Client pulling Icarus-like developer back to earth
Issue № 227

In Defense of Difficult Clients

There’s a certain breed of clients that lives in the past: web 1.0 clients in a web 2.0 world. They can be a nightmare to work for, and they often end up commissioning horrendous sites that pollute our precious internet. 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. It can be frustrating to work for clients who force us to justify our strongly held beliefs, but, budget permitting, it may still be worthwhile.

Article Continues Below

The salt of the earth#section2

“[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

J. S. Mill may have died many years before the birth of the internet, but that’s not to say he can’t teach us a few things about dealing with clients who need to be educated. Only by being made to question our own beliefs can we prevent them from becoming dogma—and difficult clients certainly ask plenty of questions.

These clients represent the ultimate test: They require that we explain why frames are bad.  Why cross-browser compatibility is a serious issue.  Why the use of “click here” is considered inappropriate.  Why we now consider the web to be a medium in which vertical scrolling is acceptable.  They test our knowledge and they test our patience.

We all know why our methods are best practices, but can we justify them?  Because there’s no getting unjustified statements past these clients, and there’s no bamboozling them with buzz phrases and marketing spiel.  You have to justify each of your points in plain, simple English, whether it’s a usability concern, a standards issue, or a design choice.

Why enlightenment matters#section3

The big clients—the clients who are already paying megabucks—often tend to believe whatever you say.  You’re the expert and they’re the client, and you’re implicitly right because it says so in the last “0” on that invoice.  If you weren’t, they’d feel it was money poorly spent, and nobody wants to admit to a bad investment—so nine times out of ten they’ll take your word as gospel.

The little man, on the other hand, isn’t always so easily convinced. They’re not intentionally testing you: they just don’t get it.

But there’s a benefit to staying on top of your game.  Because the next time you hit that one client in ten who’s paying megabucks and wants a better explanation, you sure as heck don’t want to be caught off guard.  Perhaps it’s been 12 months since you last had to explain everything from grassroots.  Perhaps that hesitation, that delay in justifying your fee, is going to go down badly.  Maybe today’s the day that you lose out on a Fortune 500 gig because you’re wearing your comfortable slippers and no one’s made you dance in a while.

If it is, it’s going to humble you to realize that the owner of the corner shop (let’s call him Mr. Smith) might have helped you win that contract.

Finding the stepping stones#section4

Nine times out of ten these clients will have already found you. Remember? You probably turned down the job because they asked too many questions. They often tend to be shopkeepers or the owners of small businesses.  Sometimes they’re just innocent technophobes embarking on their first web adventure.  The last website that they were involved in was 1991, and they don’t understand why things have to be different now.

They insist fervently that there should be “absolutely no scrolling.” They want those cool animated GIFs. The concept of writing content specifically for the web seems as alien to them as this new-fangled and utterly unnecessary thing called “broadband.”  They more often than not have a son who is a web designer.  He uses FrontPage and hemorrhages “frames.”  Isn’t he clever?

Falling from the path#section5

You: You’ll see I’ve removed all the “click here” links…

Mr. Smith: Why?

You: Ah.  Well.  You see, they’re not considered to be good practice these days.

Mr. Smith: Why?

You: Well, for one thing they don’t mean anything if the website is printed.

Mr. Smith: Well who does that?

You: Right… well, urm… the other thing is it’s not really technically accurate.  If the user’s using a keyboard instead of a mouse… if they have a disability for example…

Mr. Smith: Well that’s just political correctness gone mad.  You’re being stupid.  You’ll be telling me Microsoft’s had to rename itself to “Vertically-challenged-soft” next…

You: ∗Contemplates beating the client to death with a handy philosophy textbook…∗

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

You: I was just thinking how to best explain the virtue of this concept to you.  Would you perhaps be persuaded by an amusing and colorful comic strip?

Mr. Smith: No.

You: Oh.

Hold fast, gentle reader. There’s another reason to remain on the path. What if we’re wrong? What if Mr. Smith is right?

It’s only by being forced to question our beliefs that we can be certain they’re right. The web is an ever-changing medium, we need to be prepared to accept that there’s a possibility that some of our practices are no longer best.  Or that—and it happens—they may never have been best in the first place, but no one thought to question them with enough force when they were first mentioned.

Should we really not be using tables for layout? Is the use of “click here” really so wrong? You don’t need me to play Devil’s Advocate—Mr. Smith is more than happy to do so without even realizing it. Periodic reasessment can only improve your work.

Sleeping well at night#section6

After learning to deal with these antediluvian clients, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief next time you’re dealing with an “easy” client.  They’ll be infinitely more convinced that you know what you’re talking about, and I wager you’ll have increased confidence in what you’re preaching. Even if they never question your decisions, you’ll have the kind of self-confidence that puts a smile on your face.

