What to Do When a Client Relationship Goes South

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December 20, 2010
thumbClient 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

1 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

2 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

3 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.


4 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!

John O’Nolan

Founder at Ghost.org. Writes about Open source, startup life, non-profits & publishing platforms. Travels the world with a bag of kites.

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