How to Handle Difficult Client Situations

How to Handle Difficult Client Situations

As business owners, freelancers, and working professionals, many of us are in contact with clients on a daily basis — and unfortunately, difficult situations between us do come up every so often.

Having a good idea of how to deal with these problems beforehand will make it easier to react when they occur. It’s important to figure out what your values are and what you are willing to do before setting out in the business world.

The solutions to the problems below aren’t always easy and they aren’t going to be the same for everyone. Feel free to chime in with your own situations and solutions in the comments.

1. Your Client Keeps Adding Small Things to Your List

Like the hard-working individual you are, you accept these small changes gracefully and keep on working because small changes and additions are not usually a big deal.

But a few extra hours/days later, you realize that it is a big deal.

It’s called scope creep — and it happens to the best of us. All of a sudden, you realize that you’ve taken on more than what your initial contract and agreement entails.

The work is completed and you’ve agreed to do it, but you feel cheated because you spent way more time on it than you anticipated.

The Solution

Talk to your client in person or over the phone — not through email — so that you can have a two-way conversation.

Calmly outline what the original contract included and how they added things over time. Although you agreed to these additions, you’ll need to charge extra because the time you spent exceeded the time anticipated. In most circumstances, they will agree that it’s fair. If they refuse to compensate you for the extra time and effort you put in, at this point, you’ll have to concede to yourself that it was your responsibility and you’ll have to eat the extra cost and chalk it up to experience. If only we could go back in time and do some things all over again.

In future projects, don’t let additional work get out of hand, as it is your duty to keep things in check. It’s best to evaluate each additional task that your client requests outside the scope of work you agreed on. Don’t accept any changes or additions without thinking it over and deciding whether or not you need to charge for it.

2. An Unethical Company Wants to Hire You (for Lots of Money)

The client is in a business of something that isn’t necessarily illegal (for example, gambling) but you’re still wary of being associated with them. Is it worth it? Many things will come up in business that will question your values, and this is why it’s best to decide beforehand how you would handle them.

The Solution

Don’t take the job. No amount of money is worth compromising your personal ethics and putting yourself in a situation that makes you feel wrong about the product you’ve built. Remember, everything you do may get out into the public, especially if you’re a web professional. What if you lost other accounts because your prospective client found out you took this one? Think about opportunity costs.

3. You Promised Something You Can’t Actually Do

You’ve landed a huge project opportunity and you’re really excited! You feel that it’ll be a great learning opportunity as well as an excellent chance to work with new people.

Unfortunately, you realize later on that you can’t complete the entire project because it requires expertise that is outside of your skill set. In short, you bit off more than you can chew, and now you can’t deliver.

The Solution

The first thing I would do is research. Figure out what the solution might be, and if you really can’t handle the implementation of it, see if you can outsource it to someone in your network.

Reach out on Twitter or Facebook if you don’t know someone that can do it; many times people will retweet your message and expand your reach.

If you still can’t find a solution, it’s best to admit your mistake to the client. Let them know you thought you could do it, but you haven’t been able to find a solution.

Next time, be extra careful about things you aren’t familiar with and let the client know that you will need to do some preliminary research before committing to a particular task.

4. A Potential Client Doesn’t Like Your Contract

You’ve found someone that needs a new website and you have everything nailed down about what he or she needs and what you’ll deliver.

It’s time to move on to the paperwork! After you deliver your standard contract, they fire back saying that they aren’t pleased with it and have several revisions for you to make before they sign the dotted line.

The Solution

This one is tough. It depends on what they don’t like and what they want to change or add. I always take this difficult situation on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes if someone is extremely nitpicky about the contract, it might be an indication of how it will be like when you actually work with him or her on the actual project. It might be a situation where you want to say "no" to the changes and scrap the project before you get knee-deep into it.

If it’s a simple change and you don’t mind revising the contract, go for it.

Do trust your instincts and use your contract to weed out potentially problem-causing clients. Everything in your contract is there for a reason, right? You shouldn’t need to modify your contract and compromise the precautions you’ve put in place for you and your client.

5. One of Your Good Clients Wants More Work When You’re Busy

Work is flowing smoothly but getting busier and busier. It’s tough to turn down work when it’s going so well, so you take on more and more until all of sudden, you realize that you’ve overextended your capacity.

