Most clients are likeable. Everything is going along fine and you have no reason to suspect things will go bad. But then something happens. And the monster comes out.
Every client has the potential to be a monster.
No matter your past experience, regardless of your history, stuff happens and relationships can sour. Clients can become monsters.
So you need to build a business system to protect yourself from every potential monster. You need to erect fences to contain the monsters and save your sanity.
Four Fences to Protect Your Business From Terrible Clients
Every business needs all four fences present and active to be safe from terrible clients.
The most common reason client relationships suffer is a lack of clarity. We assume too much. There are unwritten expectations and things left unsaid. The result is a lack of clarity.
And that’s at least half your fault. Don’t blame the client for not understanding—it’s your job to walk them through it.
The only way to achieve clarity is to specify everything. Use contracts and scope of work agreements—with clear expectations and penalties—to spell it all out.
Healthy relationships are based on healthy commitments. It’s more than just getting paid. You need client buy-in throughout the process, otherwise you’re going to have a painful project.
Clearly define those commitments at each step of the project. Explain what the commitment entails and what happens if someone breaks the commitment.
One strategy is to hold clients to a commitment. The content phase often brings projects to a grinding halt. Combat that by expecting them to deliver content on time or the project moves to a suspended status and they owe the balance of the contract.
Without regular communication, clients tend to make assumptions—and they usually assume the worst. Very few things can improve the client experience more than clear, consistent communication.
One way to vastly improve your communication is to send a three-sentence email every Friday. Send a short, simple email to your clients each week that explains where the project is at:
“This is what we did this week (past). This is where things are (present). This is what’s next (future).”
Without documentation, you’re relying on your own memory, or worse, the client’s. That won’t end well. You should always be able to refer back to written communication.
Implement a system that can easily capture all project communication. We tend to get lazy and not follow through, but you have to fight against that laziness to protect yourself. Use a system like Basecamp, Teamwork, Evernote, etc. to document conversations and decisions. After a phone call, summarize the decisions and email it to the client so you can both see a written version and confirm that’s what you agreed to.
Those are the fences—the tools at your disposal—to help with terrible clients. Now let’s look at the threats.
5 Client Monsters You Should Know and How to Contain Them
Every client is different, but there are common themes. Here are some of the scariest client monsters to watch out for:
1. The Question Mark
This client asks endless questions. They have no idea what they want, they have no goals and no budget. So they just ask question after question.
Containment Strategy: Focus on commitment. These clients are classic time-wasters. Get to a price early. Seeing a dollar amount will shut them up.
You could also suggest a discovery phase or consulting agreement to indulge their questions and make sure you get paid for answering them.
2. The Invisible Man
This client expresses interest then disappears. They frequently reschedule meetings and take a long time to respond. They’re usually well intentioned, but busy. They’ll disappear during the project, then reappear with unreasonable demands when timing is critical.
Containment Strategy: Focus on clarity. Clearly spell out who’s responsible for what and when, with penalties when they don’t deliver. If the client holds up the project, make them pay for it.
If you let a client get away with this, then you’re the one creating the monster.
3. The Boundary Buster
This client sends an email at 3 a.m. and then follows up with a 7:30 a.m. phone call. They work evenings, weekends and holidays, and they expect you to do the same.
Containment Strategy: Focus on Communication. Clearly communicate how and when you work. Don’t respond to these clients after hours—you’re just feeding the monster.
Be very intentional about setting the tone in your initial meetings. And whatever you do, don’t violate your own boundaries. This client will work the system and try to find a way out, so be consistent and tough.
4. The Penny Pincher
This client wants an $8,000 site for $1,500. They’re overly concerned about cost and don’t see the value of what you offer.
Containment Strategy: Focus on clarity. Be sure your scope of work is crystal clear. There should be no question about exactly what you’re providing. Stick to that scope—don’t be nice and give them something extra.
5. The Drama Queen
For this client, everything is an emergency. Their favorite word is “now.” They’ll often complain about a previous developer they worked with who did “everything wrong.” Complainers never change. If they complain about a past developer, someday they’ll complain about you.
Containment Strategy: Focus on documentation. Keep careful records when you deal with this client because they’ll change their mind and forget previous decisions. But systems trump drama.
Clients are friendly monsters. Fence them in to protect yourself.
How strong are your fences?
About Nathan Ingram
Nathan Ingram specializes in building easy-to-use web sites that help small businesses, professional firms, and nonprofit organizations look great on the web. He’s a regular instructor at iThemes Training where he teaches WordPress, Web Design, and Freelance Business Development via live webinar. Nathan works with web developers individually and in groups to help them be more successful in their freelance businesses.
