The Cost of Making Clients Happy

Common client requests and the effects of always saying “yes”.

As anybody who’s ever worked at a small design agency probably knows,
the client is always right. Well, except when they‘re not.

They certainly can be sometimes, but the unfortunate reality is too many agencies feel they have to do everything they’re told, no matter what, or risk losing their clients. Sure, it’s true that some clients may react negatively to suddenly not always getting their way, but let’s be honest, are these really the kind of people you want to be doing work for?

If the goal of your agency is simply to make money, or run a business, then the sad answer is probably “yes”. But if you’re an agency that wants to create amazing work, being able to tell clients “no” when when they make poor decisions or absurd requests is an absolute must, for a multitude of reasons.

To understand how to say “no”, we first need to identify some common client requests that can quickly derail a project and leave your team members feeling disillusioned.


Moving Deadlines & Aggressive Timelines

I recently spent a handful of years designing mobile training apps for clients in the pharmaceutical industry, where moving deadlines and aggressive timelines were commonplace. It was awful. On almost every project, regardless of the overall timeline agreed upon prior to the kickoff, or the milestones set after, these clients wanted everything “ASAP” or “yesterday”. It was as if in their universe, nobody actually had to perform the duties required to complete their work, they would simply blink and it’s done.

When clients begin setting deadlines on the fly, it sets a precedent for all future work, essentially rendering timelines meaningless; there will be an assumption that because you were able to accomplish the task within the new expedited timeline, there’s no reason work can’t be turned around that quickly all the time. When teams can’t count on consistent timelines to manage their work on a project, a number of negative consequences can occur.

The end-result will undoubtedly be a less polished product that has left team members frustrated and dejected, knowing they could have done a much better job if only they hadn’t been forced to meet such an unreasonable deadline.

For starters, just because a deadline was moved up doesn’t mean the amount of work needed to meet it goes away. Teams will find themselves working long hours, in high-pressure situations, which will predictably result in cutting corners, with less time for critical thinking and strategic planning. The end-result will undoubtedly be a less polished product that has left team members frustrated and dejected, knowing they could have done a much better job if only they hadn’t been forced to meet such an unreasonable deadline.


Micromanaging Design & User Experience

I’m not a mechanic. I would never presume to get my car back from the shop and begin questioning the methods by which the mechanic fixed it, let alone offer suggestions for how they should have done it instead. Yet, for some reason when it comes to design, everybody seems to have an opinion. Perhaps that’s because design is everywhere in our day-to-day lives, and simply through the act of living do people develop a taste for what they do (and don’t) like.

A problem designers frequently encounter is clients applying this same subjectivity to projects they’ve contracted. More often than not, the issue is that the client doesn’t think something looks good to them. What they fail to realize, and it’s our job to educate them on this, is it isn’t meant for them. Design needs to accommodate a wide range of audiences, all of whom have different opinions and tastes. Regardless, there’s still a lot of agencies out there willing to sacrifice quality and usability to make their clients feel like they got their money’s worth.

When clients begin to dictate design, you’re taking the project out of the hands of professionals, with years of experience making these decisions, and giving it to some mid-level manager whose wife painted the living room green that one time, and he just really doesn’t like that color.

The dangers of endlessly agreeing to move a button here, or change a color there, are even greater than moving deadlines. With aggressive deadlines, you at least still get to make a version of the product you believe is best. But when clients begin to dictate design, you’re taking the project out of the hands of professionals, with years of experience making these decisions, and giving it to some mid-level manager whose wife painted the living room green that one time, and he just really doesn’t like that color, so can we change it please?

These kinds of requests and biases basically turn intelligent, highly-skilled designers into production artists (or what I affectionately refer to as “pixel pushers”). The client doesn’t know how to use Photoshop themselves, so they believe they can pay you to move the mouse for them. Like any bad client behavior, this can turn into a pattern that sets the tone for all future projects, and has adverse consequences on team morale.


Creeping Scope

Changing scope mid-way through a project is a common request that can significantly impact not only the end-product, but an agency’s bottom-line. It’s incredibly important when planning a project to account for as many variables as possible, which is why kick-offs and statements of work are such an essential part of the project process.

Trying to add or remove something at the last minute, or asking for a fundamental change in architecture or functionality, can have dramatic consequences on usability and overall purpose.

When a client requests a change of scope after work has already begun, it changes the cohesion and direction of what’s being created. Design teams count on predictability to craft the best possible product, but trying to add or remove something at the last minute, or asking for a fundamental change in architecture or functionality, can have dramatic consequences on usability and overall purpose.

Agreeing to changes in scope means doing additional work that wasn’t agreed to, and certainly wasn’t considered in the project quote. This can result in the need to assign additional resources to a task, or stopping forward momentum to revist an aspect of the project that should have been completed already. Scope creep culminates in either more man hours or lost time, both of which means doing work that you’re not being paid for, and most importantly wasn’t planned for.


The purpose of this article isn’t to always reject everything a client asks for or suggests; lots of clients have great ideas and insights that are invaluable when trying to create a successful project. The purpose is instead to identify places where saying “no” is absolutely necessary to preserve the integrity of both the project and the team, and where saying “yes” will only result in a product you and your team aren’t proud of.

You won’t miss clients who leave you because you took a stand. And the ones who stay will respect the passion and desire with which your agency operates, and stop viewing you as their in-house creative team, and start seeing you as the experienced, seasoned professionals they were seeking out in the first place.