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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- How to Get Your Ideas Across to Clients
- A Simple Guide on How to Effectively Talk to Clients
- Eight Tips on How to Manage Feature Creep
- Drawing the Line: 6 Things You Shouldn’t Tolerate in Projects
- How to Create an Effective Web Design Questionnaire
- The Key to Successful Collaboration
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.
- How to Design for Your Worst Client: You.
- 7 Things Web Designers Hate Hearing from Clients
- How to Get Your Ideas Across to Clients
- Related categories: Project Management and Resources
About the Author
This was published on Oct 8, 2010