Clients From Hell
We’ve all worked with tough clients — let’s not pretend we have the perfect relationship with them. The toughest ones have made me want to pull my hair out, distressed me till I couldn’t sleep and lost my appetite. I’ve spent countless hours rocking myself back and forth in my bed, wrapped in my warm blanket, telling myself it’s all going to work out in the end.
There’s a special place in heaven (I’m trying to be nice!!) for clients who are hard to work with. I started compiling names and joked around with my colleagues — eventually, it became a game of who’s faced more of such clients out in the wild!
In my creative work, I’ve held multiple roles and worked on a wide range of projects — I’ve been the creative director, writer, illustrator, art director, photographer, graphic designer… you get the idea! It seems like such client relationships are pervasive regardless of the type of creative work.
I’m going to process this the only way I know how to — by having fun as I learn along the way and making a game out of it! I saw it as a trading card game of sorts — how many cards could I pull out based on the idiosyncrasies of the client sitting in front of me?
It helps me take stock of the emotional effort required to go through the project even before it starts. Apart from some much-required giggles to help me get through tough projects, I hope you find clarity in the client relationships you hold as a creative to be able to see them laid out this way in front of you.
Let’s get onto the first client from hell! Beware of my internal monologues as I go through it with you.
The Pixel Pusher
I HATE BEING ASKED TO MOVE DESIGN ELEMENTS BY A FEW PIXELS.
There, I said it.
Does my client not understand I already made an informed decision on how to align pixels? Does my client not understand sometimes moving things by 3 pixels does nothing for the artwork? Does my client not understand the button was placed there for visual balance?
Probably not, sigh.
It was a steep learning curve for me to finally understand and accept that they don’t have the design background & education I have. Their requests were stemming from some other issues and they were not out to get me or make life more difficult for me.
My first few times facing these requests, I didn’t even know how to say no. I was confused by my lack of boundaries. Eventually, I became frustrated and angry with both myself and the client! Me for not being able to say no, because the integrity of the final design would be compromised. The client and their requests because it led me to question how I laid out my boundaries.
Over some time, I learned to say no to such requests because I always deemed them as absurd.
Why don’t they leave the design to the designers?!
Everything just blew up in my face after I started to say no — I didn’t anticipate this happening. It was tougher to get to the endpoint with such clients because they always seemed dissatisfied and disgruntled. I didn’t have too many of these clients coming back for other projects. You could choose to walk away from such clients, but I didn’t see a point in turning away business — I saw it as a demand for my work dwindling because I didn’t know how to handle these people. Worse, I didn’t even know what sort of things they were telling other people about me.
The best client relationships are the ones where the client feels like I delivered on the brief, and are happy to recommend or refer me to more people. My sales & marketing work is then made easier!
Changing My Approach
Over a period of time, I realized that saying no was also proving to be very tough because the design cycle was being prolonged. Also, the sheer amount of mental energy I needed to handle the clients feeling like they were misunderstood was not something I was willing to put in often. You could say negotiating a compromise would be a good way forward — while I agree, it still took a toll on my energy levels & not to mention it was still a compromise on the design.
I wondered if there were other ways to handle this. After a bit of soul-searching (I joke), I tried to change my approach to how I handled these specific client requests that often either was just too cumbersome or resulted in the creative project not looking so good.
What I Do Differently Now
I start off smiling through these requests with a cheery — “Let’s take a look together!” response.
I will sit them next to me, or communicate via a call/text message and take them through the process (even if it takes me extra time). They would then heave a satisfied sigh like they did a great job out of it when we reach the end or when I accommodate their requests.
Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to build friendly relationships with my clients. I will tease them mildly about how they just wanted to move those pixels because they want to be a part of the process and laugh with them till we get to the end.
“Oh wow, look that really improved the design!”
“Why am I even being hired? You’ve got this!”
This light-hearted sarcasm is directed towards their requests but not towards them as people. This is the important bit. They need to feel accepted so they can laugh with me — this happens when I accommodate their request by being patient with them and making them feel involved in the process. Otherwise, I will come across as rude & tough to work with.
Nobody wants to work with people with poor temperaments. People love good working relationships and get hired because they are easy to work with.
Interestingly, they trusted my judgment after the first 2 or 3 rounds of this because they learned to trust me enough after, and they felt heard. They just wanted them & their opinions to matter as fellow humans.
Once I showed that I cared about them through my actions, and included them (picture a left-out kid, they just want to play with you even if they’re not good) in some of the processes, they were pretty content to sit next to me for future designs to let me call the shots.
I still throw in an occasional joke after a finishing a design, inviting them to move some elements around by a few pixels and they would just grin because we now have an inside joke to share!
I am committed to my work as a creative, building my relationships with the people around me — clients & creatives alike. Join me as I share more about the different types of clients from hell and what I’ve learned from such interactions! So far I’ve compiled a list of 15 types of clients from hell & counting — this is the first in the series.
If you’re a fellow creative, I would love to hear your stories and understand your experiences. Write to me to start a conversation if you were able to resonate with any part of this!