In Defense of Difficult Clients

by Rob Swan

67 Reader Comments

Back to the Article
  1. Backing up to this point:
    You: ∗Contemplates beating the client to death with a handy philosophy textbook”¦âˆ—

    Mr. Smith: … why are you looking at that book?
    ========
    New Ending:
    ========

    You: Opens signed contract to pricing line items.

    Mr. Smith … Why are you looking at the contract?

    You: Just checking to see how many hours I included for development education and training. See here I have included 0 hours at $150.00 and hour.
    This is billable in 1/4 hour increments. Would you like me write you down for 2 hours? I have an open time slot tomorrow at 3:30 pm. (note proximity to rush hour traffic)

    Mr Smith … Not Really.

    You.. The answers to all of your questions can be summed up here in the signed contract. You are paying for a site that is designed using the latest Internet technologies and theories.

    Mr. Smith … I see.

    You: (Quickly Changing subject to money) Friday I will be invoicing you for the first 50%. Would you like that mailed, emailed or faxed.

    Mr Smith … (Avoiding the discussion of money)You Can mail it to me please. Now if you will excuse me I am running late for another appointment!!!!!!!!!!

    —-Sorry I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to inject some humor into it.

    Regards,
    William

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  2. Of course “click here” destroys well-written copy, and it has horrible implications for accessibility.

    On the other hand, it’s an unambiguous call to action… so I don’t bother fighting it as long as it’s used sparingly.

    As for the rest… I feel like the point of the article – that difficult clients keep us on our toes – gets lost in the “defense.”

    Meanwhile, for those of us whose account lists are comprised largely of difficult clients this article does little to battle despair. It’s better than silence, but only by an increment in my opinion.

    Meanwhile, a much more significant point of contention is ignored:  the fact that small business owners are particularly susceptible to the temptations of micromanagement, penny-pinching, and price-shopping.  A well-intentioned webnik must bear the first, and let prospects learn from their mistakes with the latter two – at someone else’s expense.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  3. Great article.

    I often find that by explaining the first couple of these ‘difficult questions’ in a way that makes sense from the client perspective will quickly bring you to a point where the client trusts you, thus reducing the number of ‘difficult’ questions.

    Right now ‘Google’ often is the magic word to motivate standards and semantics. Google is the blind person that every small business owner does want to take into account.

    Furthermore, a client who takes your word for everything you say and asks no questions at all isn´t that enjoyable neither. My preferred client is a critical one who likes to know why and at the same time values a motivation that makes sense.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  4. Google is the blind person that every small business owner does want to take into account.

    I quite often use the Google argument but I’ve never heard it put quite so succinctly. Really, really nice phrase!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  5. Great article – it goes with the age-old philosophy that you only truly understand something if you can explain it from the bottom-up.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  6. I’ve been a client as well as a user (…to the level of creating and using web templates on my own in html. Currently I’m buried in a tome on MySQL. This ‘about me’ is by way of introducing my pov.) At this point, any developer I talk to assumes I am at their level (this is not always good), whereas serious conversation with a coder is still difficult in that I understand many concepts but still relatively few processes.

    Until a few years ago, I spent decades working with only non tech business people. Most of them would relate to your description of difficult client, yet none of them were sole proprietor types. For the most part they are highly educated, extremely sophisticated, usually self-employed or professional, and successful in worldly terms. They only know the term social networking if it has been uttered by their teenaged children, yet they almost all use computers and the web.

    The thought I’d like to add here is that the folks I just described may not be your difficult client directly, but they are likely to be the clients of your client. Your client, I am assuming, has a successful B&M business but no web experience. They are more or less clueless about what you do and why. They are, nevertheless, anything but clueless about their users. It might be a pretty tough stretch in some cases to delve into their knowledge of how their customers behave and translate it to the web directly, but I believe that specific (perhaps limited) versions of such an exercise could be enlightening in some cases.

    Perhaps seeing that difficult client as the agent of a pool of new users who we might or might not bring into the flow could be useful.

    Vera

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  7. Crazy, this actually just happened to me yesterday at a SEO/SEM seminar … My boss asked me point blank what are the benefits of using CSS layouts over tables and, after countless hours reading ALA and other industry leader articles and blogs, preaching the virtues to clients and coworkers, painstakingly reworking sites to CSS when i could do it in tables in a fraction of the time,

    I stammered like an idiot for a second. And in that second, I saw in his eyes the total loss of his brief interest in the subject.

