When a Client Hates Your Work

I recently recorded a podcast that delved into the topic of difficult clients. Among the criteria I included to qualify a client as being difficult, I highlighted those who are overly critical of your work. However, I prefaced that criterion with the stipulation that the client must consistently hate ALL of your work.

Now, what do you do if a client doesn’t seem critical or difficult, and they truly do want to work with you, but they just don’t like your work?

It’s a tough question. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some clients on multiple projects where they approve nearly all my outputs except for that one outlier project in which nothing seems to look right in their eyes. So good clients–those who are fun to work with–can get stuck in a hate-everything mode, and unfortunately, the project will suffer as will your relationship with the client when communication becomes strained.

If anything, this post is a healthy reminder for myself. Below, I’ve outlined some of the methods and means I’ve put into practice for handling those clients who, to use a strong word, hate my work.

Be Responsive

Negative client feedback is an important juncture of any project. The way you treat it will determine the course of the project and your relationship with the client. This is why it’s absolutely essential to be responsive, no matter how much you disagree with the client, and to understand their stance. Don’t ignore the client, and don’t respond with a curt email message.

Identify What They Don’t Like

The first thing you should do whenever a client comes back with negative feedback is to identify the specific area or areas of the output that they’re unsure of. I’ve experienced feedback that appeared as if the client considered my entire design rubbish, when in fact, they only disliked a single color in the mock-up. Don’t be afraid to ask a client for specifics.

Change Communication Method

Communication seems to be the root of all problems in society and web design is no exclusion. Oftentimes, designers will throw out an initial mock-up via email and expect to receive electronic feedback. In a perfect world, this would be flawless, but alas, email does not convey the breadth of description ideal in explaining the reasoning behind design decisions. Instead, if a client shows hesitation over a design, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting to gain a better understanding of their position and to help communication your ideas more precisely. I’ve settled long-chained email disputes in a matter of minutes by establishing quick and simple sit-down meetings.

Find Examples

Once you’ve determined a client doesn’t like your work, ask them to find examples of websites that they do like. Usually, you would be better off doing this during the initial phases of the project–before any design work is done–but the rush of the moment can sometimes push a designer too deep into the process without looking around first.

Start Smaller

Building off my previous point, moving too fast for a client in terms of design work can often lead to confusion, misinterpretation, and ultimately, negative feedback. To combat this trend, try slowing down and moving your sights back a couple of notches. A standard conflict resolution tactic is to find common ground. Find common ground with your client by gaining acceptance on the smaller things such as a color scheme, layout or general theme. You can then increase the amount of output you feed them until either a design is settled on or a roadblock is hit.

Get Independent Feedback

In most projects, you’ll be dealing with one or a couple of client stakeholders. When design disagreement strikes, a helpful suggestion might be to involve other stakeholders within the client organization to review the design. If that doesn’t seem possible, then you as a designer or project manager can seek out independent review of your work to see where you might be going wrong. A fresh set of eyes can always shed new light on work that we can sometimes become too involved with.

Defend Your Work

A client hating on your work is not the end of the world. I would be highly skeptical if I never ran into the occasional client who didn’t like my work. It’s part of the business, especially considering the highly subjective nature of design. Many business owners have stood by the mantra that the client is always right, and perhaps in some cases or industries, that might be true; however, when it comes to design, you are the professional. Stand up for your work. Explain the decisions you made. Many clients do not understand the workings of the web or user psychology, and thus may not be qualified to provide constructive criticism. A good web designer doesn’t just produce beautiful work–they’re also able to explain why it’s the right approach for the client.

Start Over

Finally, there are some instances where you need to scrap everything you’ve done and step back to square one. This can give you a fresh start with the client and another chance to understand their needs and expectations.

Botched projects, negative feedback and strained nerves are not things to be ashamed of. We all experience them at one time or another. These experiences should instead serve as a learning exercise where you can analyze what went wrong, what you did right and how you can prevent future occurrences. Without failure, we would have no definition of success.

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