Then, one of your good clients asks for a small project. You don’t want to lose their business because they’re reliable and they’ve brought you lots of work. At the same time, you know you can’t manage to take in additional work at the moment.

The Solution

If they are a great client of yours, chances are they will understand if you tell them they have to wait.

If they are on a deadline and can’t wait, you could refer them to a friend of yours or outsource the work.

If they aren’t appreciative of your inability to take on their project at this time, they probably weren’t a good client to begin with. If you’re honest and upfront with people, you will find that they almost always respond well.

6. You Agree to an Unreasonable Timeline and Now You Can’t Deliver

You knew it would be a rush but you figured you could get it done if you worked late hours. Then, a computer emergency came up, your friend asked you for a favor that took the entire morning to help with, and your child came home from school sick. Now you can’t complete the work on time, but the client is counting on you.

The Solution

It’s best to set a timeline that you’re comfortable with from the beginning. I usually add in extra time to project timelines and milestones because I know things will pop up unexpectedly. Trust in Murphy’s law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."

As soon as you see the timeline getting out of reach and find yourself in a difficult situation where you might not be able to deliver — give the client a heads up. Things come up all the time that move timelines around, and if it’s reasonable that you need to change things, they should be sympathetic.

Most clients will understand if you explain it before it’s too late, but if you’ve waited to the last minute and you’re in a crunch, outsource the work just to get it done.

If it still can’t be done, apologize, recount what happened and try to see if you can make up for your foul-up (maybe a small discount or extra service) to salvage the relationship and leave the client with a smile.

7. You Provided a Less than Adequate Service

Your services are always top-notch but for some reason you dropped the ball on this one. Many things can cause this: you’ve been sick all week, a family member passed away, or you just got too busy to give the project enough attention. It happens to the best of us and you usually end up with an unhappy client in the end.

The Solution

It’s best to come clean and be honest with your client. You screwed up. Apologize and confess that you know this isn’t your best work. Offer a discount on the project and see if you can resolve any issues in order to end on a good note.

8. You Don’t Agree with Changes Your Client Wants to Make

You created a design that you consider one of your best works to date, and you’re so proud of it.

You send it off to the client; surely, they will be ecstatic and will love it completely.

They email back saying they just aren’t happy with it and have a huge list of changes that you think will ruin the design.

The Solution

Stay calm and use this as an educational opportunity for your client. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. They didn’t go through art classes and they don’t know that red text on a green background isn’t the best choice for readability.

Explain your design decisions about visual hierarchy, typography or whatever is going to be affected if the changes are made.

Remember that the website is ultimately for your client, and you do want them to be happy with it. The best you can do is offer your recommendation for the changes, and what you might do instead.

If they don’t agree, do your best to make it still look as nice as you can.

More Good Reads

Wrapping Up

Many of these difficult situations may be considered rookie mistakes, but we all get careless and slip up now and then. Gracefully admitting you’re wrong, too busy, or in over your head is always better than going further down the wrong road.

The biggest constant in most of these situations is the principle of being honest. Be honest to your clients, and most of the time, they’ll appreciate you for it. Be honest with yourself and know what you can realistically do with the time and resources that you have.

What difficult client situations have you experienced or seen? How did you handle them? Share your experiences and advice in the comments below.

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About the Author

Shannon Noack is a designer in Arizona and the Creative Director of Snoack Studios. Designing is her passion in life and she loves to create websites, logos, print work, you name it. She also blogs regularly here and you can connect with her on Twitter as well.

This was published on Oct 8, 2010


John Cowen Oct 08 2010

Interesting article and some great tips.

A question though on your solution to point 7:

“It’s best to come clean and be honest with your client. You screwed up. Apologize and confess that you know this isn’t your best work. Offer a discount on the project and see if you can resolve any issues in order to end on a good note.”

Are you suggesting offering a discount to keep the client happy when your work isn’t up to scratch. Or delivering a project to meet a deadline even though you’re not happy with it, giving a discount but also completing the work to your best standard soon aferwards?

Personally I’d say you shouldn’t deliver work you’re not happy with, even at a discounted rate. Though if you have to put it live to meet a deadline and then get it right immediately afterwards, then that’s a more acceptable compromise.

