March 8, 2010
We’ve all had our fair share of angry clients. They’ll call or email, outraged that something has or hasn’t happened, dutifully heaping a big steaming pile of blame on your lap. And as good web designers or freelancers, it’s our responsibility to eat that blame and make everything right.
But what if we could avoid the mess in the first place?
It’s not easy, but it’s certainly feasible. Moreover, preventing client anger is something you should strive for, because no one likes dealing with angry people.
So, how can we prevent the anger? Below I’ve outlined eleven tried-and-true methods of proactively handling projects and clients before they succumb to strained feelings.
Right off the bat, you should clarify the roles of everyone involved in the project. Who is responsible for what? Defining these areas of accountability will help the client understand what they are responsible for and what you are responsible for. If you don’t define this, they may expect you to do everything, and when you don’t meet that expectation, problems will occur.
Projects operate on a series of finite deadlines, goals and milestones. In other words, you should always be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Be transparent about it, too. When clients know what date to expect a certain activity to be complete, they’re in the know, and they won’t become angry during the gaps of seemingly empty time between activities.
Many self-management and efficiency experts advocate a minimalist style when it comes to email. They say you should only check it twice a day and respond only when necessary. Unfortunately, for effective project management, this just doesn’t cut it. Clients, who have presumably paid you money, expect to receive attention when they call or email. If their attempts at communication go unanswered for prolonged periods of time, the client will quickly become distressed.
I’m going to expand even further on the previous point. Not only should you be responsive, you should also be proactive in your communication. When you check off a milestone in project management software such as Basecamp, it’s announced in the system, and you may think that the client will notice this. That may be true, but it’s better to err on the side of excessive communication and independently notify the client that a milestone has been met. Furthermore, it doesn’t hurt to send out occasional status updates on the project, especially if you’ve gone dark because of coding or design activities.
Let me expand even further on the two points above. Figure out how your client prefers to communicate immediately (as in the beginning of the project). Some may prefer the dreaded telephone while others may be fine with email, and still others may actually embrace tools like Basecamp. Regardless, determine the most effective way to communicate important updates to the client and use those means to deliver the message. I’m not saying you need to call a client constantly if they prefer the telephone. Most people are capable of handling multiple communication channels. However, if that client does prefer one channel to another, use the preferred channel for the most important messages.
I don’t care if you’re a model of perfection, mistakes and problems will always occur during a project. How you respond is what will determine the level of anger in the client. When a problem happens, communicate openly with the client about it and offer an immediate plan of action for defeating the problem. Implement the plan and keep the client informed during the process. Problem solved.
Most people don’t like liars or politicians. Therefore, don’t act like one. Be open and truthful to your client about every aspect of the project. Of course, there are times where the damage of a truth outweighs the telling of a small fib, so you have to use your judgment. However, and as clichéd as it may sound, honesty is the best policy. Additionally, politico speak will frustrate your clients. If you don’t have an answer or don’t know, just simply tell the client that you’ll get back with them. Or, even more frightening, you might have to tell the client, “no.”
If you think liars and politicians are bad, then you most certainly detest yes-men and yes-women. These are the people who accept everything the client says and offer simple statements of acceptance such as “yes” and “we can do that.” There’s no thought involved and everyone’s happy – for that moment. The anger will arise, though, if it turns out you can’t do that or something isn’t feasible. Instead of trying to appease, aim to be pragmatic. This means asking questions and looking at all possible viewpoints. Clients may resist a little at first, but in the end, they’ll love you.
So far I’ve mentioned liars, politicians and yes-people. Now, to complete the list, let me throw in the lawyers. However, I mean this in a good sense. When contracting with a new client it’s vital to get everything down in a legally sound document. Otherwise, arguments will form around he-said, she-said logic, which never gets anywhere. A well-written document with a lawyer’s stamp of approval will clear the air of uncertainty.
Sometimes clients get angry and frustrated because they don’t understand. They don’t understand the content management system, or maybe the wire frame you sent them is hard for them to read. This is where you need to step up to the plate and educate your clients. Effectively educating a client about the web design process can help alleviate irritation and leave you with a more informed client.
Some anger happens for reasons outside of your control. A bad day, flat tire, recent divorce and so on can all seep into your project. The best way to manage this is to be empathetic to the client’s current demeanor. Ask yourself why they might be angry, and if you think it’s because of something outside the project, treat them carefully. You don’t need involve yourself with their problems, but be willing to give them some breathing room.
Have a question or comment about this post? Drop me a line!