    I had on my comfy shoes, and looked like a fool

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  8. Its a little refreshing to be reminded that I’m not the only one with this problem. Although that doesn’t change the fact that I still can’t come up with the right answers when it comes down to the moment. I hate it when they ask “why” the second time. I almost take it as they just don’t trust me.
    Currently my only excuse for why I enforce web standers is because of search engines. Its a hard case to plead. I usually end up just giving up on the client, doing it the way they want and move on to the next client in hopes that they understand.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  9. When I was just starting out with doing web design I did have a very difficult and trying experience. My client was looking for a designer to create a site that would explain his amazing life. And trust me, this guy had an amazing life to tell. But was also looking for a designer that would charge a fair price and get the site built within a reasonable amount of time. It sounded like a good job to take on so I volunteered to build it for him and keep him posted along the way. I immediately went to work on the site. Every day after getting done with my regular job, I’d come home and work on the design of the pages. Everything was going great and he seemed happy. After I built the first page, I helped him get his domain name so that I could create a banner and put his website name on it. I made it perfectly clear that he was to save all passwords and numbers so that when it came time to load his site into the ftp it would be a breeze. I completed all the layout of the pages, put the text in and finished it up.I then attempted to send it to him so he could look at it, and then have me go over to his house and put it onto the web. But that proved unsuceesful because he uses AOL and Aol doesn’t allow any files to be sent. I then sent it to my hotmail and tried to save it onto his computer that way. Again AOL didn’t allow it. The only way I could think of getting the website up and running was to load it onto the ftp from my computer, but he was afraid of giving out his credit card numbers due to being afraid that it might get lost and someone might use them. He also lost the password which also made it impossible. So I was running out of options and he was getting impatient to get the site up. I told him I’d work on a solution and get back to him and definitely get the site up. All of a sudden he calls me and tells me that he had a guy he met build a site and put it up. So I checked it out and it was horrible. The guy used free software that was supplied by Yahoo, that required no coding at all. He said the guy did a great job and he liked it but wanted a few changes. Well after getting no hits and seeing alot of errors that wasn’t ever fixed, including bad layout, he was no longer pleased with it. So he decided to go back to using my services again. So, I told him to call the hosting company and get the passwords but that proved to not work either. I made him give me his credit card info. I then had no choice but to buy a new domain and get hosting. When he saw the site he loved it but wanted it shortened, and the text made bigger. He did pay me for it and all but that experience taught me alot about how to deal with clients in the future. www.bizenez.com

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  10. I enjoyed it, and do believe the concepts are applicable to other areas in our lives and our relationships in general.  Thanks!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  11. After years in the webdevelopment business I am by now at ease with the difficult type of customers. Mostly I have arguments (which some customers are not interested in just because they love to rant) and else I silently know better and do as they like, knowing other projects will come and serve as a better reference project.

    Quite often those people come back a lot later and having learnt some things finally understand stuff I had been talking about.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  12. I think “click here” is also bad as it has poor scanability. If a user is looking for a link to an annuall report, then scanning the links is only going to show a bunch of “click here“s, which means they have to take the time to scan more carefully.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  13. Great article. This is a great reminder to everyone in the business to make sure they can justify some of the trends and standards, and why they are so important.  I’m definitely going to be re-examining some of my practices just in case.

    Thanks Rob!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  14. Great article, and true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to stop and rethink why I do things the way I do just to explain them to others.

    There’s another point worth mentioning, though. I’ve found the people questioning me are often providing bad solutions to real problems. In my company, I may be the “expert,”? but people don’t feel comfortable pointing out problems without providing solutions. When people provide me with really bad ideas, it gives me cause to say, “Why do they want this?”? Often, they’re responding to a real problem that I missed. It gives me the chance to say, “Wait. I think I see what you’re getting at. What would you think of this as a solution?”? They feel listened to and respected, and I get to improve my site.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  15. While working at CERN, I changed some of the core HTML outputting functions to use semantic XHTML + CSS, in order to convince the other developers (and myself) that it was a good idea. The “result”:http://work.l0b0.net/#markup_css was IMO quite convincing.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  16. Check out this article published in Digital Web Magazine that explains how every design decision is some sort of compromise in usability – understanding that and explaining it are keys to working with difficult clients.
    http://www.digital-web.com/articles/user_interface_design_taking_the_good_with_the_bad/

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  17. Difficult clients always presents difficult questions so we can improve ourselves easily… it we can manage that kind of persons…

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  18. Managing the clients has a lot to do with managing the customers.  At http://whatsonmybookshelf.com this is a problem we encounter frequently.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  19. Here’s what I tell my clients about “click here”:

    Me: What you really want to offer them is not a chance to click, is it? You really want them to learn more, read more, see something, download something, go somewhere, etc., don’t you?

