If there is one thing I’ve learned as a freelancer working with WordPress web designs and development, it’s that there are many types of personalities out there. The relationships I’ve built with clients have been dynamic. And it’s hard to tell up front what a relationship will turn into.
After dealing with many kinds of people, I’ve learned the most important thing in managing web design clients (other than having a solid contract):
I don’t mean being anal-retentive. So don’t do that.
What I mean is, knowing what you want out of client relationships, and sticking to it. This means knowing how much you want to earn, knowing what you want your portfolio to look like, and knowing how far you’ll go to please a client before drawing the line.
It’s hard to do this when starting out. People will give you all kinds of advice about choosing clients. I believe it takes time and experience to get it right.
So I won’t give you that kind of advice. I will just describe what types of web design clients are out there in the WordPress and web design world. I’ll also give my two cents on how to manage each kind. Feel free to give your own in the comments below!
Here comes honesty.
The “In a rush” client
You can relax; this person is not really in a rush.
What they want is for you to be available at a moment’s notice when they finally get their act together and are able to give you what you need to do your job (whether that be payment, content, files, a go-ahead, or anything else).
Usually when people say they are in a rush, they are anxious and don’t really know what they are asking you to do. They want gold spun from straw. They want the best possible website in the world, but want it done yesterday.
They also have no idea how much homework it is on their part to complete a website. They don’t want to tell you what their goals are, what they want their website to say, who their competitors are, or anything of the sort. They want you to read their minds and get it done….just as soon as they are ready.
My advice is to never give timeline guarantees to this type of client. You can say you will try your best to speed things up for them, but insist on your timeline (which I recommend documenting in writing).
Then give them their homework for the project. When they see you cannot move ahead until they do their part, that should help reality kick in.
Trust me, usually they will take their time.
When they finally send you what you need to complete your tasks, they will try to rush you. Don’t be anxious. Make your deadlines clear and focus on doing a good job.
You can also let them know that if they want to rush you, they will get a rushed product. No one wants that. If they want quality, they can wait. And ‘waiting’ is not going to kill them – making websites takes time. Not an eternity, just time.
And always remember, it’s not your fault that they delayed their project till the last minute. Just focus on doing a good job (but stay on time), because, remember: the thing that will get you more work later is doing good work now.
If your timeline doesn’t work for them, let them walk.
The “I will make you rich” client
Sometimes you come across people who believe they have it all. And by “all” I mean an idea in their head.
They think they are a hot shot that is going to get 10 million visits to their site the month that it launches, just because.
Really, there are people out there who think like this.
And they say things like, “if you give me a discount, later you’ll be rich because your link will be in the footer of my site.”
Stop right there.
First of all, a link to my website goes in the footer of every site I make, and trust me, it hasn’t made me smoking rich like you’re gonna be.
Second of all, why do you deserve a discount?
Personally, I would only consider discounts for non-profits with altruistic motives that don’t ask for it.
So when you put it in that perspective, why does a full able-bodied person with a self-serving, profit-motivated business deserve a discount?
Because of the crystal ball they have that says you’ll get rich if you discount yourself now? I don’t think so.
They won’t make you rich. They won’t appreciate your work at all, because they won’t see the value in paying for it. If they’re going to be rich, they would know what it takes to do that in the online and offline worlds, and would not be giving you ‘big talk’ about it.
Are there ‘rags to riches’ exceptions? Sure. But you don’t need to take on their risk, since you have your own business to build.
There are variations to this type of client. Some will frame it this way:
“I have no problem spending on your services if you think it will make me more money later.”
It is not your job to tell someone whether or not they have a viable business. A website is not a business.
Another variation is:
“I’ll send you lots of referrals if this works out between us, I know a lot of people.”
The people that will send you referrals later are the people that pay you and have real businesses, because they know other people who have real businesses.
The way you handle this type of client is by insisting on your prices, sticking to only talking about the current business transaction (because they may go off topic about their dreams), and showing no interest in their plan to make you rich as a byproduct of their getting rich. Don’t cave. Don’t try to be compassionate. Don’t be rude either. Just stay professional.
