Difficult and potentially even unsatisfied clients can be a great source of feedback for software companies. But in an agency, they can be detrimental to your profitability, personal happiness, and business as a whole.
In this article, we’ll cover how we managed some of the most difficult client scenarios we were presented with when running our own agency and why this eventually led us to create Atarim.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Master Client Communication & Encourage Proactive Feedback
- The Step-by-Step Process for Dealing With Difficult Clients
- Conclusion – Avoiding Difficult Clients
Master Client Communication & Encourage Proactive Sharing
The biggest takeaway of growing from a 1 to a 12-person agency was that effective client communication was singlehandedly the core of why clients enjoyed working with us and we were able to consistently exceed expectations…
That being said, we weren’t great at this from day 1. It took time to spot potentially problematic clients and learn how to minimize the effects if one of them slips through. So, without further ado – let’s save you ~ 5 years of learning and experimentation by sharing everything we learned…
The Step-by-Step Process for Dealing With Difficult Clients
1. Identify The Problem
At the root of every difficult situation with a client, there is a fundamental explanation. No matter how great your process is, it can’t account for everything that some clients will do.
When we asked one of our agency’s clients to send over the content for their website (prior to the launch of Atarim) we were expecting everything to come in the form of an email or Google Drive folder.
To us, that was pretty much implied and no other client had done anything differently. But just imagine – this particular client decided to write up their content in a Microsoft Word document, print it out, and send it to us in an envelope.
It almost sounds unreal. We honestly couldn’t believe it when it happened.
This is just one of the thousands of experiences we had with clients over the years that led us to build Atarim to fill a gap that existed for agencies in the WordPress industry…
One of the worst experiences we’ve had with a client which is one that many agencies will be able to relate to is a client that was never happy with was being done. They would suggest something different about the design, I would then go on to describe why I disagree and it wouldn’t be a change for the better…but they didn’t want to hear it. So we’d waste our internal resources doing a design we knew they would end up not being happy with again. This would happen over and over again. And better yet, according to the client, this was our fault even though we did warn them.
A web design client telling you how to do your work is the equivalent of the average person walking into a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and telling him how you’d like him to cook your meal.
This scenario though is fairly simple to resolve because it’s the result of the absence of a proper feedback system; when clients are just emailing you to discuss their website in general instead of leaving feedback on the individual elements of the site. With Atarim, because they are led to leave comments by clicking on a certain area of their website, this inherently results in much better feedback.
Instead of clients thinking about elements in isolation when they jump back and forth between tabs to compose an email – they’re led to view the website as a whole and leave actionable comments on what to change instead of just trying to convey what they’re imagining in words.
You absolutely need to have boundaries in place with clients. These boundaries are what turn running an agency from scrambling to decode what clients are trying to say to make it easy to consistently deliver exactly what they want.
Not only that, if you don’t keep clients under control you’ll end up burning yourself and/or your team out in no-time. Before we built Atarim to help us with this, clients wouldn’t just compile a list of everything they want us to change and send it over in an easy-to-read format. Instead, they’d send separate emails for each individual changes – some of which contradicted each other and then suggested to do something else instead.
The end result of this was complete confusion.
Before any of us were able to jump in and make a single change a client requested, we had to go through the entire thread to make sure they hadn’t changed their minds or mentioned something about this specific page/section of a page somewhere else. This wasted an endless amount of time that we could have reinvested into our business and doing truly meaningful work.
2. Understand Their Concerns & Show Them The Benefits
Put yourself in their shoes. They just paid thousands of dollars (if not 10s of thousands) for a website and want to get it right.
Stop focusing on yourself. Clients aren’t interested in how easy things are for you, they care how what they’re doing is going to help them.
Make sure you make it clear that you have the common goal of ensuring the best possible outcome (building the best possible website) and that they play a huge role in making that happen. The more they help you do your best work by following your systems instead of emailing feedback or sending long Word Documents, the better you’ll be able to work together to build a website they’ll love.
