Sometimes selling your work is the easy part.

Nightmare clients. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones with unrealistic expectations, who never seem to listen and think they know more about web development than you do. If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. If you’re experiencing it right now…you’re in the cycle and it’s hard to break. There might not even be any fixing it for this go around. But you can learn from it. I’ve been learning from my misadventures in client management for 15 years. And from those experiences I’m going to share with you how to avoid roadblocks, make your process smoother and produce an outcome successful for both you and your client.

I’m going to be tough on us designers/developers in this article. Consider it a delivery of tough love. I hate to see people suffer and I have a huge soft spot for others in distress. I’m going to say it like it is because it needs to be said or nothing will change. To be clear, my administration of tough love is not because I think we suck, it’s because I know we can be better. By being better clients and my peers will pay less in stupid-taxes.

I have high expectations of us. We are awesome. We have control of the outcomes of our projects. We have control to set the stage to build good client relationships. But we can’t just run around like animals completely unaware of our role in creating good or bad situations.

Your Rights as a Designer/Developer

Even animals have rights. And we are humans, superior humans I might add, that make cool stuff so other people can grow their businesses. We need to establish and live by our rights.

Designers and developers, especially freelancers or those early in their trade, can get pushed around by dominant business owners. You may be young. You may be less experience at what you do than what they do. But let’s get one thing straight. Despite any shortcomings you may have – you deserve respect. But respect is a two-sided coin. Each party should enjoy the respect of the other.

You have rights:

You have the right to be treated with respect.

You are not a subordinate, your client hired you, they choose you. You are the prodigal son, not carrion.

You’re not a doormat.

Don’t let yourself get walked on. Later we’ll talk about how to set the rules of the game so you step up as the umpire and not a glorified home plate.

You have the right to be heard.

You are a professional and they hired you for your expertise, you have the right to share what you know and be heard. That doesn’t mean you have the right to bully them into something that’s not right for them just because you’re smarter. It also doesn’t mean they’re idiots, their contributions are critical to the successful outcomes of the end product.

#1 Rule of Design

Don’t design for a living to get your emotional needs met.
Get a pet. Or start a pet project. But don’t tie your emotional well being to your work. Is your NAME designer? Developer? Is that who you are? Nope. It’s your role, a thing you do to put food on the table. And if you like it than it can be your passion as well. But it is not you. Untangle your emotions from your work, approach it like a scientist, examining every angle without judgment to see the possible outcomes. Whether you thought of the angle or not. With this emotional distance, you can look at the roadblocks that are holding you back from a symbiotic working relationship.

You have the right to be paid for your work.

Don’t work for free. They agreed to pay you. And you have the right to take away your work if you’re not paid for the product. But you’ll want a contract to protect you so you can actually act on it.


Roadblock Reality Check

You can’t physically see the roadblocks, they’re not tangible things. They’re things you feel. Especially when you run into them. Identifying roadblocks takes a reflective, non-emotional approach to evaluating your misconceptions and that of your client.

Client Misconceptions are Roadblocks

People hiring us to build websites often don’t know what they need, have no idea how a site is built and zero concept about what to expect. They trust us to take them from point A to point B as painlessly as possible. If you’re not helping your clients problem solve they will start problem-solving for you based on their limited knowledge of what you do. They’re likely to set previously non-existent (and often only semi-realistic) criteria about how your product should work. Leading to massive scope creep, profit loss and a product that may or may not reach their goals.

I’m not suggesting clients don’t play a vital role in the web development process. I’m suggesting that your role as a web professional is to help guide clients through the process and sell them on the decisions that will allow them to reach their goals. But to effectively sell to someone you have to know what you’re up against. Know what the other army’s bringing before you start swinging.

People, the general public, your clients may believe some very unflattering things about us like:

  • Creative people are not good communicators
  • We’re flighty
  • Untrustworthy
  • Overly emotional

People say…

  • We over promise and under deliver by taking on projects we don’t know how to do.
  • We take forever if and when we do actually complete a project.
  • We are hard to get along with because we tell them we “can’t” do things. What they hear is we “won’t” do things because we don’t want to.
  • We talk down to clients and throw fits about revisions.


I sure hope not. They make us sound like a bunch of spoiled brats. So prove them wrong and examine your emotional baggage that’s holding you back. Show them by acting like the skilled professional you are.

Old Tapes – Your Emotional Baggage – Are Roadblocks

So you got burned. So what? That doesn’t give you the right to act like a jerk. Learn from your mistakes and forge ahead. Holding on to beliefs like the ones below is like racism. It’s a seed that’s planted without cause. It doesn’t serve you. It makes you miserable and unable to develop relationships based on trust and mutual respect.

