Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Difficult Clients II

Some time ago, I wrote about what makes clients difficult. Yes, there are predictable patterns, and, yes, there are ways to avoid those. But what about those times when a client is difficult because they really want to be difficult. What is a designer to do?

One option is that we can fire the client by cancelling the working relationship. We can do this by either naturally increasing the fees according to new requirements and job parameters, or by returning any money not spent in time, helping the client find another solution, and calling the job a wash.

Another option is to increase the collaborative nature of the job. This is done by pledging to communicate on any and every occasion, keeping the client informed. This is only effective with a client who is unsure what they are doing or they feel that there are a lot of factors that are out of their control, and they need to express accountability to their managers. Being understanding and helpful in those situations turns out well for both the designer and client.

But then there are the clients who simply like being bossy, arrogant, self-important, or just plain mean. What do you do about these types?

Confront the attitude respectfully. I repeat: Do not simply confront the ornery client. Confront with respect—even if they don't deserve it. Be direct. But offer an out for their behavior, so that they can save face.

For example, a client likes to yell at me and degrade my design-ability. They say things like, "I know about design, and I know what I want. You couldn't even design a pattern. I just want you to do what I tell you to do. What an idiot. Blah, blah, blah..." (You know the types.)

Believe it or not, the best response would be a truly honest response. "I do not like your tone, and impugning my character is disrespectful. I would appreciate it if you express your displeasure in a more respectful manner. I suppose you may be having a rough day, you may think I am not listening and you're frustrated, or you are just having a hard time communicating what you want. I understand that it can make it hard to communicate properly. But if this working relationship is to continue successfully, we both need to respect each other, and work toward a mutual goal. Otherwise, I will be forced to terminate this project for my own best interests. However, I know you really don't want to do that, and we will be able to produce something great."

Notice the progression of the response. I try to do this with everyone not just with clients:
  1. Clearly state what is the problem is. Don't sugar-coat it. Tell it like it is, from my perspective, not accusingly.
  2. Give the client an out or a possible explanation for their behavior whether it is out-of-character or not. Even an arrogant client may not want to be so, but has slipped up in a major way. Being upfront can help them realize they overstepped their bounds, and also being understanding can build the working relationship.
  3. State clearly the goal of dealing with the problem.
  4. State clearly the consequences for not dealing with the problem.
  5. End on a positive.


  1. Anonymous12:01 PM

    Or simply get fired.
    This doesn't work in the "at will" corporate sector.
    I had an HR rep tell me that my supervisor or anyone over me can say and do whatever they want as long as nothing gets physical. If I don't like it I'm free to leave.

    Funny how we have to jump through hoops, communicate to the nines, and executives/ADs/and everyone we work for continue the behavior.

  2. Uhgg! Pray For, I will pray for you.

    I use to work for a not-for-profit that was pretty cool to work for until some turnover occurred. Then I was under a somewhat abusive boss, with no sympathy nor understanding.

    I did eventually leave. That may be the most healthy thing to do. Get the resume out there, and shore up the portfolio.

    I was scared at first, but I felt good when I finally did it.


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