Régine Lambrecht Oct 08 2010

About your point 1. Your Client Keeps Adding Small Things to Your List, I would like to insist on the definition of what is additional and what is not. All depends on the contract : how detailed it is. Contract is a key step for defining what is included in the budget. It is too late to define what is ‘additional’ once the client starts asking new tasks. Carefully check the terms of the contract or order before signing it and agree on the job scope from the beginning.

Sofia Shafi Oct 08 2010

Well, I love it. Good solution for dealing with the difficult clients. Keep on quality work!!

Very interesting and helpful points. I think it is never easy to handle difficult clients, no matter how much experience you have, so being honest to the client from the beginning can save you some trouble.

Saffron Scott Oct 08 2010

Great article with some really good tips.

I also agree with Régine, there are differences between Revisions and Scope Creep and defining the differences in the contract can make all the difference.

Another trick I use is guaranteeing the quote attached to the final brief I make them sign off on. They start scope creeping me, I tell them “Sure we can do that! Let me write up a new brief with an amended price and we’ll guarantee that new price and get right to work.”

Stops 90% of scope creep in its tracks.

Roger Smith Oct 08 2010

Nice post. Very much necessary for all companies. Very good help for Business Development.

krike Oct 08 2010

I experienced number 3, althought it’s the client who made it more difficult when starting the project. He kept changing things and it was almost like I had to anticipate his ideas … untill it was to late and noticed that I didn’t had enough skills but most of all not enough people.. I was a bit frustrated

lol, looks like this article is for some pro business man, who have had some huge amount of clients that he/she unable to manage, cos for me I am always searching for a client and not finding some good success.

Gabriele Maidecchi Oct 08 2010

What a great post. And all those points are so familiar to my work experience, especially in the company I worked previously. Nice highlights and very very nice solutions!

Shannon Oct 08 2010

Thanks for the feedback everyone!

@John Cowen – I agree, I would never deliver something I wasn’t happy with either. The situation here was referring to someone that was too busy and didn’t give great service though, slightly different than what you were describing. Good ideas on both situations though.

Good points by @Régine Lambrecht and @Saffron Scott, defining additional things in the contract, or taking care of them quickly is a great idea.

Torstein Oct 08 2010

But what do you do if your client gives no, or really bad (as inlacking) feedback.

I’m working on a project where basically the only feedback I’ve gotten is “the site needs more stuff”. I tried arguing for the cleaner look, even suggesting different kinds of “stuff”. But that didnæt improve the feedback situation.

So my question: how do you handle a client that don’t give you any helpful feedback?

Shannon Oct 08 2010

@Torstein – That’s a great example. I would ask them to provide links to sites they like that are successful at doing what they are looking for. Give them links to some design galleries to look through. And have them describe why they like each of their choices. Do they like the colors, the layout, the style? Specifics really help. Many times people aren’t sure why they like it or can’t articulate it, so you may have to help them with that part, but having them find examples has been very helpful in my experience!

Frankie Oct 08 2010

Great work Shannon. I really appreciate when developers (myself included) stand corrected on their own mistakes and not speaking to a client is, per se, a mistake. The client should be aware, to the full possible extent, of the difficulties and successes of the project; it makes him more engaged and cooperative throughout the full run.

candraadiputra Oct 09 2010

I get this problem in every project, especially number 1.

Great article. It’s always nice to hear that other designers and developers actually go through the same experiences and hassles that you do. Everyone gets difficult clients but on many occasions I find the difficult and picky clients are the ones that can bring out the best in your work.

Julian Oct 10 2010

Shannon your timing couldn’t be more perfect. I’m going through a difficult situation right now and need all the advice I can get.

So true, Don’t forget the client that calls you twice a day, every day to repeat all the things they want you to do over and over and over again :)

Even better is the remote-micro-manager. This is the client who watches their website while you are building it and txt messages you with “can you just…”. OMG this one almost drove me crazy!

So far I haven’t worked out how to get around these two..they don’t seem to listen to reason :)

Shannon Oct 10 2010

@Adie – I agree! Sometimes you do need a good push to get the design to a great place.

@Julian – Well I wish you the best of luck with your situation. Hope it all works out!

