What to Do When a Client Relationship Goes South

Client relationships almost always start out really well. You’re both excited to be working together, they’re looking forward to a new site and you’re looking forward to creating something really amazing.

Sometimes it stays this way throughout the process and the working relationship between web designer and client goes smoothly. Other times… not so much.

One of the most frustrating things about client relationships going south is that you often feel like there was absolutely no way to have anticipated it.

Sometimes this is absolutely true but the majority of the time there are little warning signs which you can pick up on very early and use to your advantage.

Today we’re going to be looking at how to deal with the difficult situations which arise when the project doesn’t go quite as smoothly as everyone anticipated.


Why Client Relationships Go South


Obviously looking out for red flags when taking on a prospective client is the first step. If you ignore red flags from the start then this is a sure sign that the relationship is probably going to end badly.

But, what about when there are no red flags? Sometimes you think you’ve just taken on the perfect client and then for some reason it just doesn’t work. You can get on with someone really well on a social level but then find them incredibly difficult to deal with on a professional level.

The most common cause for these situations is communication. When dealing with clients, communication is the number one most important skill to have. Much more important, even, than any design or development skills which you have. In this particular situation communication will usually start out well, then shift slowly as the project progresses.

At the start of the relationship the client sees you as the professional and they treat you accordingly. As the project progresses and particularly when design mock-ups start coming into play, the client’s mentality shifts from a person consulting a professional, to a person buying a product which appeals to them. This is the point at which the client stops listening to your advice and starts to demand little changes which they think will look better.


Strategies for Resolving the Situation


Now, let’s be clear, you’ve gotten to this point because of poor communication on both parts. It isn’t just the client’s fault, so don’t blame it all on them.

If they are looking at a design from the perspective of whether or not they like it on a personal level, then you haven’t done your job beforehand communicating to them how the design process works and what they should be looking for.

Regardless of who’s fault it is though, you’re fed up with the project in its current state and something needs to be done. You can either try to pull the project back and work out how to communicate more effectively, or your can cut the client loose entirely. You might think that the first option is always better for your bank balance, but this isn’t always the case.

For now, let’s say you do want to resolve the situation and move on. What can you do? Well first you need to have a chat with your client, preferably in person but on the phone will work too. Above all things, do not use email.

Email is great, I love email and would prefer it if everyone only ever communicated with me through email. It gives me time to formulate a well considered, diplomatic response to any situation and it doesn’t intrude on the rest of my day. There’s one problem with it though, it doesn’t have a face, or a voice.

If you’re going to have a difficult conversation with anyone you really need to show that you have good intentions with a friendly tone of voice and smile. Bringing up any point of contention through a written medium will simply come across as confrontational and offensive, no matter how your word it. Unfortunately it’s a tried and tested fact.

Now, when you do actually have the conversation with your client, what you want to do is create a shift in behavior. In order for this to happen you need to explain to them what isn’t working currently. This could be worded something like “Listen Tom, we’ve been working really hard on this design for you. Your feedback so far has been great and its really challenged us to make the final product even better, but I wanted to review the feedback process with you so that we can both get the absolute most out of it.”

This is a friendly and sincere opener, letting the client know that he is extremely important to the process. You then want to move on to talk about how design feedback needs to be considered above all other things from the user’s perspective, rather than the personal tastes of the people who are building the site.

If you want some great advice on how to word this type of argument in particular then check out Paul Boag’s fantastic talk on Educating Clients to Say Yes. Paul offers some simple and incredibly useful strategies for talking to clients in a way which will benefit both parties.


Strategies for Cutting Them Loose


Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you say. The client relationship is beyond repair. This is particularly true when the client has held the project up way beyond the original schedule so that you’re actually losing money by keeping them on.

If you’ve tried the strategies above and you’re still not getting anywhere then it may be time to simply call it a day. My good friend Brendon Sinclair also shared some very wise words with me on this subject some time ago, he said:

“The best indicator of future performance is past performance. They’ll always be the same.”

