Business of Art & Design: Dealing with a Difficult Client

I have had a lot on my mind lately, which has given me a serious creative block these last few weeks. I wanted to a do a blog post before Christmas, so I thought I’d talk about what’s been on my mind hoping that maybe it would help me get back in “the zone” and perhaps clear my conscience as well.

This is the last thing I ever thought I’d ever be posting about on my website, and yet here I am: Dealing with a Difficult Client.

It’s bound to happen at some point or another. Truth is, as much as you’d like to, you can’t please everyone and you can’t make everybody like you. It doesn’t matter how much you work or how hard you try, it just won’t happen. This is exactly the kind of situation I have found myself in this last month.

To remain professional, I will leave names and corporations out of this article and everyone will remain anonymous. The content of this article is not reflective of the feelings of my employer and are strictly personal. 

For starters, our client is a business owner and a terrible micro-manager. I believe his business suffers from a very bad case of Founder’s Syndrome (look it up). I have a very strong opinion about a micro-management mentality, which I will share in a future blog posting.

I believe that many of the unfortunate events and set backs that occurred during this project were avoidable and some of the other things that happened were beyond our control. Below are a few guidelines we could have followed to help avoid the situation we find ourselves in now.

Set Up Realistic Expectations, Up Front

The best way to deal with a difficult client is to avoid creating one. Right from the beginning, this project was doomed to fail because the client was given unrealistic expectations of how the project would be managed just because of who he was.

The client is the owner of a very well-known corporation that could open up doors to other business ventures, so lots of promises were made by my boss that should not have been made. We actually had worked with them once before with much success, but they were very lucky it turned out as well as it did, if you ask me. I do not believe we needed to make any promises based on our proven abilities during the last experience, yet promises were still made for some reason. My boss always means well, and he is a truly amazing person who does everything to the extreme. His generosity is both his biggest strength and also greatest weakness.

Below are a few things we could’ve have done differently to ensure a more successful project and improved our chances of having a happy client in the end:

  • You should never tell your client “you can have whatever you want.” It’s too open-ended and leaves way too much room for them to walk over you down the road.
  • You should never quote a price up front unless you have a clear vision of what the project entails. In the case of this project, our client was promised certain pricing well over a year ago and expected us to stand by it, regardless of how the project had changed in scale or size.
  • Make sure the client is aware that changing a design or adding an additional feature also changes the parameters of the project. They cannot hold you to the same expectation once they change the design from what has been agreed upon in the beginning. The project should be re-evaluated and new deadlines should be set. The client in this project added and changed several items in the contract as we were working through it, yet still expected the same turnaround, which was promised to him up front.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them. Make sure the customer is aware that their delay is holding up your process. In the case of this project, our measurements were delayed first, which then caused an artwork delay. To complicate things further, the client did not approve the artwork right away, which caused a delay in the printing, which caused a delay in the installation. Again, the client was told he could have whatever he wanted so we did our best to still make it happen in the same timeframe he was promised.
  • Specify one point of contact for the entire project. It is that person’s responsibility to communicate to the rest of the team. Too many contacts allows for too much he said/she said and causes confusion. In this project, I was instructed by our client to communicate with multiple people and then he still wanted to be kept in the loop. Unfortunately, the client is not available most of the time during regular business hours, which made it difficult to get the information we needed from him. His micro-management mentality held us up.
  • Make sure the client understands what their responsibilities are for the project. In the case of this one, they declined to include us in the installation to avoid additional costs on their side, as well as travel fees. This means they were responsible to find, hire, and schedule their own installers. We made recommendations, but ultimately it was their responsibility to coordinate. The client still expected me to coordinate this effort, even though it was clearly not in our contract. I did as he asked even though I was not required in the effort of customer service.
  • Do not let your client dictate how the project is managed. They do not have any knowledge of your product or processes. You, as the professional, should educate them why certain processes take longer than others and why certain steps need to take place in order to have a successful project and meet deadlines.

Avoid Personal Relationships with your Customers

We have a process just like any other business, and a lot of those processes were ignored as a result of the promises that were made. This is primarily because my employer often speaks to our clients on a more personal level and make them feel extra special. This is a very good quality to have, but when it comes to your customers, they need to understand that while you may be friendly towards them, you’re still not their friend. You should not share your personal phone number or information with people you are doing business with.