Difficult clients who require education represent the ultimate test.  Before we devote all of our time and efforts to producing all-singing, all-dancing websites for Fortune 500 companies, let’s see if we can spare the time to keep the local shopkeeper happy. Go on. The path to enlightenment is never easy, but you never know: you might even enjoy the challenge.

67 Reader Comments

  1. Excellent notion to push, Rob. I hope your writing skills serve to inspire – I can’t help but fear they may serve to induce the notion of, “Yes, that’s _exactly_ what excellent designers should do, and I’m an excellent designer – therefore…”

    The causality in that ‘extra 0’ analogy works all over the place!

    I think the point should be made to all designers who get blinded by the light of standards: these things are only beautiful for their reasons. If you wield ideas in the face of adversity without fully grasping their cause, they are no longer torches. They are bludgeons.

  2. A lot of that rings true. (Not the bits about multi-million mega-buck contracts, but the other bits).

    Those of us who work in web design every day, and who have embraced web standards, accessibility, usability and new technologies can become so used to applying best practice that we forget _why_ it is best practice. For those of us without a natural ‘gift of the gab’, it is easy to get caught out by these basic questions.

    Yes, we all know that using descriptive link text improves search engine performance and makes it easier for people scanning the page quickly to home in on what they are looking for. But when put on the spot by a difficult client, how many of us can swear that we wouldn’t be reduced to stuttering about people not using clicking devices, or printing the page?

  3. I loved this, and it is entirely true that if you were to let your evangelism of standards-compliance and all things sacred (like removal of frames/tables for layout, semantic mark-up, etc.) lapse that you may lose the ability to convince someone of their importance.

    However, the dilemma that I face is that I have come a little too close to being fired for trying to convice the very company I work for of the inadequacy of our design. So, how would you suggest that one takes the enlightened messages of Web 2.0 to the company for which you work? Is there information or research out there to affirm that the change in philosophy actually comes with improvements to the bottom line?

    This, to me would make it all worthwhile: having concrete data to backup my preaching.

    Loved the post.

  4. bq. Is there information or research out there to affirm that the change in philosophy actually comes with improvements to the bottom line?

    I certainly hope so! (But I’m not going to provide any links here).

    You’re certainly not the only one in your position. I used to work for a company where we were perpetually in your position. Those in control of the budget didn’t understand why we wanted things to change.

    What we found was that carrying out real usability and accessibility testing on the website in question provided pretty gosh darn good evidence for almost everything you’re preaching.

    First hand evidence is often a lot more persuasive than just quoting from someone else. If you can’t find or produce evidence then you need to really question your ideas.

    … and as long as I’ve got you either looking for evidence or questioning your beliefs then my work here is done 😉

  5. What you wrote is true for any customer relationship in most businesses. There are people you can convince and there are people who have opinions solid as rock. But it is up to you to decide what want to do, quit the work or doing what the customer wants, allthough you know it better. But in second case you have to inform your customer what he gets.

  6. bq. But it is up to you to decide what want to do, quit the work or doing what the customer wants, allthough you know it better

    You’re certainly right that the article concerns more than just the web design industry.

    But I think there’s more to it than the two choices of quitting the work or doing what the customer wants.

    We need to make sure we do a lot more than just telling clients they should listen because ‘we know better’. If we’re really ‘right’ then we should be able to basically convince anybody and everybody of that fact. I fear that sometimes we give up all too easily.

    Sometimes we fail because we’ve forgotten even the most simple and persuasive arguments. Sometimes we might fail because we’re not actually right. Admittedly sometimes we might fail just because the client won’t listen to a well structured argument… but I think that’s actually quite rare.

    Whichever way we succeed or fail it still helps us understand why we are or aren’t right.

  7. I think everyone will have a difficult client more than once in life. It’s difficult to handle their questions, but it’s a good training for yourself. Since we had our first I never go to meetings without a good preparation before.

    Thanks for this article made up my day!

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and I’ve renewed my resolve not to resort to physical violence when the client requests reggae music in the background and garish splash pages.

  9. As someone once said, “Usually your first guess is right”.

    In the case of the web, “click here” was the first guess for how to tell people about links. There’s still some merits to it in the right situation. Though, I still think it needs to be in the right situation and not saturated through a site.


  10. I can only echo what others have been saying here; great article, Rob! Nicely written and with a good point to make. Though, really… is beating a difficult client to death with a philosophy book all that bad? 🙂

  11. Wow, nice article, but I just dealt with a situation like this… _yesterday_. You’re absolutely correct, this type of situation does keep you on your toes. Not so much from not knowing the ‘why’ from a design aspect, because I think most of us know why we do things as designers, but expressing the ‘why’ in lamens terms can be tough. Just saying “well, it improves accessibility” clearly isn’t enough. Working mainly with small businesses, I find the best way to get them on your side is to explain the benefits of standards compliant design with respect to how it will improve the experiences of their users, and thus improve the likelihood of those _users_ becoming _customers_.

    With my clients at least, successfully bridging that gap in the clients head between web users and new business has been a big help.

