The best tips for dealing with difficult clients

The best tips for dealing with difficult clients

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

As web designers, we want to love all our clients. That’s what figuring out your ideal client is all about, right? Doing what we love for people who love working with us.

Many freelancers have found their way to client bliss, but pretty much all of us have had to kiss a few frogs along the way. The difficult client, it seems, can happen anytime and strike without warning. To some extent, they truly are a fact of life for any service provider.

So how do you deal with these difficult clients? And what can you do to prevent things from going south in the first place? Let’s discuss.

layout by flywheel difficult clients man working on laptop behind another man working on laptop

1. Don’t take it personally

Somebody’s really unhappy with the work you did, and they’re letting you know it. Ouch!

Yes, it stings when we don’t get positive feedback – especially when we’ve invested a lot in something. The thing I’ve found most effective when someone tells me my work isn’t good enough is to find a way to detach. I tell myself the person is having a bad day, or that their expectations simply aren’t reasonable, or the “shortcomings” aren’t in line with the project as originally discussed. When all else fails, I read through my stack of glowing testimonials and heartfelt emails from other clients – the ones who actually appreciate what I can do.

Here’s another tip I picked up recently from the AmEx blog, of all places: when your client says something infuriating, tack “froMLE” to the end of it before you respond. FroMLE means “from my limited experience” and it can help you keep perspective on the client and their obnoxious statement without getting sucked into drama.

Ultimately, your self-worth shouldn’t be based on what one client thinks of something you’ve delivered. When you can keep that perspective, it helps keep the emotional injury level at a sting, as opposed to a mortal wound.

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2. Listen to what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it

layout by flywheel difficult clients woman in hat talking on iphone

Sometimes a difficult client situation crops up when the client has a legitimate issue to raise but does so with a lot of hot air behind it. If you can sort out the real issue from the emotions behind the delivery, you can do some problem-solving. 

For example, if a client is saying your website design is no better than the original, there’s no value in the deliverable, and that working with you was a waste of money, see if you can find out what exactly is so unsatisfactory.

It could be that they expected a complete departure from their current website, whereas you’d tried to retain the “spirit” of the original while coming up with something updated. To them, it’s just a fancier version of what they had when the expectation was something completely new and different. (Yes, something like this happened to me. Big lessons in onboarding!)

3. Set boundaries the minute you realize there are none

When you get stuck on the phone with a chatterbox and you realize nothing of any value has been said for 10 minutes, you need to take charge. Interrupt as politely as you can, say that you only have another moment, and ask what specifically you can do for them. If this becomes a chronic problem, you may need to let the client know that the excessive phone calls are beyond the scope of the project and that you’re happy to take them, but you’ll need to start charging a fee for every call that goes over 5 or 10 minutes. 

If you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t respect your work hours and calls or emails at all times of day expecting a hasty response, you’ve got to enforce your work/life boundaries. Don’t take the phone calls or respond to any emails. If you get complaints, state your working hours matter-of-factly and don’t deviate.

Another common issue with clients is trying to wrangle a “committee of deciders.” If everything on the client end is being discussed, debated, and thrown at you from multiple directions, it’s a recipe for disaster. Have the “committee” name one person who will be your sole point of contact, and only take requests and input from that person. Doing so will streamline your communication tremendously (and increase the odds that you’ll escape the project with your sanity intact).

layout by flywheel difficult clients man on couch with email open on black laptop

4. Own your part and make it right

Approach any difficult client situation from the angle of finding the problem and offering the solution. Sometimes the problem is as simple as “I’m overwhelmed by this project and I need reassurance you can deliver what you’ve promised.” These kinds of conflicts and tensions can be set aside once you’re able to provide solutions, whether it’s a robust explanation of all the steps you’ll take to get the project done or just a timetable of milestones.

But sometimes it goes a little deeper than that.

If you see, upon closer inspection, that there were in fact things you could or should have done better and now the client is legitimately upset, own it and offer to make it right. This might mean more revisions or even a complete redo, if your client becomes reasonable after being understood.

If there’s no reasonableness to be found, or you simply can’t deliver what the client wants, you may need to issue the refund.

5. Prevent difficult clients from becoming difficult in the first place

“Twenty minutes of prevention is worth weeks of the cure. ”

In other words, do yourself and your clients a favor and set appropriate boundaries and expectations right at the beginning. It should be folded into the project proposal that your client signs, and/or the contract you put together, and it will include things like this: 

  • Your office hours and availability, including phone call duration and frequency.
  • Clearly defined scope, as well as your hourly rate for extra elements that go beyond the scope.
  • Points of contact for you and for the client.
  • Project milestones and key deliverables, with the stipulation that turnaround time is dependent on client responses (i.e. if you need two weeks to reach the next milestone, those two weeks don’t begin until you get the client feedback you’ll need from the previous milestone).
  • Payment terms.
  • An “escape clause” with a kill fee if either one of you terminates the project before it’s done.

layout by flywheel difficult clients man and woman talking at wooden table with laptop and mobile phone

You’ll also benefit from an in-depth client questionnaire at some point during the onboarding process so you can get right to the bottom of the client’s goals, expectations, likes, and dislikes. This will be helpful not only in delivering something they love, but problem-solving if things go off the tracks.

“What’s your best tip for handling a difficult client? ”

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Comments ( 2 )

  1. Seth Goldstein

    September 1, 2017

    Love this post. Especially the stock art. Great tips.

    • Morgan Smith

      September 1, 2017

      Thanks Seth! If you're talking about the featured image, that was actually taken in-house. We're big fans of confetti around here, and have a whole series of photos like that with the Flywheel crew :)

  2. Reich Web Consulting

    September 1, 2017

    Terrific advice! I think you covered most of the pain points that we experience on a regular basis.

    One important point that I'd add is that honesty about your agency's value as well as its limitations can help you reel in the clients that fit you best and weed out those relationships that don't and could become toxic.

    My business excels at custom WordPress programming. Do we do general web design? Absolutely. But you come to us if you want something custom that doesn't exist in the free or premium WordPress ecosystem.

    We've tried selling ourselves as a full-service web marketing agency. Through a mixed-bag of adventures, we decided that we create the best client experience when we stick to what we're good at, admit when we've reached our limitations, and call in other experts to do what they do best to offer clients the best value we can.

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