Nightmare clients: how to deal with clients who don't communicate well

Clients From Hell author Bryce Bladon offers assistance on coping with troublesome clients.

There are plenty of things that are difficult to understand in this world – the plastic that electronic devices come in; politics; the Kardashian phenomenon – but as designers and illustrators know, nothing compares to the frustration of dealing with a troublesome client.

It doesn't matter whether you work for an agency or yourself; chances are you've encountered a crappy client situation at some point in your career. The Clients From Hell blog has over five years of stories to prove it.

This time, however, instead of cruelly indulging in our usual schadenfreude, we decided to help our beleaguered fellow creatives.

Like the miners of misery that we are, we've outlined four common client problems and asked fellow creatives for pro tips on how to deal with each situation.

We've whittled down their professional advice to the most practical and least violent course of action, and we'll be posting the solutions over the coming weeks – so stayed tuned. Here's the first…

Poor communication skills

My clients aren't communicating well. They're either ignoring my messages, or they're causing my email spam filter to light up like a Christmas tree...

Clients who don't communicate well come in two types. The first is known as 'The Columbo'. Like the fictional detective, this client initially seems kind – but once your inbox starts erupting with dozens of update requests, you'll realise they indulge in circumstantial speech that meanders to the point, and the closest thing they know to a fullstop is the phrase: "Just one more thing..."

Me: (10:01am) Here's what you requested.

Client: (10:45am) Can you call me now so we can chat about this, please?
Client: (10:46am) Call me so we can discuss this.
Client: (10:48am) Could you call me about this, please?
I call the client two minutes later at 10:50am. Naturally, I get a voicemail message.

The other extreme is known as 'The Deadbeat Dad'. These are the yin to Columbo's yang. Uncommunicative and often difficult to understand, they use conflicting metaphors and imprecise terms to describe their needs – if they talk to you at all.

When you show them the fruits of your labour, their eyes glaze over. Disappointment, the eyes will say; disappointment that this project, much like their life, didn't turn out the way they hoped.

Client: I've given you three months. Why haven't you produced anything yet?

Me: You have not filled out my intake form yet. Nor have you cleared my downpayment. In fact, you haven't responded to any of my emails or phone calls over the past three months.
Client: Do you have an answer that isn't an excuse?

So how do you figure out a client's needs when the client isn't being clear about what they are?

01. Agree how you'll communicate

Before signing anything, discuss how you and your client will communicate – including how often updates should be expected, the client's commitment to respond to comments and your main methods of communication.

02. Be specific

Use the brief and contract to be as specific as possible about what you will deliver to the client, and when. Include the client's responsibilities too. If you're unclear about something, ask. If they don't get back to you, work on another aspect of the project.

03. Try other methods of communication

If a client just isn't responding to your messages, make sure you send them an email underlining this as an issue – but try other ways to get in touch too, in case your messages are accidentally being relegated to the spam folder.

04. Get an email receipt

Whatever happens, it's important to make clear that you're performing your responsibilities and the client is failing to meet the expectations you both agreed upon. An email receipt is a form of insurance in these cases. A client can't blame you if you've made every reasonable effort to keep a project on track.

Stay tuned for client problem No 2: hasty foreplay later this week…

Words: Bryce Bladon
Illustration: Yukai Du

The full version of this article first appeared in Computer Arts issue 233, a special issue (with a photochromatic cover) revealing the UK's top 30 studios, plus how to craft the perfect folio and make more money as a student...