Clients are crazy.

Everyone has their own brand of crazy. They probably think you’re nuts too. If clients are really acting crazy, and don’t have a prescription for it, it’s probably because you’re part of the thing that’s driving them crazy. Take control. Don’t be a doormat.

Reality Check

They are if you let them be…or take away their control, talk down to them, mislead them or don’t meet their expectations.
Consider a catch and release program. Just because a client hired you that doesn’t mean you can’t fire them. If they suck that bad just get out.

Clients are not paying me to babysit they’re paying me to design.

Actually, if you don’t have a project manager interfacing with your clients, you aren’t just a designer, you’re also a guide. Your clients are relying on your to guide them through the process and deliver the end product. People pay for customer service. They tip a waitress don’t they? Your experience at a restaurant is as much about the efficiency of your waitress as it is about the food you eat. If they’re not paying you for being their tour guide they should be. Factor it into your pricing. And then stop complaining about it.

Reality Check

Planning is what keeps projects on budget. And on budget projects are what keeps food on the table.
Planning is what keeps clients happy. Dogs, kids and clients are all crazy without rules. Everyone likes to know what to expect.
If they’re not paying you to babysit they should be. Doormat.

I shouldn’t have to change the way I communicate, they hired me.

That my friend is a recipe for disaster. People get divorced for this belief every day. It’s a lot easier to fire a developer than it is to divorce your wife. Think about that before hangin your hat on this belief.

Reality Check

Remember, your clients are paying you so be nice.
Clients really do need your help, but won’t take it unless you go about it the right way.
You can get what you want, if it’s in everyone’s best interest, just not necessarily in the way you’ve currently been trying to get it.

Clients are stupid.

Winning is getting the job done right, not getting the job done the way you want to do it. It’s not about “doing it your way”. It’s about producing the right product in the end. You’re good at what you do. Your client is good at doing what they do. And you don’t do each other’s jobs well enough to tell the other how to do it. Really listen to what they’re trying to tell you, not what they’re saying but the message behind it. Be smart.

Reality Check

Clients do their job every day and you don’t.
Clients talk to their target market everyday and you don’t.
Clients get in their own way and it’s your job to help them see the designs in the correct perspective to get the desired results from their audience, you are a facilitator, don’t act like an expert unless it’s called for.


Everyone wants everything for free.

This is whining. Doormat. You have rights. Enforce them.

Reality Check

People will want things for free until you decide your work is worth paying for and bill them for it.
Set a precedent upfront for what is paid work and what is free.
Have a formal agreement in writing to refer back to with tangible items.

Remember the #1 Rule of Design?

Use it. Get your head on straight. Let’s put things in perspective.

Understand Your Role.

You were hired as a:

  • Creative or technical advisor to help your clients find the best way to represent their company.
  • Assist them produce a product that represents them well to their audience.
  • Produce a product that’s easy for their audience to use.
  • A communication liaison between the target audience and the company. If you do your part as a good communicator you’ll have a respectful client for life.

See it From Their Perspective.

Listen, stay calm, do not defend, ask questions and really understand their point of view. Try to hear what they’re really saying. Don’t think about how you’ll defend your ideas or what you’re going to say next. Just hear what they’re trying to communicate, even if it’s not what their words are saying.

  • Clients are not web critics and don’t have the training you have, they see bad design so often they are used to it and can’t tell bad from good.
  • They often feel threatened by something they don’t understand.
  • They aren’t used to expressing what they think about what we do.

Use this trick: The first person to go emotional loses.

I play this game with my overly emotional 7-year-old every day. The girl is a bomb able to detonate with the slightest agitation. She yells. I guard my reaction carefully. She cries, I stay neutral. As long as I don’t engage in her emotion we’re moving in the right direction. I’m winning, it may not seem like it because she’s acting like a possessed human and it’s incredibly painful. I can’t yell back. I can’t placate or coo at her to try to diffuse the situation. That doesn’t deflate the situation, it escalates the situation. So in most cases I remove her from the situation by asking her to go lay down until she wants to have a civil conversation with me.

Adults aren’t much different. How you handle these situations will build or banish respect. You are professional, competent and empathetic. Don’t roll over and give them your belly. Don’t let them bully you. Don’t go emotional. Stay focused on keeping them cool. When altercations arise:

  1. Let them blow off steam – as long as they’re keeping it respectful and not calling you a mother effer, that’s just uncool.
  2. You don’t need to apologize unless it’s totally your fault then maybe consider it.
  3. Let them know you heard them.
  4. Let them know they are a priority.
  5. Tell them what you plan to do to make the situation right, even if it’s just looking at it and calling them back. Under promise and over deliver.
  6. Call them back when you say you will.