    Client: Well, yes, I guess so.

    Me: So let’s make that clear and make your site more action-oriented. You want an action-oriented site, don’t you?

    Client: (tentatively) Yes, I see what you mean.

    Of course, all bets are off once they get their hands on Contribute or start posting news items. I correct all the “click heres” when they submit Contribute drafts, and I do occasional site searches for “click here” and change them after telling the client staff why. It doesn’t completely do away with it, but it does reduce it a lot.

    As for frames, I’ve been able to talk people out of it and I haven’t had to use them for years. Now a few years or so later I have gone to client sites to find them completely re-done with frames and looking horrible, but at least my name’s not on it.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  20. Thanks Rob for the great article.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  21. I still think experienced designers are still better suited for the job that n00b grocery store owners.
    I’ve made a website for a pedantic control-freak once, so it had all the lameness (AKA “fresh insightful look of the non-technical person”). The “prefect” website turned out to be a visitor-repellent.

    Yes, ‘click here’ links are worse than properly labelled ones, and it does make a difference in usability tests.
    Frames, intros, and background music aren’t improving anything either. The subject has been beaten to death and ignorant comments about it aren’t insightful. It’s just like with complex math problems (NP) – once in a while crosswords fan will say he have found a perfect solution just to be proven wrong later (wasting real mathematicans’ time).

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  22. I still think experienced designers are still better suited for the job that n00b grocery store owners.

    If by ‘the job’ you mean ‘making websites’ then I wasn’t suggesting anything to the contrary. So that’s not what we disagree on…

    The subject has been beaten to death and ignorant comments about it aren’t insightful.

    … if you really believe this statement then you’re rejecting the central premise of my article. Which is okay. I don’t mind you rejecting it. That’s cool. I just want be clear that’s what you’re doing, and that that’s where we disagree ;)

    Throughout my article runs this notion:

    Opinions that you believe to be ignorant, obviously false, blatantly stupid, poorly thought out or contrary to common sense are still valuable. They’re very valuable indeed. Not necessarily because the “fresh insightful look of the non-technical person”? is right, but because (amongst other reasons) they reaffirm the reasons we’re right. They keep us on our toes. They help us hone our arguments. They stop us getting lazy.

    I’m really not suggesting that we give Mr. Smith free reign. He can be utterly, utterly wrong. He almost certainly is. But I hold it true that his comments are still of the utmost value. If you ever have to spend any time proving someone wrong, then it was time well wasted.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  23. Mostly when non-designers want to over-ride conventions it is just from ignorance. Then again, you’re right that we do need to pay attention to their concerns. There are at least two relevant situations here:

    On is that professionals get caught up in self-righteousness and the fad of the moment. We all do it. Stating that, “I’m the professional and I know best,” is at best problematic and at worst, plain wrong. It is so easy to get caught up in our little world that we lose site of the ordinary person, even while claiming that is who we are championing.

    The other concern is with wisely choosing your battles. The client wants, “Click here.” Does click here really hurt the page if it is included in a longer text link like, “To learn more about our XYZ Neon Widget, click here?” Redundant? Probably.  Inelegant? Absolutely. Harmful? Not really. This is a small compromise that won’t harm a site, simply make it marginally less sweet.

    These types of problems are seldom binary, this or that. Bending a little in non-crucial areas builds a relationship that will more likely survive a “No, I will not do that,” situation. Being flexible enough to both build quality sites and incorporate a client’s wishes is a far more important skill for the professional to learn than simple technical competence.

    On the other hand, if there are truly major technical, accessibility, etc. concerns, it is also important to be able to say, “I don’t think that we are a good match.” I did that twice this year. The first time the client was shocked enough to actually listen to my position. We reach a compromise that we could both comfortably live with. The second time was simply a relief to me and most likely to our no-longer-client. My boss trusts me enough that I had her support in this.

    There are situations that experience teaches will come back to haunt us. This is less a web design problem than a business one.  A client who insists on building a dysfunctional web site will only blame the designer later, even if the problems are ones the client insisted on and signed off for. “I told you so,” never makes a client happy.