You can share personal anecdotes from time to time, when its appropriate, but again, keep it light and professional. Avoid using slang or common vernacular from every-day conversation. Make them understand that while you are sharing something from your personal life, you are still keeping it strictly professional. This is good advice in general, when communicating with anyone at work, including co-workers.

The relationship between my boss and the client unfortunately undermined my authority on the entire project and caused even further issues for our team. The client had my boss’s number and if he didn’t like the answer that I gave him, he would call my boss to get an answer that he liked. From an employer standpoint, this also made me and the rest of our team feel very anxious when speaking with the client and a little resentful towards him because we knew that he would do this.

Many things were also given to this client at cost or for free as part of this relationship. We provided a ton of marketing materials and graphics, all for free. We reduced the prices of our designs. We provided countless hours of animation, all for free. This leads me to my next point…

Don’t Give Anything Away for Free Until the End of the Project

Just don’t. It sets a precedent and they begin to expect free stuff throughout the rest of the project. They will not appreciate anything you give them once you give them that first freebie.

We have done two of these projects with this client so far and have lost our butts on both of them. I understand that this is supposed to be a gateway for us into other avenues, but it’s been a very expensive investment up front and given the grief that it has caused our team, it’s not worth it. We have several other projects in the pipeline that are several times the amount of this project and the clients are very gracious and much easier to work with. Give me those clients over this one any day of the week.

Once the project is complete (and you have time to look at your profit margin), then you can (and should) consider giving a gift to your client, as a way to say “thank you” for the business and that you enjoyed working with them. The client at this point will be much more appreciative, as they were not expecting it and you will send them off with a fond memory of working with you and hopefully more business will follow in the future.

When You’ve Done All That You Can Do, Complete the Job to Your Best Satisfaction and Graciously Bow Out

My boss is great at analogies and he often shares his “pizza” story to make this point.

You are the owner of a pizza restaurant that offers “the perfect Pizza or it’s free”. You get a call from a customer and your deliveryman brings it to them. They complain that there is not enough sauce on the pizza, so they get a free pizza. The next night, the same customer calls and orders another pizza. They receive the pizza and then call to complain that the crust was not crunchy enough, so they get another free pizza. They do this a third time, complaining that there is not enough cheese this time. Three free pizzas later, and they order another one. This time, you, the owner of the store delivers the pizza. You pleasantly says to the customer: “I wanted to deliver this pizza to you personally because it is the last one I will deliver to you. I apologize for the first three pizzas, and it seems that I unfortunately am unable to meet your very high standards. Thank you for your business and enjoy this pizza.”

I think this is a great story and illustrates perfectly that you just can’t please everyone, or make everyone like you and sometimes you need to cut them loose. If you get to the point where you feel in good conscience that you’ve done everything you can to make the problem client happy and have completed the project to your satisfaction, then it’s time to bow out graciously.

In the case of the current project, that is pretty much what I have done. Our client only wants to speak with my boss now, mainly because my boss is the only one with enough authority to give him exactly what he wants to finish this project. I know in my heart that I have done everything I could to make him happy. While I am no longer in communication with this client, I am still assisting my team in completing the project to a satisfactory level.

Once the Project is Complete, None of the Stress that Occurred Will Matter

The great thing about art is that once most people see the end product, they will forget about all the stress they experienced as it was coming together. All they see at the end is (hopefully) beautiful artwork.

As I mentioned, we had worked with this client once before and they were very lucky that the project went as smoothly as it did the first time because we had essentially the same working conditions. Looking back on that first project now, I have to admit that I am very proud that we had worked on it and that I was a part of it. It was a true miracle that it came together as well as it did considering all the stress it caused our team when we were actually working on it!

This is the case for many of our projects. They can get stressful, but when it’s all said and done, we have created a truly beautiful product that everyone is proud of. I have faith that this is still the case and eventual outcome of this project as well.

In closing, I feel as though our team, not just myself, was set up to fail from the start. Depending on how this project turns out, there’s still a good chance we have another project on the horizon with this same client, but I personally refuse to work directly with him again. My boss will be taking the reigns from here on out, so our client will be in for a ride, that’s all I can say!

It’s really too bad that this project has come to this. I’ve never had this happen quite to this extent before and I’ve been having a hard time dealing with it. I’ve lost a ton of sleep over the last several weeks. Writing about it has definitely helped. The one thing that I can honestly say is that I feel that I did the very best I could with a bad situation and that’s all that you can do sometimes.

Schmitty out.