The “Can we have this and that” client
This client has no idea how much work and money it takes to add bells and whistles to a website. They also often say, “what I want is really simple.” When you hear someone say that, “simple” is probably far from what they want.
They ask questions like: “Can you get users to automatically tie into my custom built database, and then get orders from WooCommerce purchases sent to my in-store POS system, and my fulfillment center, and my accounting system? And on top of that I need to ‘engage’ with visitors, so I need a forum and quizzes just like on BuzzFeed. It’s really simple.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but if any part of it makes no sense, that’s because it usually doesn’t when the client presents it to you.
So how do you manage this type of client? Here is what I usually say:
“It’s almost always possible, it’s just a matter of cost.”
And then proceed to give them ballpark figures of how many dollars they need to get it done. Don’t spend lots of time gathering detailed quotes. First give a ballpark, find out they don’t want to pay for it, then move on with the project.
The other thing to say, which is actually sensible for both of you, is that when the project scope gets too big, it becomes overwhelming for everyone and slows down. On the contrary, when you keep things bite-sized, they go faster, and seem easier.
With WordPress, it’s usually always going to be possible to add extras on later. Yes, it’s good to plan ahead for the future, but things like forums and WooCommerce extensions don’t need to hold things up right now, if you can live without them.
Some clients will be at a stage where they need to get all those bells and whistles done. You’ll know it when they don’t whimper at the prices. They’ve been around the block with web developers and know what it takes to get what they want.
If you think you can handle a project that big, go for it. But if you haven’t done something that large before, just know what you’re getting yourself into. Hint: think of how much support you’ll need to provide after the project is complete. Not so simple now, is it?
The “It’s totally cool, whatever” client
Other than the most organized people on the planet, these are the best clients to have. They end up with the best websites too, because they don’t interfere too much, letting experts do what experts do best.
While these clients are da bomb, they can also be too easygoing at times. Just remember that sometimes, you need direction, so you can do the best job possible. If everything is ‘A-OK,’ that puts pressure on you to make business-altering decisions on your client’s behalf. For example, if they like all colors, you won’t know which ones to pick for their branding.
Usually it’s not that extreme – most businesses will have a logo and color preferences, and can guide you in delivering what they want.
Really, this all comes down to communication. Hang on to these clients. They’re rare.
The “It’s not perfect” client
This client will ask you to fix something that is one pixel off…all the time.
There’s not much you can do with these clients, except try to notice their tendencies beforehand. At least you can be mentally prepared for what’s coming.
Perfection is wonderful in web design. Designers always love things pixel perfect. But website elements can’t always be that way, because they are not static.
Still, we have to try our best.
So here is how you handle this type of client: if imperfections are your fault, just fix them. But then stop at a certain point.
How? Make sure you have an ‘official’ review process. That is your client’s opportunity to submit any mistakes or missed items in one final, sealed-in-wax list.
After that, the project has to close. If it doesn’t, you’ll be fixing little things here and there for ages, until you’re basically taking the shirt off your back and selling it to please this client.
If the imperfection is something like a typo, which is often from text they submitted to you, let them know you can train them to use the site, so they can make these edits on their own. That’s why you’re building the site in WordPress anyway.
This type of client may also check their site on many different browsers and devices. They will try to view it in power save mode, with a dim screen, or with a lit up screen. And then they will complain about how it looks in any of those scenarios.
The only way to please these demands is to:
- Build responsive sites, and communicate beforehand that the site is supposed to adapt to different device widths.
- Have a clause in your contract that you can only make reasonable efforts to standardize the site, but there is no way you can account for every single past and future browser or device.
Alternatively, budget plenty of room in your initial estimate for cross browser and cross device testing.
The “Can we change this 100 times” client
This is the most common type of client. In fact, this client is often hidden in every other type of client.
This is similar to the client who wants everything juuuust perfect. Except, instead of asking for perfections, they will ask you to change a color, then change it back, and change the layout, then change it again – just so they can make a decision.
That eats up your time, which is your only currency as a freelancer.
Here are some important measures to take while managing this client:
- Don’t give many options. Go for just one design draft, not two or three. If you show more, they’ll want to see infinite combinations of the designs. Find out what their needs are specifically, document everything, and deliver one design that they can comment on.Good sales people know this trick too. If you give someone too many choices, they have a hard time making a decision, and can walk away confused. Be a good listener, and present one solution that fits the need.