    It is an interesting phenomenon that the less tightly one holds a position, the more ease there is in finding solutions.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  24. The things you have to keep when dealing with clients of any standing are:

    A. They hired you, because you are the expert. When your client doubts your decisions, gently remind them that this is your area of expertise. Ofcourse, a trust should have been built at an earlier stage.

    B. Money talks. At least here it does. Try to explain to your client that sticking by web standards will generate a greater return of invest. Think PDA, think cell phones, think new markets and new (formerly ignored) customers. Can’t do that with tables or ‘click here’.

    C. Sometimes the client is right. After all, isn’t he/she the one who knows his customers? 

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  25. So how do you handle the type of client you describe so pointedly, but with the additional feature that their eyes instantly glaze over if you explain something technical to them, like, say, the pros and cons of some css or JavaScript feature? Their opinion is basically, if you are forced to compromise on a feature for technical reasons, it must be your fault, not any browser’s.
    How to convince them? Still an unsolved issue for me.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  26. I really enjoyed the article; much of it resonates with what I encounter everyday at work. I always find it interesting the different perspectives clients have on the web: some are standards zealots and some are stuck in the 90’s. Also I find it ironic that the Fortune 500 clients are (from what I’ve seen) the ones who often have the hardest time embracing contemporary conventions.

    Of course, there is the argument that a client should get what they want. If they want a neon pink flashing banner adorned front-page monstrosity, and they’re paying for it, well… sometimes you have to just do the job your asked to do. We all got to eat. Philosophy don’t pay the bills.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  27. I apologize for my english but I think my point of view can help to understand what the ‘real world’ is. I work in a little country named Italy, and even in this little country my town is a small town, and all the clients are ‘difficult’. Currently I have a very funny experience with a difficult client that challenges my modernist and illuministic belief. Difficult clients don’t want to be educated, more precicesly, they pay you for not being educated. Usually they come to you with an enormous self-estimate (They are the mind, you are the hand – ‘vile meccanico’) and an entire enciclopedy of aestetical prejudices disguised in the shape of objective rules. My client have a funny misunderstaning of what html is. He work with golive on a mac and he’s strongly convinced that html is not the code. I went to him with a simple page (table-less, etc etc) for his online newspaper. I tried to explain with the printed html code on my hands that he had to write the title of articles inside an h.. tag and he said to me: “I need to work in html, I can’t edit the ‘code’”. He thinks that ‘editing html’ have to do with cut and paste from ms-word to the preview of golive. Code is, for him, something bad that parassiticaly lies behind the scene of ‘html’. I never used in my life golive and I don’t know how it renders stylesheets, but I know I’ve tested my page on IE, Mozilla for mac and pc, netscape for mac, safari and it works. But golive seems not to be able to show that page properly. So, my client look at me with disgust, and I neither tried to explain. Difficult client don’t want to be educated, they pay to feel that they are right!

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  28. Robert, very interesting and useful article, made me think a lot about relations with clients. I feel that it is extremely important to do a “reality check” sometimes, to verify, that you are still sane and not dreaming somewhere else. I believe, that it is important to face such clients, to learn about communicating with them, as they will always be a part of any job.

    I agree with Geoff Butterfield, that to convince a client, one should explain the benefit.
    I can tell you, that once i have had once such discussion with a Fortune 100 client, which just took about 10 minutes – their point was – why change anything, if it works at this moment.
    Mine arguments for using standards at that time were bandwidth saving, speed and usability and wider users range (more extravagant clients with OSX and Netscape precisely), which for them were not really interesting, as the person responsable for the website from their site, had no interest in internet, and for her it was just an obligation to work on it.
    So the whole thing just stalled, and as for me – i started changing and adopting their website with each regular update =O)
    My point was, that i was doing no wrong to the client, but helping them advancing into the future. Right now, i have changed my attitude in just doing my work the way i can (trying to be standard compliant) and doing my best, explaining to the clients what will they gain, before they start opposing the idea.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  29. Very salient points I may add…

    Pt1. “There’s a certain breed of clients that lives in the past…”

    Pt2. “They can be a nightmare to work for, and they often end up commissioning horrendous sites that pollute our precious internet.”

    Pt3. “It might seem easy to just pretend they don’t exist, or, worse still, to do as they ask, but—brace yourself—these clients are the stepping stones to enlightenment.”

    But, as you so elegantly selected your catch phrase:

    The salt of the earth
    “[T]hese few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool”¦. There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical”¦”? —John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

    Enough Said!