4. Propose A Solution
This would cause tasks to get lost, and I would miss things, or points would be misunderstood and a huge mess would occur. Which would then necessitate a phone call or meeting in order to discuss the points even further (fixed with the task center of Atarim, miscommunication is gone because of being able to see the tasks, etc.)
5. Minimize The Effects Of A Bad Client
Onboarding a client that is difficult to work with is inevitable. This isn’t even just about bad clients, in some industries, your point of contact is just less familiar with the right terminology to use and technology in general so working with them can be a bit difficult.
That’s why you need to make it clear that you’re taking an active effort to make every part of the process as simple as is possible for them by standardizing it so that the way you work is the same across your entire client-base. Not only does this help you understand clients’ needs, but it also helps you significantly improve turnaround time (by an average of 30%).
From the get-go with new clients, you have to show them that your sole responsibility is to design & build them the website they deserve. They are paying for a service, and the reason they are paying you is because YOU are the expert so they need to trust you to work with you how you do things, not how they expect or how the least agency they fired did things.
You did this by properly setting & managing client expectations (the ground rules) from the very start. This is another reason having solid contracts in place is equally important. You need to have a written record of how many revision rounds you are including, what they should expect in terms of time frames as well as when & how much they need to pay upfront and on the completion of the project. Also keeping in mind:
- What happens if they want more revision rounds? Do you have a standard hourly rate you can quote for that?
- What happens if they want more revision rounds? How much do they need to pay in addition to that?
This way you will find clients that won’t be difficult in the first place. Obviously some freelancers or agencies need the work no matter who the clients are, but you’d be surprised how many difficult clients will do what you want when you show them the benefits of doing so.
6. Worst-Case – Cut Your Losses
Should you ever fire a client?
This might sound crazy, but we had some great clients that eventually became unprofitable and began hurting our agency in the long-term.
We had one of our biggest clients for around a year and a half. Working with them from the start was great. As I evolved from a freelancer into an agency, we already implemented better systems but as time went on, they kept expecting us to do more because they were around in the early days. I even became friends with them which was great because we love having good relationships with our clients but it also turned out to be bad because they used this to take advantage of the fact that we started feeling obligated to do work for them even though they were paying less and less.
When is it time to (very respectfully) bring the professional relationship to an end?
Nobody likes losing clients just like nobody likes losing money – whether it’s self-inflicted or because of something out of your control, it’s just not a good feeling. But getting emotional in a service business can be dangerous. You start treating your clients’ businesses as if they’re your own until one day you realize that they didn’t value you as much as you thought they did.
When scope creep starts to become a recurring theme with a particular client or they’re just no longer your ideal client because you’ve since grown, it’s likely time to find a way to bring the relationship to an end and refer them to someone else that you trust.
On the other hand, for new clients – i.e. going forward, there are so many things that can be done to position yourself to not get these “difficult clients” such as putting out content and clearly profiling the type of businesses you want to work with.
Conclusion – Position Yourself As The Authority So Clients Respect You
From the moment you meet your point of contact, treat your discovery call as an interview the same way they’re using it to interview you/your agency to evaluate whether you’re the right choice.
Ask yourself – will this client use the processes that I have in place?
This is a great time to bring up how you expect them to communicate with you through their new website once the V0.1 is ready – using Atarim’s Visual Feedback feature. Don’t be afraid to talk about your process and be proud of how well you’ll be able to handle their feedback & requests for changes even if they typically find it difficult to identify problems and hated giving feedback to their old developer/agency because they always followed up by asking the client what screen resolution they were using (because Atarim takes care of this all for you)…
And that’s a wrap! Thankfully, all of these seemingly small adjustments to your process and how you position yourself so you can select clients make a monumental difference in how easy it is to deal with difficult clients.
How do you deal with difficult clients? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments! 💬