- Regardless of how many revisions you offer, again, make sure you formalize them as milestones in your project management system. Don’t be casual about change requests. Make sure the client understands this is their ONE chance to tell you what they like or don’t like on the design, and that after they hand that one list to you, extra change requests will be chargeable.
The client who never reads anything
They don’t read e-mails, don’t open attachments, don’t look at examples, and no matter how easy you try to make complicated matters seem for them, they just won’t have the patience to work with you on a solution to their problem.
This type of client may also answer “yes” or “no” to a question you gave them that had multiple options to it. They often don’t know what they want, or want ‘all of the above,’ so they find it hard to answer any question.
They get stressed when you give them too much to do or read at one time. So for starters, try to shorten your e-mails, and turn their tasks into bite-sized chunks.
But – and this is important – you need to get final, clear, go-aheads from them, in writing, before proceeding with a task.
Why? Well you can guess why. Later on they may claim they don’t like something, and may want to blame it on you. The truth of the matter is they were not paying attention, and didn’t want to give you a moment of their day so you could do a well-pleasing job for them.
Also very important: make sure they understand their employees, who they often will try to put in charge, have authority to make decision on their behalf. That means if an employee gives you directions, it’s binding. Later on, they can try to pull the whole, “well I never wanted that” spiel, and you’ll need good records to show you only followed instructions.
These clients aren’t always bad. In a sense, they can sometimes be easy to work with, because they also don’t interfere much. It’s mainly the documentation you need to be careful of, in case misunderstandings happen.
The “Missing in action” client
This client disappears on you. No one knows why. They seemed eager to get a website, and then probably decided they didn’t have time to work on it. So they abandoned ship.
They show up months later, maybe a year later, and ask you to pick up their project as per usual.
This is problematic for you as a web designer or developer because of two things, which are brought out in this article about web development contracts:
- Who is going to pay for the work you already did? Should you have to wait that long for payment?
- 6 to 12 months is a looong time in the web world – you’ll need to update a lot on that old project, which increases your work load.
The way to handle this situation is to cover it in your contract beforehand. It will be hard to make a case to defend yourself otherwise, especially if the client is hard to reach. State how long a project can remain dormant for, before you close up shop. Also consider payment terms that follow a timeline, not only milestones of project completion.
The “It’s broken” client
This client often believes their site is broken when it’s not. It’s just them making mistakes.
Or their users will make mistakes on the site (it’s surprising how many people can’t handle purchases on an e-commerce site). It will always come back to you that something “isn’t working,” but most of the time, when you get to the bottom of it, it’s a user error, not a website error.
Sometimes they’re right that something’s broken though, so don’t ignore it.
The way to handle this type of client is to set up a service agreement whereby all your time to troubleshoot “broken” things are chargeable. This might help minimize the number of support requests, but honestly, with some people, it won’t. Look at the bright side; at least your billables will go up!
Next, train your client to first attempt to replicate the error before contacting you. If it can’t be replicated, it’s most likely a waste of everyone’s time, and your client’s money, to troubleshoot it. Also teach them to document steps they took to make the error happen. Ask for screenshots or videos of what they are seeing, so you know it’s not all coo-coo.
After you hand a site to a client, anything can be done to it without you knowing. They could have clicked a button they weren’t supposed to, installed a plugin without telling you, server settings might change, or even third-party software that you set up may not work after updating. All of that’s not your fault, and should be made clear up front. Servicing a website after your client has it should be charged.
Of course, if it’s really your mistake, then fix it dude.
The “Can you do this for me?” client
This is similar to the “it’s broken” client, except things aren’t necessarily broken, they just want you to do all their content updates. Let’s face it, as easy as WordPress may be to many of us, some people will just not be able to get it. Even though you train and try to walk them through things, they just won’t remember how to put up blog posts, change links, or put up photos. So they ask you do to it for them.
Again, this should be an added, billable service.