You need to consider that your client most probably will continue to be exactly the same for the duration of the project even if you do manage to resolve issues which you’ve been having. If the prospect of this is too daunting for you, or not financially viable, then again you probably need to look at ending the relationship.

The most important thing to note here is that no matter how much you hate the client by this point and want to give them a piece of your mind, don’t do it. You really, really, want an amicable split from even the worst of clients. Why? Well, for need of a better word: Karma. These things have a funny way of coming back to haunt you.

If the project goes down in flames then the client will more than likely boast far and wide about how awful you are at doing your job. They may know someone who knows someone who would have hired you, but not anymore. You really need to think about protecting your brand image so that this one negative moment won’t leave a lasting impression on your business and your career. Yes, this is annoying. Especially on occasions where you’ve done nothing wrong and the client is simply an impossible character, but it is still very important.

Again, go for the face-to-face or phone option here, no email. You want to explain to them that you value them but you don’t think that the working relationship is a good match. Effectively you’re going to say “it’s not you, it’s me”. You could do that by saying something along the lines of “Listen Tom, we hold ourselves to extremely high standards for all our work but for whatever reason, on this project that isn’t showing through. We aren’t getting what we need and neither are you. I think we should probably call it a day here because we think you would be much better off working with _______, who is much more suited to the type of work which you’re after.”

It’s not an easy statement to make, but it does work. Provided that you can outline to the client that you respect them and want the best for them, then they won’t mind too much. Like breaking up any relationship, the other person almost always feels the same way to some extent.

Be confident, firm, polite and friendly.




Situations like this with clients mid-way through a project are never easy and they’re definitely never any fun. Just remember that how the situation eventually ends is entirely up to you.

You have the power to take it in any direction you want with a little diplomacy and respect. A difficult relationship doesn’t have to end with a bang. You just need to communicate as effectively as possible.


What do you think? Do you have any really good strategies for dealing with the difficult situations which can sometimes arise mid-way through a project? Let us know in the comments below!

  • http://www.alexander-ljungstrom.com Alexander Ljungström

    Great article, really useful tips. Looking forward to watching the video later today when I come home. :-)

  • http://www.mekonta.co.uk John Cowen

    Enjoyed this. I’m debating a client relationship at the moment and still unsure the best route forward, so a timely article.

    Question on your suggestion of: “we think you would be much better off working with _______, who is much more suited to the type of work which you’re after.”

    I completely see the value in recommending another designer, but equally I’m unsure I’d want to recommend a client who I haven’t got on with to a contact who I do get on with. Has anyone had experience in successfully passing on bad clients to other companies?

  • http://trafficcoleman.com/ TrafficColeman

    Its all about knowing how to deal with situations and talking care of people needs. We all have bad things that come up and hope the clients is understanding enough for you continue to do business with them.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • http://masenchipz.com Masenchipz

    make the client as a friend is the best strategy to establish relationships with clients :P

    • http://iamautocomplete.com Angelee

      ‘Be confident, firm, polite and friendly’ ~ the best package for clients whether they to south or whatever direction may be!

      • http://masenchipz.com masenchipz

        yes i agree with u :P

  • http://www.badracket.com Adam Wagner

    Strong tips.
    I admit, this has happened to me before. I was young(er), and really dropped the ball. Nothing to do but fess up.

    Oh, and this article is a nice supportive read that fits well with John’s work here.

  • http://visual-blade.com Daquan Wright

    So true, just be professional, always.

    That doesn’t necessarily have to mean “nice” either, but it should be tactful and practical.

    “You can’t please everyone” is one of my favorite business principles and it is always true (no matter the field).

  • ndimos

    Paul Boag’s speech is really amazing and helpful!
    Thank you for another great article…

  • http://gauravmishra.com Gaurav Mishra

    Liked the pics selection. Worth story telling pics

  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    impressive article, like the way it is being written. thanks for clearing some of my doubts

  • jvm

    And … when you’ve done all these things correctly and you have done everything in your power to release them with the best intentions and they turn around and sue you? … fun times. Dealing with that right now and this is the first time in 15 years of doing this business that I’ve ever had to.