Steps for Success

Step 1: Get it together before you get together
Step 2: Get a read on your client
Step 3: Get a read on their audience
Step 4: Pre-sell
Step 5: Design/develop
Step 6: Sell your work

Step 1: Get it together before you get together

There’s a dress rehearsal before the recital for a reason. Client meetings are no different than recitals. Get your choreography planned out before you perform.

  • Get your head on straight and burn your old tapes.
  • Review your development process and uncover any potentially challenging areas.
  • Create email templates to use throughout the process so you don’t forget key details. Use UFC, we’ll talk more about this later.
  • Invest in a contract.
  • Prepare your scripts. Get ready to tell people your expectations from the very beginning.

Step 2: Get a read on your client

What is their goal for the piece?

The reason they tell you is not the real reason. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth mentioning it again. Your job is to uncover the real reason or you can’t help them achieve the goal. The first reason they tell you isn’t usually the reason. So don’t settle for the first answer. Write it down and ask for another. Then ask one more time and you should have a clearer picture of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Use this trick: parrot phrase

No that’s not a typo. I really mean parrot. Repeat back to clients EXACTLY what you heard. Use their words when you describe what they want. And if you don’t understand what those words mean tell them what you heard and ask them to clarify. When you use their words, your suggestions seem more like their idea so they’re more likely to comply.

What makes them proud or frustrated?

When you know your client’s core values you can help them make good decisions based on those values. Listen for things they brag about and also what they complain about throughout your meeting. These bursts of emotion often align with their core values.

How do they communicate? (DISC)

Know yourself and your client. Learn what type of a communicator you are so you can understand how you generally approach communication with others. When you hit trouble review where you might or might not overlap and look for ways to close the gap.

Short impatient, big picture discussion (D) – Dominance
Energetic and agreeable fast talkers (I) – Influence
Easy going slow paced speech (S) – Steadiness
Thought out detail oriented sentences (C) – Conscientiousness

[slideshare id=37813760&doc=discpersonalitytypes-140808160616-phpapp01]

Use this trick: mirror and match

Put your clients at ease by mirroring and matching their posture, speech and body language. If you’re a fast or loud talker and your client speaks slowly or softly conform to their cadence and volume. If they’re leaned back their their chair, relaxed, and you’re upright perched on the edge of your seat, adjust to mirror their posture. Subtle adjustments like these help put their subconcious at ease and put you on the right path.

How do they best interpret information?

Visual (60% of people)  – Draws pictures or diagrams, take organized notes, paints a picture with hands, use words like “looks like”

Audio (30% of people) – Have to talk though ideas, talks with their hands, lots of questions and conversation, takes brief notes, use words like “I hear you”

Kinesthetic (10% of people) – Uses repetitive gestures to create emphasis, uses words like “feels good”

Use this trick: make a cheat sheet

If you have a hard time processing all this information on the fly make a cheat sheet. If you don’t like the word cheat sheet call it a rubric. We use one for new hire interviews, content development interviews, new client screenings and first meetings. Make check boxes to document your observations during or after your conversation so you don’t forget. Never in 15 years of using my cheat sheets has anyone ever said anything negative about it. I even stop during meetings and read through my cheat sheet to see if I missed anything. And people just tell me how organized I am in comparison to the other salespeople they’ve spoken with. Apparently, they haven’t seen my desk 🙂

Step 3: Get a read on their audience

Collect general target market type information. Straight up drag it out of them if you have to. This project isn’t about your client. And it’s not about you either. It’s about the end user. And that user is a unique human being. So they’re not everyone. It will not serve you to treat them like it.

  • How much does their audience understand about the product the client is trying to sell?
  • What is the relationship of the business with the target audience?
  • Consider the audience communication style, ask the client if they notice trends.
  • Don’t act too smart, let them tell you.

Use this trick: third-party stories

When you need to get your point across that you’re smart, successful and possess rock star qualities tell a story instead of bragging. Cite an instance with a previous client to share a strength or outcome. People remember the stories better than a sales pitch. They also like to know other people trust you with their hard earned money.

Step 4: Pre-Sell

In this step you’re going to make your voice heard and set a path for the relationship you expect to have.

Use this trick: upfront contract

This is a Sandler sales tactic that never fails. Use it in all meetings, when setting meetings, at the beginning of phone conversations and in all your important emails throughout the process. You don’t have to use it in its entirety all the time but it never hurts to be thorough. Tell people:

Purpose: The purpose of the action or meeting.
Time: The time frame, deadline, or start time.
Client’s agenda: what they’re expecting.
Your agenda: what you’re expecting.
Outcomes: what happens next.