Don’t take the excuse that they couldn’t figure it out. If they are constantly asking you how to do something you already trained them how to do, but don’t want you to do it for them, because they don’t want to pay for it, make sure you respond with something like this:
“I’d be happy to help you with this, but perhaps we should set up another training session to go over what we learned and you can try to take more notes this time? That way you can remember how to do it the future when this comes up, in case I’m not around. I will need to charge for the training consulting time though. Let me know a time that works for you.”
This will send the message that you don’t work for free. If you are constantly answering these inquiries, it will eat up a lot of time. Remember, time is your currency as a freelance web designer or developer – you have to learn to control it, and maximize time you actually get paid for.
The “I know more than you” client
This client is ‘interesting,’ let’s put it that way. They are always asserting how much they know about what you do. Usually it is because many years ago they worked in your industry, or did something similar to what you are doing now.
But they’re hiring you, for some reason.
Or, this type of client may admit to not knowing as much as you, but will constantly be researching articles to see if what you are saying is actually true.
Sometimes this client will insist on what they know (or wish to ignore) so much, that they start asking you to do things that are fundamentally wrong, and are going to make you look bad if anyone learns you were part of this project at all.
(Side note: If you want to laugh about this, read, How A Web Design Goes Straight to Hell.)
The way they will often vindicate themselves is by saying “I showed this to my staff/mother/pet and they like the really ugly design I made all by myself instead of your professional, modern, industry-standard-and-time-tested design.” (Ok, ok, they won’t think their design is ugly, I’m being sarcastic).
So two things to know about managing this type of client:
- Never speak in terms of what you ‘like’ versus what they ‘like.’ That’s subjective, and won’t get you anywhere. Always present facts. Speak in numbers, data, and research (which you find online). Show them, don’t tell them. Get case studies of conversions, if you have to, and articles written by experts. Assert how much you know about a topic, and why you feel something should be a certain way.
- When this happens, be prepared for it. This is going to make you feel devalued. You’re going to look at this site and think, “this is gross, I’m never putting this in my portfolio.”
Honestly, advice can’t be given here. Do you want to drop the project, or please the client, do what they say, collect the paycheck and move on? Both are valid reactions – it’s all about what works for you, and what you’re comfortable with.
Arguing with these clients is going to drain you. Don’t let that happen. There are plenty of clients you can work with on other projects.
Ether way, you need an outlet at this point. Friends in web design can tell you hilarious stories about this. Join a WordPress meetup, or start one.
The “I don’t trust anything you do” client
This client doesn’t assert what they know, they just question everything you do.
Usually these clients have been burned in the past by someone else in the industry who wasted their money real bad. Now they’re taking it out on you.
They want you to do your job, but also won’t let you work on anything, because they don’t want to take your advice…even though they are asking for it. Similar to the client who knows everything, they may also do their own research, hire outside consultants to validate your work, and sometimes insist that things get done their way, even though they don’t know as much as you about the task at hand.
And as much as you may feel like you’re not making them happy, they won’t fire you. And you’ll wonder why.
These clients need a lot of emotional handholding. They take up a lot of time discussing their fears (usually about their finances, which they’ll try to blame on your services). They consistently ask for phone calls to go over your work, and these phone calls will not only eat up your day, but also your mental space. If they are weak, they’ll get their girlfriend or family member to come argue with you. Yeah.
My advice is to drop these clients. Don’t even try to manage them. You are not a counselor. Just tell them you can’t make them happy. Will they be mad? Of course! They’ll try to blame everything on you. But if you have been keeping good records of your work, you can show that you have provided everything they paid you for.
If you are in the middle of a project, you may have to forgo some payments, or feel to offer a refund (if it’s fair). But trust me, you’ve already worked more than the value of what they’ve paid you, and it will only continue that way. Move on.
What have we learned from all this?
Honestly, it comes down to this:
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
If your project management systems and contract are clear about what your clients can expect, you can avoid a lot of misunderstandings. Misunderstandings about expectations is really what creates unhappy clients. If you are fair to them by outlining the scope of a project beforehand, they will be fair to you by not asking you to go beyond that scope (I hope!).
You can even do what Chris Lema recommended recently, and offer to charge for an estimate, to get really clear up front. That way there are no surprises.
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