How to cope with douchebag clients

Carl Heaton gives you a guide to dealing with (or dumping) infuriating clients.

New projects are exciting. That email coming in lets you know that your website is not only working, but that you also have people interested in paying you money so that you can buy a PlayStation 4 with Far Cry 4 Limited Edition.

Then you quickly realize that within a few emails that the person behind the project is a complete douche bag of epic proportions. (Henceforth known as Mr D Bag for this article.)

What next? Run? Quit? "But I really want this project!" And worst of all, "I kinda need it."

I have been a web designer for a few years now, 18 at the time of writing this article, and I have had the pleasure of some amazing projects that really aimed to change the world, but the person behind the project made working on it akin to a root canal.

Question is, what do you do you about it? This article aims to answer that based on my experience of fending for myself as a freelancer and also running a design agency here in crazy Bangkok.

Be straight at the start

"I need a website, how much?"

We have all had this question and it is an easy one to answer with a copy and paste response or send them a form that requests the information you want to know most – their timeline and budget.

Having a prepared email has two clear benefits – time and speed. Have one ready on your Notes or Notepad and copy, paste, change the details slightly and send right away.

Dear Mr D Bag,

Thank you for your interest in our agency. May I ask how you found us? …

What this does is it prevents a conversation about something you know nothing about and lets you know if they have the budget to pay for what they want. Get all the important questions you need answers to straight away, but don't ask too much with the first email. This is the first level douche bag test. If they try to avoid the details and want a meeting, it's time to make your first do it/don't do it decision.

You will probably discover that the deadline is tomorrow and the budget is "you tell me" or "I don’t have a budget". So if we cannot even get the basic details from a client we politely say:

Dear Mr D Bag,
Thank you for your reply…

Wait, I can't afford to throw away work!

But wait! I can't afford to throw work away, I need the expansion pack for Far Cry 4 and a new controller for my PlayStation.

It's not easy, but they often return, and when they do they will be a lot more humble and, hopefully, have learnt their first lesson in working with a professional web designer.

It is a sad fact that many clients do not respect designers. They think we just faff around on the computer and expect them to pay for listening to music while tapping out some magic code with a Nerf gun aimed a nearby friend. It is your professionalism, clear work flows, experience and communication skills that will show them they are dealing with a professional.

Praise be to the quote form

We all know the details we need to know to be sure about the project and this is where a quote form comes in. You can have this as a handy PDF/Word doc or better still, on your site:

  • Amount of pages, or at least an idea of all the sections
  • Functionality. What do each of these sections need to do?
  • Design requirements
  • Deadline
  • Budget!

Note: For the sake of this article I am narrowing this to a standard brochure using a CMS like WordPress.

If the potential client refuses to fill out the form then it is a clear time to run!

However, whenever you need to run from a project, always be courteous and have some people, agencies or websites to recommend to them to as a way forward.

This not only looks professional, but is also a clever gesture that may get them to come around and start listening to reason. If they do decide to start giving answers, you should be able to give a quote.

If accepted, next comes the proposal and a kick-off meeting.

Kicking off at the kick-off meeting

You're sitting face to face, pleasantries have been exchanged, a cool glass of water has been served and you're nursing a cup of green tea hoping to steady your temper.

Listen! That is the best piece of advice I can to avoid kicking off at a kick off meeting.

When designers try to force the meeting or idea into what they feel it should be they are making a fundamental mistake that will inevitably be the undoing of the project.

From this meeting you need a clear idea of the functionality, a rough sitemap and some examples of design quality the client wants. From there you send off a rough quote and include some ideas of how you can improve the project from there. If they take your ideas and want to go with it you can then add that into another quote.

If they are consistently refusing to listen then: run you fool!

Then it's the real douche bag test: asking for the first payment.

Deposit paying pains

You thought getting the requirements was hard, wait until you ask them to reach into their pocket.

Do not give them the benefit of the doubt, unless you like working for free and have no rent to pay. A promise to pay, tell all my friends about you, percentage share when the site is making a profit is not going to get you that PlayStation 4 is it?

Once the contract is signed it should come with a deposit, in full or no work is done.

Consider this: If they cannot pay a deposit, what gives you the confidence they will pay the rest of the invoices on time?

Try this simple response instead:

Dear Mr D Bag,
Thank you for your email checking on our progress however our accountant has flagged your account as having an outstanding invoice (insert date and reference here). As soon as that is paid we can get to work straight away.

