Dealing with Difficult Clients

Sometimes it seems your customers have been born for the sole purpose of tormenting you with their crazy nonsense.  How do you stop yourself from tipping over the edge and letting them know how you really feel?  If you’re not sure of the answer to that one, don’t worry.  There are millions of other web designers out there suffering through the same problem, and we’re here with some practical tips to help you all cling to the edge of sanity a while longer.

General Tips

  • Record all communications with customers, if that is legal where you live
  • Don’t delete their emails or discard their letters
  • Try to limit phone contact, encourage email contact
  • Never respond when you’re feeling emotional, take a moment to calm down
  • Keep accurate financial records
  • Maintain work logs, work schedules, communications logs, and fault logs.
  • Always be polite, avoid sarcasm, and watch what you say
  • Be a good worker, but don’t be a slave.  Know when to tell them to take a hike.
  • Keep your ego in check.  You know you’re superior, but the client doesn’t.
  • Wash behind your ears, wear clean underwear, and never feed the animals in national parks

Now let’s take a look at the different species of bad clients that you are likely to encounter during your career, how to spot them, and what to do when you have to deal with them.

1. The Nit Picker

This is the most common type of difficult customer to deal with, and you’ll especially find these guys at the upper levels of hierarchical corporations.  There are numerous studies showing that a majority of people who make their way up the corporate ladder have varying degrees of sociopathy.

Their aim in this case isn’t to use their feedback to get a better result, but simply to see how you’ll react.  It relieves their intense boredom with life in general.  Imagine not caring about anything.  That’s the life of a sociopath, and it sucks.  They have all the power in the world, but they don’t know how to enjoy it.  This leads them on an increasingly destructive path until their various addictions put an end to it.

A less common scenario is where the nit picker is simply trying to wrangle a discount or a freebie due to the insinuation that your work is substandard.

How to recognize them: A nit picker is easy to spot after you’ve dealt with them 3 or 4 times already.  Nothing you return to them will ever be good enough, and they’ll always find some kind of flaw or imperfection with your work to complain about.

How to handle them:  Always be super polite, positive, and even cheerful.  This will decrease their motivation to attack you, and rob them of their will to live.  Don’t try to justify what you have done, just ask them for their own suggestions for how they’d like the work improved, then do that work.  If their nit picking goes past the time that you’d normally send a bill to them, send it anyway, even if the matter hasn’t been resolved.  There’s a good chance their finance department will send your payment regardless.  When the matter reaches the second month, send them another bill for the time you’ve wasted on reworking.  It sure beats arguing.

2. The Blind Leader

This name is derived from the Bible quote about “the blind leading the blind”.  In this scenario, the customer is very vague about the requirements, doesn’t set a clear deadline, and doesn’t provide any resources to assist you.  Suddenly out of nowhere they send you annoying complaints because you haven’t met the expectations that they never informed you of.

How to recognize them: They never give details and never put any instructions in plain, simple language that is easy to understand.  Any attempt to clarify the instructions is met with annoyance, or more vagueness, such as (insincerely) deferring to your better judgment of how to do the task.  Their instructions may also be ambiguous, for example they ask for a picture of a mouse but don’t specify whether they mean the technology or the animal.

How to deal with them:  Don’t start work on any project until every detail is completely clear to both parties.  If you commence the work on their project, you’ll probably be wasting your time.

3. Forgetful Jones

This guy never remembers anything.  He’ll tell you he wants a certain font or color, and then a few weeks later will criticize you for complying with the request.

How to recognize them: Complete lack of consistency, and does things like stating that they “repeatedly asked for” something, when in fact they never have asked.  Or states that they asked for X when really they asked for Y. Their communications can sometimes be extremely rude or terse because they genuinely believe that you’ve ignored some request they made.

How to deal with them: Don’t get into an argument, or you could lose a customer and damage your reputation.  Every customer can potentially recommend you to other customers, provided of course that they remember who you are.  Instead, apologize.  Say, “I’m sorry, I honestly don’t remember that request, could you please send me a copy of the email where the feature was requested?”  This puts the onus on them to prove you were delinquent.  When they come back all apologetic, forgive them instantly and offer to make the requested modification.  Whether you bill them for it or not should depend on the merits of the situation.

4. The Non-Payer

This is the kind of client who never has anything for you but promises and excuses.  He or she will get as much work out of you as possible, but you’ll never see a dime.

How to recognize them: To put it simply, they don’t pay for your work, or they pay much less than originally negotiated.

How to deal with them:  Don’t stop sending bills just because the customer hasn’t bothered to pay.  It is fine to charge a late payment penalty or fee as long as you avoid using the word “interest” to describe the fee, because in certain jurisdictions this will legally void the debt unless you have banking or money lending license.

If you control the server where the site is hosted, you can suspend the hosting account.  If you have the skills, you can also write code to make the site function as shareware.  If your encrypted unlock code is not present on the server after a certain amount of time has passed, the site can be set to either fail or self-destruct.

5. The Egotist

This client believes he knows everything.  Anything you suggest, he is likely to dismiss it and claim that his own idea is better.  It doesn’t matter that you have extensive qualifications and years of experience, because he has a cousin in Philly whose mechanic’s wife once built a website.  He also knows some buzz words and acronyms like SEO and CTR.  He remembers to frequently use phrases like “in the cloud” and “full stack development” for no apparent reason.

How to recognize them: Nothing you suggest is a good idea, and any good idea you do have will at some time magically become their idea.  Anything that goes wrong will be entirely your fault, even if it is something they insisted that you do, against your advice to not do it.

How to deal with them:  Don’t try to win an argument, it will just make everything a lot worse.  The only time it is appropriate to call them out on their nonsense is when they are blaming you for something and they suddenly move on to making threats.

If this happens, the gloves can come off, and you should be able to easily refute every claim they make by means of all the communications from them that you have stored and filed.  Naturally you will also have recordings of every meeting, video conference, or teleconference that has taken place.

In every other circumstance it is better just to agree with them or even flatter them.  Revert to giving your original advice, and resist the temptation to add “as I already suggested”.  If they accept your advice, great, you can go ahead and build the site you should have been free to build in the first place.  Otherwise just give them exactly what they ask for, and don’t forget to bill them for it.

Concluding Remarks

It would be nice to be able to say that bad customers are rare, but experience shows otherwise.  The majority of customers are bad customers, unless you’re very lucky.  Every designer, programmer, and even content writer will have loads of war stories about their battles against all five bad customer types featured in this article, and no doubt many additional types.

Appreciate your good customers more, and reward them when you can.  As for the bad guys, they’re a sad part of your reality in the short-term, and you won’t be able to write them off until you’ve built up a good stable of honest, reasonable customers who accept advice and pay on time.

Don’t try to win or be right when it doesn’t really matter.  When it does matter, be ready with all your evidence, so you can shut down potential problems quickly.

header image courtesy of Cesar Contreras

Emma Grant

Emma Grant is a professional freelance content writer from Ireland. Over the past three years she has travelled the world while running her business from her laptop. You find her at

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