We’ve all had to deal with difficult clients or customers in our lifetime. If you’ve ever been through retail or hospitality (and I think most of us will have, to be fair) you know how difficult people can be. Surely not all of us will have experienced extreme cases, but sooner or later, you will get the one person that will hinder a project, undervalue your work or underestimate the scope of the project.
What to do when a client is being difficult? What if they don’t agree with your ideas?
My client doesn't like my ideas – what can I do?
Shouting and/or trying to prove your point by becoming defensive is not going to help anybody. There will be cases in which you don’t agree with the feedback given on your project and your client wants to take a whole different direction – and ultimately you have to understand that, to a certain extent, it is their business and there isn’t much you can do about it.
This doesn’t mean paying lip service to your client and complying with anything they ask you to do. There is a fine line between finding compromises and obeying blinding – and sometimes that line is not so fine at all. Clients will have opinions. You will have opinions. It is in your best interest that you find some sort of common ground or agreement.
Say you are working on a piece of packaging and you are absolutely certain that it will have the product fly off the shelves. Your client, however, disagrees. You just don’t see eye to eye. They undermine your work, they don’t like the design at all, they push back every iteration and are driving you insane. What’s worse is that the deadline keeps approaching, you keep working beyond the initial agreement, and perhaps your fees are not getting any larger.
So what to do there?
Image credit: Friend + Johnson
Understand your differences
It is likely that there is nothing personal at all about the way your client is handling your relationship. Perhaps they just don’t like what you’ve done with their original idea. Perhaps they’re not even a fan of the idea in the first place, or they weren’t too clear on their expectations.
The best way to move forward is understand where things are going wrong. What is it that they don’t like about the design? Why do you love it instead? The only way to find out is by listening to your client. Book a meeting, sit down and try to work out your differences. You will only emerge enriched from that meeting.
Listen and Learn
I’m sure I don’t need to specify it, but an emergency meeting with your client will not be a chance to throw slurs at them or belittle their authority. All things considered they have the budget and they have the final say on how they wish to spend it. So just sit calmly during the meeting, listen closely to what the client has to say, and try to work out what you can learn from their feedback.
Perhaps that corner could be sharper. Perhaps it would be nice to have another illustration here or there. Maybe the colours are a bit dull. Whatever it is, make sure you’re asking questions and taking notes. Chances are there will always be some work that you can save.
Don’t be afraid to throw your work away
I know what you’re thinking. “What if they don’t like anything about the design? What if they want to go on an entirely new direction? What about all the work that I’ve put into this?” Well, fear not, for there will certainly be something that you can salvage from all that work. Maybe assets you can re-use, creative ideas you can repurpose, concept work that you can place as a base for your next design.
There will always be some part of the work that you can save. Ask your client to provide some feedback on what they truly like – you’d be surprised how much of the project you can still reuse. However, since this is a business partnership, make sure to be clear up front that a total change of direction may affect your final fees. If you plan to spend double the amount of work to work on the project from scratch, don’t even think about doing it for free. If you play it well and cool, your client will appreciate your professionalism and will certainly be able to accommodate – or at least negotiate.
Image credit: Zara Picken
Learn from the experience and keep them updated
One possible reason why this happened in the first place is that communication was not too clear from the onset. Client brief documents can be massive, sometimes full of noise and difficult to fully grasp, and maybe you did not take the appropriate time to ask some questions and make sure you understood the brief well.
Keep your clients updated throughout
This is your chance to avoid that this issue ever happens again, at least with this client. Try to schedule some catch-ups for the next stages of the project, keep them updated throughout and make sure that both of us are constantly on the same page. Next time, you’ll be different.
Ultimately, be polite and don’t give up
The one of creative professionals is a very tough job for our self-esteem. We take things personally. Our work is our sweet spot. When people don’t like what we do, we feel attacked. So it’s normal that the first instinct is to flip the table and get defensive about your work. Count till 5 or 10, then come up with an answer that is a bit more moderate. When your rational brain kicks in, you’ll realise that maybe the client is right and your work isn’t the best it could be.
It is only by working together on this business partnership, being polite, informed and professional at all times, that you can hope to finish this project and add it to your belt. Ultimately, it is a new experience for you. It is a chance to learn. Maybe next time it won’t happen, and you will be more careful from the start.
That said, there will be occasions in which you just can’t save the work or keep working with that client. Not all clients can be helped. In that case, perhaps you were not meant to work together in the first place, and it will be best to go separate ways until – hopefully – you’ll meet again someday. If you do somehow manage to push through, however, the client will remember all this. And maybe you’ll have earned yourself a regular.
How to deal with a difficult client
Clients can be difficult. They have demands, they have needs, and sometimes they don’t understand those needs. You have been in this industry for long enough and you are prepared enough that you can help them make informed decisions. Discuss the strongest points with them, discuss the weaknesses, then come back with a new plan.
Most importantly, if they look angry or agitated, make sure to reassure them and make them feel comfortable talking with you about the changes in the project. Some clients can be arrogant, yes – but others may have never worked with a freelancer or a creative professional before. Make sure it is a pleasant experience for them. Next time, they’ll learn too.