To which you may get a reply like this

Dear A Hole Designer,
What? You said you can start work this week…

That's fine Mr D Bag client. Kicking and screaming over an email will not get your work done for free. So I found an excellent mantra from Lemon Jelly: Calm, Confident and Cheerful.

  • Calm: The client has already invested a lot of time into the project so he won't just walk away and this stage. It is just some words on a screen, so what is there to worry about?
  • Confident: Hopefully you have it clearly spelled out on page XX on your contract that payment is to be made up-front before any work can be done. So you can always refer Mr. D. Bag to that page if he gets into the semantics.
  • Cheerful: It's hard to be pissed off with someone who is being nice to you. So make sure that comes across in your emails further contacts wit the client.

I sincerely hope that helps; it did with me.

We have lift-off

Deposit is paid! You can almost feel the soft touch of the PS4 controller in your hand and imagine the sound of the bullets ricocheting off the bad guys' chests.

But we are a long way off yet. The fun has just started

Spend time getting the wireframes perfect

Once you have the wireframes all-complete send off and work with the feedback. It is ten times easier to fix a wireframe than a designed User Interface or a coded website. Once they are happy with the wireframes then ask them to either sign them or send a clear email confirming they want to move to the next stage.

Things are going oh so well, until…

We want our clients to be clear, decisive, and to the point in explaining the needs of their site and with their feedback to our drafts. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

3 tips on project communication

  • Agree on the method of communication first. I recommend a blend of email and then either face-to-face meeting or skype meetings.
  • Think of yourself first. In other words, make sure that that anything you agree upon will be beneficial to you and your company. When you start doing things above and beyond what was agreed upon and without compensation, you will resent what you are doing and this will affect your output and professionalism.
  • Keep moving forward, don't get bogged down in he said, she said rubbish. Ask "how do you want to proceed and solve this?" after a client finishes their ranting. This ensures that the project begins moving forward again.

Content is the king of pains in the ass

Apologies for the language but this is the real sticking point of almost every web project. Clients are not web designers, nor are they content writers, marketers or typesetters. As a result content is the last thing on their mind. This is when you get from D Bag Client:

What am I paying you for if I have to do all the content?

The reply is simple.

Look on page 33 of the proposal and you will see that you signed the part that says 'the content will be provided by the client'.

But that is not the answer, nor will it sit well with your client.

The best way to avoid this issue is to have a plan at the start. Ask your client where the content will be coming from, who is responsible and if they have any prepared already.

Get the ball rolling so they know early on that content will be the life or death of the project.

When requesting content be clear on what you want it and how you want it. For example let's take these two requests for content.

  • Dear Mr D Bag, please can you send me the content for the About page.
  • Dear Mr D Bag, I am attaching the wireframe of the About page. We need one large header image (1400x400px/JPG), two introduction paragraphs of your company and then your mission statement.

Which do you think is easier to follow for your client?

Then work with them on the content. You can help manage the process of creating the content with kind reminders or offer them copywriting services.

Either way it is a team effort with regards to content.

I want changes, changes and more changes

There is always a danger that the client is never happy. But the real danger is their need to "tinker" and try this and that just for the sake of seeing it. This will eat your time and erode your profits faster than you can say "I still can't afford a PlayStation 4".

Step 1: remember you are a business and you do not work for free. Look back at your contract and find the part that says about "after three changes, extra-work will be charged at the standard hourly rate".

Step 2: Client wants to add stupid ideas to the mix? Then use this wonderful catch phrase our project manager uses to keep the project moving forward: "I will get a quote to you in the next few hours for that extra work".

Step 3: Know your contract inside out. Keep your wireframes embedded in your mind. Know by heart what was agreed so you know when an extra is an extra.

Now you have the power

The project is finished. You have completed your 44 point going live checklist and the last invoice has been sent. The client wants his website live now! Queue the evil laugh as the ball is in your court and that PlayStation is just moments away from being ordered with the limited edition controllers and Far Cry 4 Expansion pack.

The idea is to never give the client the website until the last invoice is paid. This ensures that it gets paid. We have had three customers try this and we learnt the hard way to make sure all invoices are paid up before moving a project to their servers.

Often we have found that the D Bags turn into darlings by this point. They see why everything takes so long, why certain things are harder to change than others and they see where their money has gone towards reaching the final product. So at this point you can really foster a long term relationship with your clients and keep them coming back for more upgrades in the future.

As you put the website live, think back at all the battles you've had to get here. Was it worth it?


Words: Carl Heaton

Carl Heaton is an instructor at Web Courses Bangkok and you can find him at @webcoursesbkk.

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