Dealing with Tricky Clients

July 25, 2016 • By


One of the sad little truths about the web development game is that good clients are extremely rare.  Some clients have this amazing ability to transform from Jekyll to Hyde without pausing for breath, and the rest of them—pretty much the majority—are simply just jerks.  Incidentally, for any of my clients who are reading this, you’re one of the good ones, of course.

So, knowing in advance that you’re going to encounter a lot of jerks in this line of business, you’re better able to prepare yourself to handle those that show themselves to be extra tricky.  Sun Tzu anticipated this more than 2500 years ago, when he wrote:

Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. – Sun Tzu

The wisdom of these words is right on target for the situation you are facing, because you really can’t afford to fight your own client head-on, you have to find a way to overcome the problems put in your path without conflict.  Thus you will win by affecting reason when faced with unreasonableness, serenity when faced with hostility, and intelligence when faced with stupidity.  Difficult thought it may be, if you can manage humility when faced with arrogance, that would certainly not be a bad thing either.

None of this means you should just roll over and play dead, however.  You don’t win by giving in.  The idea is that you have to win without fighting, and to do that, you have to get the client to change their outlook.  Never forgetting for a moment, of course, that many of them are simply trying to weasel their way into getting some financial advantage out of their complaints.

It may sound like an impossible task, but there are some tried and true methods you can put to use that can be surprisingly effective.

1. Dealing with the habitual complainer

Listen first, respond later.  If your client is making a complaint to you verbally, don’t immediately jump to your own defense.  This is what they’re expecting you to do. It makes you appear weak.  When you are on the defensive, you lose face.  Instead listen attentively to what they are saying, even if they are being really critical or openly insulting.  Jot down key words as they are spoken, and don’t give in to the temptation to interrupt.

First you need to consider that the complaint may be legitimate, even if the client is not expressing himself (or herself) well.  Once they have run out of steam, only then should you respond.  If you want to have some fun at this point, simply allow an uncomfortable silence to develop by taking more time than would normally be appropriate before you say anything.

There are various possible scenarios:

  • There is no fault, the client is just being devious or is paranoid
  • The fault is imagined, due to the client’s lack of knowledge
  • There is a fault, but the client caused it
  • There is a fault and it’s yours

In the first and second scenarios, you will need to be diplomatic and patiently explain the reality.  Do it tactfully and not in a way that the client feels you’re looking down on them.

Build a golden bridge for your enemies to retreat across. – Sun Tzu

In the third scenario, where the client contributed to the fault, don’t immediately dive into the issue of blame, but instead work your way towards it obliquely, for example:

“Yes, you are quite correct, we did put the wrong email address on your home page.  I’m sorry if this has caused any inconvenience for you.  However, I have a copy of your original request here, and as you can see, the email address you supplied in the document is also incorrect and it matches the one used on the website.  Thanks for bringing this matter to my attention.  I’ll have someone rectify that for you right away.”

Here you are rejecting the accusation of incompetence, but in a calm, polite, professional way.  The promise at the end to have the matter dealt with swiftly is a major step towards victory for you, because it shows you are service-minded, and there’s no effective way for the client to give an unpleasant response without seeming like an ass.

In the final scenario where it truly is your fault, you have to own it.  But don’t make the mistake of leading with an apology, as this will weaken your position and put your opponent in a vindictive frame of mind.  Your sequence of action should be: acknowledgment, empathy, apology, assurance.

When you speak, strive to achieve a slow, steady delivery.  Fast speech indicates nervousness or fear.

If the complaint was in writing, you’d follow a similar procedure to the above, but obviously you don’t get the opportunity to affect the client in such a direct psychological way.  Over-length pauses will just make you seem lazy, not powerful.  So in this case, respond as soon as possible, but again don’t apologize or defend yourself in the first instance, instead merely acknowledge the client’s concerns.  For example:

“Thank you for alerting us to the problems you have encountered.  I will have somebody check the issue that you have reported as soon as possible, and I will be in touch soon to let you know what is happening about this matter.”

Ideally fix the problem if that is possible to be done within a short enough span of time, otherwise contact the client again with an update.  Keep the client informed of progress in fixing the problem, and then when it is all sorted out, that is when it is safe to make any kind of apology.  If you have a very good excuse, you can use it, but be careful with excuses because they can tend to make you appear more weak and can further work against you.

2. Dealing with an “apprentice”

Some clients are so excited about the project that they’re always bothering you with questions, wanting to know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why.  At first it may even seem a little flattering, but it will soon enough become annoying as it eats up your precious time.

The best strategy really is to circumvent it by anticipating the possibility.  During early contact with the client, they will have given off some signals that they’re the curious type.  It’s always a good idea to plan your projects well and make meticulous documents, but it’s even more beneficial when you have this type of client.  When they bombard you with questions, you can simply refer them to the relevant section of documentation.  Hopefully they’ll take the hint and RTM before they bother you, but sometimes that doesn’t work, so you need to move to the next level.

If the client still persists with questions, make your explanations be long, boring lecturers that delve into all the most technical details.  Use jargon, acronyms, and anything else you normally should not do.  If the client interrupts the lecture with more questions, take the lecture back to the previous chapter, with:

“Well, as I was saying, to understand the reason why it’s best to use JSON for this particular section, we need to start with an understanding of binary…”

Wasting the client’s time should put a stop to the endless questions because they’ll feel like it’s a punishment to have to listen to your long, boring, and largely incomprehensible explanations.  There’s an excellent example of the technique applied unintentionally in The Big Bang Theory, s3.ep10, titled The Gorilla Experiment:

This is the beginning of the twenty-six hundred year journey we’re going to take together from the ancient Greeks, through Isaac Newton, to Niels Bohr, to Erwin Schrodinger, to the Dutch researchers that Leonard is currently ripping off. – Sheldon Cooper

Master this approach and you should get hassled a lot less.

3. Dealing with an idiot

There’s probably nothing worse than somebody who knows nothing about web design, technology, or computers telling you how to do your job.  Many developers simply bite the bullet and let the client pay the price of their own buffoonery, but that’s actually quite an immoral stance to take and it’s costly for you on the basis that it’s one less site you can add to your portfolio.

Do correct clients when they’re incorrect.  Whoever came up with that line “the customer is always right” was just a contemptible gold digger.  As a professional, you have a moral responsibility to advise clients appropriately, much in the same way that a doctor wouldn’t advise a patient to continue doing something they knew was harmful even if the patient insisted on it.  You can’t put profit above all else, or you will be contributing to the overall disgustingness of the Internet, and it’s already disgusting enough.

You need to be patient with customers like this.  They know not what they do.  And sometimes they’ll be a little offensive in the way they talk to you as a result of that, but you need to remind yourself of their ignorance before you respond to it.

Don’t worry about the moon.  We… we set out laser to stun. –  Leonard Hofstadter

Educate them, that’s part of your job.  Enlighten them as to the correct ways to do things and the consequences of doing things the incorrect way.  Above all, inspire them to share your vision and create something wonderful for them.

Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness.  Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness.  Thereby you can be the director of your opponent’s fate. – Sun Tzu

Difficult clients are only difficult if you allow them to be.  You need to assess every situation as it arises and choose the most appropriate response.  In every case, patience on your part, a little diplomacy, and the resolution to stand your ground, will be the keys to victory.

header image courtesy of Justas Galaburda