When things with clients get ugly

For the first 10 years of my career, I worked exclusively for clients. First as a freelancer and then later in the context of my design shop, Sputnik. In those years, I worked for some amazing people, but I also worked for a small number of really awful people. As much as you try to do your homework on the front end of a client engagement, it’s tough to fully know the person who has hired you without putting in the hours of work required to figure them out. What’s worse is that sometimes, the client that seems wonderful at the outset of a project can become a total shapeshifter when friction gets introduced.

Over this last weekend, I saw some things happening in the design community at large that were a very public reaction to an ugly situation between a designer and their client. To be honest, I really didn’t like what I was seeing develop on social media over the course of a few days. Within the design community I greatly admire, there seemed to be a growing gang mentality against the client that had apparently wronged their designer. It could be very possible that the client committed the alleged offense. I’ve been there, I’ve seen clients do unthinkable things and take advantage of people in ways you couldn’t imagine. But, my experience has also taught me that it’s also very possible that the situation could be the product of a larger misunderstanding or impropriety. The scary part of the situation is that almost no one gave the client the benefit of the doubt before pulling out the knives and heading forward to write some really brutal posts.

So this situation has had me thinking about what the right way to handle conflict with a client. Inevitably, working with humans leads to some ugliness so it’s worth investing in being prepared rather than resorting to brash measures to even the score after a conflict. A few of my thoughts (but who am I?):

Build Relational Equity

In most client relationships, the biggest thing you have in common is the work you’re doing together. Sure, sometimes you end up working with friends or people you’ve known for a while but the vast majority of clients you work with will be patrons of a service you provide. I always found it hugely important to invest time into clients away from the work in an effort to build up value between myself and them (or their team). Just like any personal relationship you have takes a fair amount of maintenance and work, so too does a relationship with a client. Without a decent amount of shared relational equity, it makes it much easier for things to go sideways.

Don’t let it get emotional

I’m not the master of this, but I can tell you that the times I’ve let emotion dictate a conflict with a client, it hasn’t helped one ounce. It’s best to approach a conflict as a problem to be methodically sorted through. Don’t rush to make a decision, instead explore every possibility. In my experience, it’s important to always maintain a defensible position of reason in any conflict. No, I haven’t been perfect with this but I’ve been glad I’ve held my tongue many times.

Hone in your conflict skills

We’re designers, right? We’re used to busting our butts to learn new things. Well guess what, you can develop skills specific to dealing with conflict of all types. One of the best books in the world for honing your skills is ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher. A friend turned me onto this during a particularly hairy situation I encountered in my business. This book will completely reframe how you even start to think about approaching conflict.

Know when to walk away

I think the most important thing to consider in a conflict with a client is the opportunity cost of dealing with the situation. A few years back, I had a client stiff me out of a $6,000/mo. design retainer without any notice. Worse, they quit responding to emails where I was trying to recoup prorated fees for the work done up to this point. I was brutally angry about this. After about 9o days of trying to make progress I reached my breaking point where I was so mad I couldn’t sleep. I actively plotted how I could get revenge and I wanted justice. That same week, I ran into two of my design buddies Trent and Greg who have about 10 years of experience on me. They more or less both said “oh.. don’t sweat it, everyone eats 6K at some point in their career. Just learn from it and move on.”

The point of what they were saying was that it was going to be a major drag on my focus to pursue this client and that any sort of public action was just going to ultimately handicap me with clients moving forward. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but ultimately I knew I would continue to spin my wheels and dedicate undue attention to this situation that would end up costing me much more than I would recoup. Say it took me 100 hours of emails, stress and sleepless nights to make progress. That makes my hourly rate $60 if I’m able to get the full amount back. My hourly rate at the time was $150/hr. Quick math made it clear it wasn’t worth it.

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I’m by no means an expert in this field. I’ve handled conflict as poorly as anyone could, but I feel like I’ve approached conflict with an attitude of learning. Each time conflict arises, you are taught valuable lessons about how to weather the next storm. From my experience, conflict leads to resilience.