There are some excellent tips in this concise article. Some are more difficult than others to abide by consistently. What I like the most is that you’ve spelled out things to which we need to hold ourselves accountable. If we’re not careful, *we* end up creating the monsters that we so want to avoid.
Probably the one item that I’m a bit skeptical of is this:
“One strategy is to hold clients to a commitment. The content phase often brings projects to a grinding halt. Combat that by expecting them to deliver content on time or the project moves to a suspended status and they owe the balance of the contract.”
That last line is particularly difficult to implement. For example, we had a very large project that we launched a few weeks ago. The client added a whole month to the project timeline, because one of their key stakeholders got married and went on a three-week-long honeymoon (man, that sure would be nice! :). This was completely unexpected and put us in a standstill position for a whole month. Could we have said, “Sorry…pay up!” Sure. But we’d have completely destroyed that relationship—a relationship that, since then, has put thousands more dollars of business in our hands, because we’ve treated them well (and done excellent work of course!) throughout this main project.
My assumption is that you’d say, “There are exceptions to every rule.” And I’d agree. 🙂 I think the main challenge we have is to know when to make those exceptions *legitimately* versus when we need to stick to our guns and hold a hard line.
Thanks for the post. There are excellent reminders and tips in here.
You have no idea how timely this it, thank you Nathan!
Holy Cow, Nathan! Will you do me a quick favor? Travel back in time… to about 9 years ago… and publish this same article. Then stick it to my bulletin board with duct tape!
Great article — seriously. I’ve worked with dozens of “monster” clients over the years, and after reading this, I can easily see how I could’ve done a better job facilitating the project and / or taking care of relationships.
I love your weekly 3-sentence check-in idea… definitely going to start doing that.
You mentioned Evernote — I just recently started “digitizing” all of my client notes, etc. My original hope was to have my client checklists located IN each client’s notebook… my clients (ideally) would just upload to their special folder, update their deliverables checklist, etc.
HOWEVER — several clients have flat-out told me that they DO NOT want to use Evernote (or any of the collaborative apps). They don’t have time or desire to learn it for a short-term website project. I’m wondering how other developers would handle a situation like this? Are there “easier” tools available?
Thx again for your post… now, get back to work on that time machine and I’ll see you in 2007. 🙂
Great post Nathan!! It looks like those comments come from someone who “lived & learned.”
I try to over-communicate with my clients. I figure the best way to solve problems is to keep them from coming up. The more you & your client can be on the same page, the more it’s a no-brainer when the client approves your invoice or asks you to do more work.
I use Evernote with my clients. I don’t ask that they use it though; I point them to the shared URL link and keep reminding them (in emails, invoices, or on their website documentation page) about the URL.
I maintain (3) key files for each client in Evernote:
* AN ACTIVITY LOG – Post site implementation, I bill in .25 hr increments and break my daily work for them up into major categories. I list every day that I had activity for them on the page. It can be a pain, but it also helps remind me – not just the client – what I’ve accomplished. It’s just become part of my workflow.
* A PRODUCTION WEBSITE CHANGE LOG – I treat client websites like I used to treat production IT servers. Whenever I make a change (my code, plugins, or update WordPress) I log it. I also have a link to the version documentation notes. Also – before I make updates I try them out completely on a dev copy of the site. (You’d be surprised how even some of the best plugins can have a bug & break a site). After testing I always make a production backup (besides the routine BackupBuddy backup schedule I keep), and make sure I have a prior version of the code I’m changing so I can roll back immediately. I’ve managed data centers – and I’ve seen _too_ many upgrade disasters.
* A TASK LIST – every time one of the staff for a client says “you know, it’d be great if we could …” I put it in an Evernote list, date it, and who mentioned it. I keep adding to the list and then periodically when I sit down with the client, we review what’s on the list. It has been a GREAT way to generate more income. The list is never finished and all the tasks don’t get prioritized to be done, but that’s ok.
I agree with consistent communication with the client before their negative “what if’s ” take a hold of them. Sometimes though when I communicate regularly, thats where the Question Mark issue comes up. So I try to accommodate quick ones and refer them to my friend “google” for those not related to the work already.
Very well written list of relationship breakdowns. Took me entirely too long to recognize some of these listed issues. Great introspect + direction in cases I’ve not wrestled with too. Thanks sir!
Woo! Thankful i came across this article, I ran into a “Boundary Buster” and even worse he was a “Penny Pincher” as well. I needed the work so i accepted it, worst decision i had made. I Quickly learned my lesson lol! Never again, it was an experience that definitely helped me grow as a freelancer.