@Mark – On the remote-micro-manager issue, if you can develop in a hidden area, that always helps. I have a development area for wordpress, other cms’s and site building that I use to create client sites, then move it over to my clients actual domain when I feel it’s ready enough for them to see and give feedback on. Having someone make comments along the way is no fun at all! Hope that helps.

Giacomo Colddesign Oct 11 2010

Great article to handle bad clients.. very helpful, thanks!

Shannon, great tips, definitely agree. I had an unruly client this past year for key art design, clearly we went round and round and really got to a bad place and we were not proud of the work but that’s how the client wanted it. In the end, we did discount which I regret but we didn’t put in our portfolio and will not work with that client again as it was a horrible experience. I think everyone needs to experience that to “get it”. Being a project director in this creative business is truly subjective and we must adhere.

Evan Skuthorpe Oct 21 2010

I know it would normally be a bad thing, but biting off more than you can chew, oddly enough, can be a good thing. It can lead to new skills being learned and new working relationships being forged with other freelancers/people that save you last minute.

Roy Tomeij Oct 26 2010

Watch out with the outsourcing! When you’re facing an impossible situation, outsourcing will nearly always make matters even worse. The person you outsourced to didn’t deliver, is unreachable, etc (unless you hire a firm instead of a freelancer, killing your profit). My advice: contact your client. Be honest about what’s going on. Try to work it out together.

Richard Oct 26 2010

How about this one:

the work is delivered as promised, but the client now asks for a discount because we went over the budget (though I was never informed of the budget).. they offer a link in exchange. What to do?

Shannon Noack Oct 27 2010

@Richard – You didn’t know the budget or you didn’t have a set price in the beginning? Either way, it’s definitely best to set a price in the very beginning before work starts, and get a signed contract. That way, both parties know what to expect at the end, and if they ask for a discount after that, refer to the contract and show how you gave them what they asked for. Happy clients are best, so you could always throw in something extra to appease them if they still aren’t pleased. Good luck with it!

Thomas Craig Nov 30 2010

Great tips, I am currently in a situation where I need to break a client relation as they just constantly one things without any real vision, just two hard on the head and not worth the trouble.

Ramesh Vishwakarma Feb 18 2011

Really great post… this will help me to workout in my working style.

Richard Mar 07 2011

Nice tips; I have this client who is very uncooperative. They incessantly want the work done but have failed to sign up the dotted line. I am having trouble giving them my stuff since I fear for my payment yet I need them for my business. Please advise

Shannon Mar 08 2011

Richard – Glad you enjoyed the article! I would wait to get their signature in a contract. If they can’t give you that, chances are they won’t be cooperative about paying in the end. Good clients are understanding and open to contracts, always use them! Good luck with it.

Vijay Apr 12 2011

its very useful for me thanks a lot

I am looking for some advice on a situation like point #1. I have a client who keeps adding things insisting they were implicit in the original contract. I know they were not as I am the one in the industry. I don’t want to do the extra work for free. (ITS A LOT OF EXTRA WORK). She keeps telling me that “IF i do well, she will send lots more business my way.” I feel like its basically manipulation. SHe has paid 50% up front, I have put in all the time and then some, and she still wants more. Other clients in the past have been understanding when I say “its not in the contract”. Do I have to give her back the 50%, or is there another solution? GRRR!!!!

Shannon Jul 21 2011

@Yan – I would never settle for someone saying they will send business your way in the future in exchange for not paying now, they’re probably just looking for a freebie. If the extra work isn’t in the contract, stick to your guns and bill for it. You always have to remember that you’re running a business and businesses need to make money to stay running. It’s not about emotions, it’s about business. Hope that helps!

Hey Shannon, Great article, i am kind of facing problems with my client, they are asking me to continue working on the project out of the promised date where i completed the project, and they want to do changes.. but my contract finishes end of September, should i just completely shut them down? because they are saying its not final due to their third party wanting to change things, although the work is finalized as per the requested items for the terms and agreement. they still did not pay me, although the contract states that they should on the 30th. Appreciate your response

Shannon Oct 11 2011

@moe – I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I would recommend showing them the original contract and telling them that the things they are requesting are outside of that. You can extend the contract to keep working with them, but the original payment due dates still stand, and additional payments will be added to compensate for the additional work. Good luck with it!

Great article with real world examples. I am planning to use some of these scenarios for a PM I am interviewing later today. Thanks!

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