    How do you deal with blatant fraudulent claims from a client who accepted your work, then decided not to (curiously enough, their mood changed only after about the 8th time I’d pleasantly and professionally told them that we would be happy to continue to make their changes that are outside of the scope of the agreement, but only after they paid for them) and then they slap you with a lawsuit? I’m going to be blogging about this one (in a general, good business sense – not naming the client), but I can tell you from the get go, it’s paramount that you stay 100% professional from word go on a project and that you keep the very best records (online project management system, email, client sign-offs, whatever …) because if you want to uphold your good name and the good work you do and generally defend yourself if you get into a situation where things go farther south than they ever have, you’ll need them. And of course, start with an air-tight contract. Ours is saving us on a number of levels already.

  • http://www.psyched.be/wordpress Darkened Soul

    So no suicide mail-bombing here?

  • http://www.shareachuckle.com Jordan

    Brilliant article! Very good tips to keep the relationship going. The video was actually pretty insightful, and I found the guy pretty entertaining.

  • http://www.buzz-webdesign.co.uk Buzz

    Interesting and useful article, thanks for posting.

  • http://www.somethingsmart.com San Antonio Website Designer

    Good info on dealing with a strained client relationship. The preferable situation of course is not to have this type of situation. While I know there will always be difficult people, when doing website design and web service development work I’ve found that the best way to avoid having upset clients is to:

    A) Be firm (internally and externally) about setting realistic expectations. Don’t oversell or say you can do something when you probably can’t. Undersell and over-perform. One way or the other, your reputation will precede you in your future sales calls. I would rather be the guy going into sales call being known as someone who over-performs.

    B) Have verifiable documentation. This starts from your first contact, saving emails, etc. and continues through having signed detailed services agreements, getting email confirmation on client revision sign-offs, and of course meticulous bookkeeping.

    C) Don’t assume, ask the stupid question. This doesn’t mean you have to look stupid. Preface the question with something like, “I know this might sound stupid, but I just want to clarify and make sure everybody’s on the same page. I always say better to be safe than sorry.”

    These three things protect both you and your client and gives both of you a point of reference to go back to in case of misunderstanding.

  • http://misfitmedia.ca carson

    great article thanks for the great tips. Very helpful.

  • http://www.jaavedkhatree.com.au Jaaved

    Some useful tips in there but sadly, my experience with some people has shown that none of the above would ever make it all end nicely :(

    Still though, I share the sentiment of not rushing to blame the client at every juncture – after all, you need to be proactive about this sort of thing. Maybe anticipation is the best form of defence?

    Cheers from beautiful Australia.

  • http://www.finishjoomla.com/ Theo van der Zee

    I think you’ve already mentioned both the easiest and the hardest way of resolving these conflicts: communication. The problem with this is that it is often it is exactly the communication that made the relationship go south in the first place. The first point mentioned by San Antonio Website Designer about expectations is spot-on. Knowing what to expect leads to a better understanding for both parties.

  • http://www.benstokesmarketing.co.uk Ben Stokes

    Nice article – the video was very informative. The best way to make your client happy is to involve them in the whole project, from wire frames to completion, that way the client will be involved in the project :) Thanks guys

  • http://www.megalomedya.com Reklam Ajansı

    So good and great tips. Thanks lol..

  • http://www.inteliwise.com Virtual Agent

    Communication is a must with companies and their customers, how will a project go well when there is lack of communication. Misunderstanding becomes the effect, which can dissatisfy a client. Making them important and involving them with every step is helpful, I agree with Ben. :)

  • http://www.surfsupinteractive.com Quinn

    Very nice article – I’ve been in this boat where client feedback was all from their perspectives and they didn’t keep the user in mind. Again – excellent post.

  • http://www.plauditdesign.com/ Michael Schlotfeldt

    I loved Paul Boag’s talk on the topic. Working with clients is such an important skill which takes years to develop and has to always be worked at. Its easier to blame the client which is why designers usually blame them. Thanks for the article.

  • geoffroy gaborieau

    This is a very good article, a bit scaring when i know that i will have to deal with my client in few weeks but, thank you for having warned us!!