence when offering alternative solutions if the client's off track. Don't criticize. Ever.
You might pose questions such as: What do you want this website to do? Increase revenues? Promote a product/service? Increase awareness? Implement price efficiency? Produce better customer service? Serve as an educational or informational tool? Would you like it to be interactive? Will you sell only online? Is database functionality necessary?
A client may also have other examples they've seen that they'd like to share with you, which is helpful in getting an idea of the type of image they'd like to convey. Putting them in a suit that's comfortable for them is paramount. Be sure to let them know that that's one of your objectives, and ask what they do and don't like about any sites they offer as examples.
Let them know you want it to work for them.
Good web design is about both style and the function it performs, so your knowledge of who you'll be appealing to is essential. The client usually has a pretty good handle on who their market is, so ask. It's an appropriate question and the conversation will ultimately cement for the client the importance of your role in their objective.
While most clients don't have any experience in solving abstract problems such as design and have little understanding of how it works, some may try to play designer. It's fun for them. However, without the necessary experience, they'll attempt to solve problems in the same manner they solve all other non-abstract problems--by offering a linear and immediate solution. Acknowledge the client's input, but temper that with your own expertise as well. It's not necessary to agree with them, but a client shouldn't be criticized, either. You might suggest that their suggestions will be considered when the time comes in the design process. You may also ask them how they think their suggestion will address the given need so they can come to their own understanding of whether it's appropriate or not. This quickly conveys to the client that design is a process, not an event, and that it's critical to appeal to a broader audience rather than their own sense of visual satisfaction.
Discussing the client's market will also let them know you're there to help them realize a return on their investment. Again, tell them point blank that you want, above all else, for this site to work for them.
A client's target market is a group of people who have something in common and are likely to buy your client's product or service. Some characteristics in these segments could be: age, gender, educational level, profession, income level, religion, ethnic group, geographic location, etc. If, for example, their target market is overwhelmingly comprised of active teenagers, you'll know to approach the design and development from that perspective. In that case, an exciting palette, interactivity, and gidgets and gadgets might be the order of the day. Seniors, on the other hand, would have an affinity for a more subdued palette and informative content, without the flying whistles. Women are more likely to research products and services than men, but are less inclined toward wizardry. And so on.
Declare your interest. And mean it.
Unfortunately, many of us forget to tell clients one of the most important things they want to hear: "I'd love to do this job for you. You have a great product/service and I'd be delighted to help you sell it." Tell them you're interested and that you want the job. Say it or spell it out loud. They don't know it until they hear it. That alone could land the project for you.
If, on the other hand, you have a moral issue with the content or the nature of the product or service (i.e., a porn site), chances are you're not the right person for the job. If at all possible, politely refer them to someone else who can and will do the job, which will reflect well on you.
Put it all in writing!
When you've completed your preliminary discussions with the client, you're ready to propose a price for the work to be accomplished. Please try to remember not to sell yourself short or feel the need to defend or reduce your rates.
Throughout the process thus far, you've established yourself as a qualified professional who is attempting to help your client realize a return on their investment. Your rates are what they are because you provide a valuable service in return for those rates. So offer your package and don't flinch. If the client asks if you're open to negotiation after they've examined the estimate, listen carefully and make a decision based on their new requests.
As for the estimates themselves, there are a number of ways in which to provide them. (Please note that any of the following downloadable documents should be reviewed by your lawyer.)
If you think a client is unsure about jumping in with both feet for the full meal deal, hasn't been able to provide you with adequate detail about the project, wants proof first in the way of mock-ups to ascertain what you're capable of, or just plain doesn't know what the heck they want, you may offer a MOU [RTF document], or a Memorandum of Understanding. It's basically a trial contract which enables you and the client to explore your compatibility while covering your proverbial hinnies. While the deposit is an up-front risk to the client, it's a much smaller one than being bound to a full-project contract--and you're paid for the time you've invested, whether you both decide to move toward a full contract or not.
If the client seems happy with your approach and appears to want to go ahead with the full project, you may elect to prepare a proposal [RTF document] for the client, which outlines the project specifications in detail. These are a fairly standard procedure for larger sites and serve as guidelines (and protection) for everyone. You wouldn't want a client coming to you later, for example, and indignantly arguing that you agreed to design a wordmark or logo, as well as their website. Or that preparing their logo for print production was included in the price. A proposal prevents any confusion about direction or tasks involved and offers the client one last opportunity prior to signing the contract to make editions or further requests. Everyone knows precisely what the written rules are and what's expected of them. It's important that the client understand they have responsibilities, too.
A signed contract [RTF document], whether it be an MOU or a full-scale contract, are necessary for all sites. Don't work without one. Insist on it--even if it's a barter arrangement. Within a contract, the following items should be included:
- Fees are based on normal working hours and overtime will be at an additional fee.
- Include the number of mockups and levels included in the fee.
- Include the number of pages and hours of work required for completion.
- Project timelines or critical paths and completion dates. This is contingent on client approval and provision of content. (This deters unreasonable demands. If a client fails to realize their obligations, revise the timeline).
- Major changes or departures from the project outline will be at an extra cost. (Immediately inform the client if an extra cost will be incurred; they may or may not change their mind about the request.)
- Meetings require appropriate notice (will deter the client from calling and demanding your time)
- Upon project completion and receipt of full payment, [designer] transfers the copyright ownership of the web site and all images created for it to [client]. (While you retain rights until you transfer them by law anyway, it reminds the client that nothing is theirs until they've paid for it in full. Many clients don't know this.)
When all "t's" are crossed and "i's" are dotted, you can get on to the business of making the client happy.
It's the little things that count.
You and the client have decided on a relationship. Now it's time to do everything in your power to make it work. In any good relationship, it's important not to take your partner for granted, and to tell them from time to time that you appreciate them. A good relationship with a client is very much like that. And the little things count. A lot.
This is another situation where our listening skills become so important. If they mention something personal, jot it down if you're someone who doesn't remember details. Perhaps they're having a birthday soon. Send them a card. If it's site related and they mention, "It would be nice if...," or "I'd really like it if...," pay attention. It may be a small thing that wasn't mentioned in the contract and means a lot to them, but really isn't a major inconvenience to you and won't affect the profit. Just give it to them.
You may also want to consider building little extras into your contract, like site submission to the top ten search engines. Perhaps it's a gift of a useful tool, such as a book, called 101 Ways to Promote Your Website, when the site is completed. Any of these tokens of appreciation will do wonders for your relationship with the client. They'll feel like they're being appreciated and will show you that in kind.
Always be prompt in your replies; it's respectful. Always acknowledge a client's problem or complaint and address it as quickly as possible, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem. Keep your promises on time. Try to remain objective; don't take their complaints or critiques personally--we're creating an image and a product for them, not a personal signature for ourselves. Try to remember that they will have good points, as will you. Remain confident. Avoid arrogance and blame; move toward solutions rather than focusing on problems. It may even be necessary at times to suggest an outside opinion.
Above all, be friendly. Try a sense of humor; it will do wonders in making the experience a whole lot more human and enjoyable for you and the client. When they're happy, we're happy, and vice-versa. Just a little bit of effort goes a long, long way in developing and maintaining a win-win situation for everyone.