    My catch phrase:
    “Bland sand (e.g. salt) I am fine to be… An Adjutor (assistant)”

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  30. I think there’s a point in everyone’s career when this happens, for me it’s been this year. I’ve had to explain to webmasters of small companies why their 5 year old website is completely out dated, and why they should use CSS and semantic mark-up, they look at me blankly as say “it works why change?”?
    I’ve had clients that appear to be colour blind, 55 year old technophobes that can barely use email tell me, a designer to put the logo on every element on every page and can we have one of those scrolling marquees, before dropping the bomb of; “comic sans is a nice friendly font, how about that for the main text”¦”?
    If I could, I would walk out, but I can’t because a job is a job, so I sit there and calmly and patiently explain to them why things have to be done my way. Then leave the meeting and go to the pub, hoping alcohol will erase the last two hours from my memory.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  31. This was a really good article. I’m a WDiT (Wed Designer in Training) and with no one to really discuss all things web (war on terror might have something to do with that), I have no choice but to rely on sites like this and the people involved to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong.

    Often I do ponder if some of the things said are right (like using tables, etc). I am striving to design with standards in mind but often get frustrated because instead of using a table I’m struggling to figure out how to do something with a div.

    As I gain more experience and learn to differentiate the experts from the b*llsh*t artists I’m sure I’ll come up with my own style and preference of designing and getting the job done right.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  32. This is Great.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  33. This is Great.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  34. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  35. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  36. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  37. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  38. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  39. Nice way to share informartion

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  40. A well built solid cabinet would last longer than a cheap one right”¦ even though they may look the same on the surface? But you have to be prepared to pay for it right? Give the customer what he wants inside the budget constraints. If one is not prepared to learn about table less layout then surely you can’t afford to charge top rates.

    It is true we should question our methods and try to educate however the customers should get what they want.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  41. A well built solid cabinet would last longer than a cheap one right”¦ even though they may look the same on the surface? But you have to be prepared to pay for it right? Give the customer what he wants inside the budget constraints. If one is not prepared to learn about table less layout then surely you can’t afford to charge top rates.

    It is true we should question our methods and try to educate however the customers should get what they want.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  42. I’m sure I’ll come up with my own style and preference of designing and getting the job done right.

    That sounds like a healthy attitude :) Good luck with it. The web develops at such a tremendous rate that we’re all WDiT’s whether we like it or not! ;)

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  43. There’s really more to clients then clients that “get it” and clients that don’t.  I think it was Paula Scher in “Make it Bigger” who talked about there being four essntial client types.  Think of a coordiate chart with extremes of smart<>stupid and meddling<>uninvolved.  These two axes cross so that you get four types: smart and excited, smart and uninvolved, stupid and excited, and stupid and uninvolved.  I’m paraphrasing the langugage—

    I think she was a bit more polite about the terminology—but the general idea stands.  Her main point in all of this was was that some of these client types will cost you money.  In my experience, the project for a stupid, meddling client will never finish on time or underbudget.  While I agree that they can provide practice for understanding good tenets of design, if you have options or can afford to wait for another job to come along, do so.  You will lose money (time) on a stupid, meddling client.  Stupid and uninvovled is not so bad and would still make for good practice.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  44. Fellow philoso-mo-phizer,

    Great article. I can’t wait for you to compose “Part II”, when you post the comprehensive list of stupid questions clients ask and link to some web pages that pose answers. Then again, most of those links will point back to ALA articles! Good stuff…

    -Walt

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  45. Well when you take into consideration the reason we are here doing what we are doing is because of the client it puts a perspective on working with difficult people.  However, sometimes you have to weigh the opportunity cost of working with such an individual and sometimes you will find that it actually is costing you money to work for them.

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  46. Brad,

    Thanks for the comment, it’s spot on. Evaluating the opportunity cost is absolutely crucial in these situations. (I do think there’s a tendency for people to hurriedly underestimate the benefits of difficult clients – but it would certainly be a costly mistake to overestimate in a situation like this!)

    Rob

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.
  47. It seems like, with a few exceptions, we all get the same questions.  I wish somebody would make some sort of educational cartoon (Donald in Standardsmagic Land? …not sure if anyone will catch that reference…) so we could just sit the client down in front of a TV and save ourselves the time and hassle.

    Because after all, their job is to make our lives easier, right? There’s nothing more tedious than a client who doesn’t know how to do design websites…

    Copy & paste the code below to embed this comment.