  12. Great article. Unfortunately, you just described 95% of my clients and even some of our staff. We have designers who swear by tables and think inline styles are the greatest thing since the splash page. So at least they’re on the same page as our customers, sometimes.

    And encountering these folks is a rarity for you guys? I think I must live in a backward town.

  13. bq. And encountering these folks is a rarity for you guys? I think I must live in a backward town.

    … at least that means you’ve got a lot of people keeping you on your toes 😉

    I’d like to stress that encountering the clients that ‘think’ inline styles and tables are the coolest thing isn’t a rarity, it’s clients that really and truly won’t listen to a well structured and simple argument to the contrary that I think are a comparative rarity.

    But then again, perhaps I’m just particularly good at changing people’s minds. Maybe it’s my reputation for beating people to death with philosophy text books… 😉

  14. Winning over someone’s beliefs or ignorance is a huge part of proving that your worth the big bucks. It’s a great feeling when you have convinced a not so web savvy client that you did what you did because it was the right thing to do. Happy Client = Happy Designer = Beautiful project you can both be proud of.

  15. Also with regards to “Click Here,” it’s just redundant. I mean, what else are you going to do there? “Rub Here?” “Stare At Real Hard Here?” “Tap Three Times on the Monitor Here?” Clicking is what you pretty much do; no need to explain the default action.

  16. bq. Also with regards to “Click Here,”? it’s just redundant. I mean, what else are you going to do there?

    The redundancy argument against ‘click here’ is a good example of an argument that I’ve personally found really _doesn’t_ work very well with difficult clients.

    One of my clients used (obviously I’m paraphrasing) this retort:

    bq. “Okay, it’s redundant, but it’s expected. I expect it. It’s an accepted convention. I see it _everywhere_ online and if web users really are as stupid as you’ve been insisting they are [I’d been explaining some navigational conventions from a usability perspective] what’s the harm in spelling it out?”

    There’s a button on my Scuba BCD (buoyancy control device) that’s labeled “Push button to inflate”. Sure it could just say “Inflate”, I mean, what else would you do with a button except push it? But in the instance of my BCD there’s really no harm in spelling it out.

    On the other hand there’s really good reasons why it _does_ harm to spell out ‘click here’ on the web – and you need to have _all_ of those reasons ready if you get put on the spot like this.

  17. I really enjoyed the article, Rob; thanks for writing it. It’s so very easy to become disgruntled at clients without stopping to ask why they behave the way they do. I’ve found that clients are often how they are because they feel powerless–it’s their website, but it’s also partially mine as long as my hands are in it. So I’ve found that it’s important to teach my clients what they need to know in order to get them to trust me. In the midst of that dialogue, I gai a better understanding of their need and desires, and they better understand the design process. In the end, we’re both better off.

  18. After being taken advantage of by no less than 3 developers, I can tell you that explanations put me at ease. Why? Because I know you’ve put thought into what you are doing. Many of your peers don’t. They look at the client as nothing more than an annoying means-to-an-end. From Day 1!

    As we pay the bills, we want to get a little more respect than that. Many developers pass themselves off as experts, when they aren’t. They are unprofessional, have no idea why a accepted convention is a good idea, don’t respect deadlines (even when scope creep is not an issue), don’t execute, and flat-out don’t care. In the process, they make the good ones among you look bad.

    As clients, some of us also want to learn. I take interest in knowing why we are doing something a certain way. If you are enhancing my product, I want to know why it is now better than the competition.

  19. I am reminded of a story about (I believe) Amory Lovins, who tried to get large businesses to become more environmental friendly. The large companies weren’t terribly interested in his efforts to save the planet, but when he shifted his argument towards showing how being environmentally friendly could benefit the bottom line, they were much more receptive.

    I have adopted this strategy with web clients. I don’t explain to them why a standard is the right thing to do, I show them how standards can help save them money and provide a better user experience. For example, I might explain that saying “click here” makes sense on a web page, but fails completely on a cell phone. Depending on the client, this can be a huge deal.

  20. All this rings true in terms of client / company relations. I am currently considering extreme acts of violence given that the Creative Director here thinks good work comes from a batch of popularity contests. If you are cool at one point your ideas will be used, considered and accepted. Otherwise, the current brownnose will reap the benefits of taking the good projects and being his pet.

    This law applies to clients.

    My policy is to never compromise good quality. Compromise cost, timetable, anything you want but not quality which rings true no matter what relationship.

    The work is what prevails.

  21. 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.


  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. bq. 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!

  25. Great article – it goes with the age-old philosophy that you only truly understand something if you can explain it from the bottom-up.

  26. 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.


  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. *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!

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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).

  36. bq. 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…

    bq. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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?

  39. 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 Java Script 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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!

  42. 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.

  43. 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)”

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. bq. 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! 😉

  49. 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.

  50. 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…


  51. 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.

  52. 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!)


  53. 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…

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