Use this tactic to alert clients of potential roadblocks in your process. Tell them the outcome if they miss a deadline. Explain the way you schedule and what’s due next. Keep them informed and they’ll feel in control.

Here’s an example:
Mom walks into your room and says, “It’s time to go.” What?! Go where? You don’t want to go. You’re having fun. You’re not ready to leave. You don’t have your pants on!

Now rewind. Mom says, “we’re leaving in 30 min to go to grandmas. Her house is always freezing, don’t forget to bring a coat. We won’t be coming back home until after dinner so bring your Switch so you have something to do. If you hurry we’ll have time to get ice cream on the way over!”
Feel better?

Talk now about items that immediately raise concerns.

  • Don’t tell them what to do, ask them more questions until you see the light at the end of the tunnel then express concerns from an expert’s perspective. (Think like a lawyer.) If you can’t find anything from a lawyer’s perspective that’s not right then it might not be a factual concern but an emotional one. Let it go. Try their idea on for size.
  • Ask them what’s most important in their requests so you can accommodate them.
  • Get excited about their ideas and let them know when you think they’re really good.
  • Allow yourself to buy into client ideas even though they are not your own, sometimes they have a stroke of genius and you won’t see it unless you’re open minded.
  • Explain any considerations that should be taken based your target market conversation.

Use this trick: paint future pain

When clients are super attached to a flat tire of an idea paint future pain. You can use a third party story to tell them about an experience another client had in the past that didn’t work. Or you can let them know the ramification of their decisions in a straightforward way. Tell them it will increase their budget, extend the timeline or give them less flexibility for expansion.

Exchange expectations

  • Ask them about their expectations of you.
  • Tell them upfront about potential bumpy spots in your process, share your timeline, costs and your expectations of them and what will happen if your expectations are not met. I know it sounds crazy but we tell people they need to pay or we won’t keep working on their stuff.
  • Get permission to tell them if they’re about to make a really bad decision.

Learn how they communicate

  • Ask them about a follow-up call or meeting after and during the work process
  • Who’s involved with making design decisions
  • What’s the best way to contact them
  • Tell them how you want to communicate
  • Make a cheat sheet for this so you don’t miss anything

Step 5: Do your work

Yes, they hired you. And hopefully, they’re paying you too. But they don’t know how to do what you do. Some people love to give orders (I love to fire those people) but many people give suggestions that others consider orders but are really just ideas. Show clients you care by exceeding their expectations and thinking on their behalf. They are not qualified to do the thinking for you in all instances. If they were firm in their demands do what they said they wanted.

  • Even if it’s not perfect it allows them to see that you heard their requests and honored them.
  • If you think the design isn’t working out determine the problem areas and re-work those areas within the clients given parameters.
  • The reasons for changing these areas should be justified logically, not emotionally.
  • Design one better meeting those same parameters.
  • Don’t be afraid to question parameters if they don’t serve the project’s goals or can be better implemented in another way.

Step 6: Sell Your Work

  • Based on your client read determine how will they will best interpret your designs in a positive light.
  • Share it with your client using your email templates and a strong upfront contract.
  • Don’t be afraid to support your work with the reasons you made adjustments.
  • Show your client you really thought about the work and didn’t just make changes off the cuff.
  • Lean hard on the client’s goals, values and target audience when defending your work.

Use this trick: my biggest fear

My biggest fear is a script you can use to uncover future pain for clients. Try it out: “I hear you. I agree this idea does sound like it would look awesome. Though it is less flexible than the other options. My greatest fear is we implement the fancy option and you’ll be upset that you can’t update this part of the site easily. That’s my greatest fear.” Then shut up and let them tell you if it’s OK. And if they say it’s OK then you can tell them your greatest fear is now that they forget all about this conversation and come back and yell at you later 🙂

Use this trick: take it away

Clients not responding to your emails? Ignoring you for weeks on end? Make sure you cover the consequences of this behavior in your contract and your presell. Then enforce the law. Send one last email and tell the client you don’t feel like this is a priority at the moment so out of respect for their time you’re going to remove the project from the calendar and the next open date is 2 months from now. The next available date is two months from now. Give them a deadline for the email and if they don’t meet the deadline move the project. But odds are good you won’t have to move anything. People hate it when you take things away and tend to surface quickly after a take it away email.

I know this is a lot to take in at a glance. So many concepts all coming together like a tornado. But you can take it from the top, know your rights and enforce them. Then start on your process and beliefs and uncover the roadblocks holding you back from success and work in spots throughout your client interactions to smooth out the ride. And last but not least realized you’re going to fail sometimes. And that’s OK. Each time you meet a challenge is another opportunity for growth. Now go forth and use your new powers for good.

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