Friday, October 12th, 2007

How to disarm 10 difficult client observations/requests

How to disarm 10 difficult client observations/requests
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Unveiling a solution is arguably the most harrowing aspect of the creative process. In our last post we talked about how we can work to better service our clients. In this one, I’ll share some of the best responses we have to questions that can often derail an otherwise effective solution.

My neighbours don’t like it.

I can appreciate you looking to friends for support on this project; however, it’s often difficult for others to understand the needs of the project at this stage. If you really believe these parties’ opinions to be valuable, we should involve them in the full process. Let’s schedule a sit-down with any new stakeholders next week, so that we can review the brief, strategy and challenges with them, and see if they still hold the same perspectives.

We really liked your portfolio; can you make our project look more like what you did for Client X?

It’s funny you ask that because we try to do the opposite. In our minds, we have to look at each client’s needs individually, and deliver a solution that’s uniquely theirs. It’s funny that you mention Client X, as they were initially very unsure of the approach we took, and it has ultimately served them very well.

Let’s not worry about what others are doing. I want the approach we deliver to be distinctly yours. Think of it as a new suit that you wouldn’t have thought of trying on. We’re pretty objective, and as such will help you find something that meets your needs. In time to come, you’ll find that it fits you quite nicely.

Someone in accounting mocked-up a really neat idea for this.

We’re happy to take a look at other ideas but sometimes doing so increases the overall time requirement, as we would need to answer more questions and increase the number of meetings. If you would like to do this, I can draft an addendum to the estimate to make a provision for this. Alternately, if budget is a key concern, I’d ask you to sit down with this individual and find out if there’s a specific problem they are working to solve. This may save some billable time, and help crystallize the concerns in a fashion that will help us respond best.

It’s a great start, but we need to add this, and this, and this…

I can understand your desire to not leave anything out, and it’s a not an uncommon sentiment. At the beginning of the project, however, you noted that you really wanted to build something around your customers’ needs. In my experience, the organizations that do this best focus on a few key items, and work to deliver them in the best way possible. Adding more can confuse customers and sometimes even scare them away. Just look at the most successful brands in the marketplace and you’ll see that they are highly selective in their messaging.

I love beige; can we get more beige in this?

Personal preferences are powerful motivators; personally, I love hot pink, but it doesn’t work in all settings. I’d like to step back to the creative brief for a moment. You note that your company really wants to connect with adolescent males who love hardcore sports. Do you think beige will connect with them?

I don’t really know what I think about this approach.

That’s fair; this is a big change from what you’ve done in the past, and in my mind, it’s a bold new direction for you. As a result it may take a while for you to absorb this one fully. So, let’s start with more strategic concerns. I’ve made a copy of our original assessment document, and have flipped to the project and messaging directives section. Let’s look over that, and see if we’re not meeting any of the requirements we set out with.

I just don’t know; it’s just so different.

That’s great; different is good! A key aspect to positioning your firm is to find an approach that others aren’t employing. It makes sense that you’re not sure about it though; new things often make people feel that way. I remember hating espresso when I tried it for the first time! Thank goodness I gave it a chance, as I feel quite differently now. Let’s look at the creative brief, and see if we’re meeting your predetermined criteria for the project. If we are, it could indicate that we just need take a little time to get used to this new direction.

Can we make the text bigger?

Yes. Could you perhaps show me a couple of other websites that employ a text-size that feels right to you? We can then compare the two to see how much larger we should make it. (Note: This often leads to us finding that the proposed text is actually larger than what the client had believed.)

I’ll know what I like when I see it.

A lot of people feel that way when it comes to visual treatments, but it’s hard for us to respond with such vague direction. Can you imagine ordering food like that? “Bring me something that’s good, and I’ll eat it if I like it. Otherwise, you’ll just have to make different dishes until I’m satisfied.”

Let’s me ask some questions that might help us identify what you are looking for. Is this approach too conservative or non-traditional? Does it feel overly light or dark? Are the images too passive or overly active? (Note: These questions can go on for some time; the focus is to keep them polarizing, in order to extrapolate some kind of hard response to aesthetic leanings.)

I was at this sandwich shop the other day, and they have an amazing website. Can we make ours look like theirs?

I don’t believe that doing so would result in a solution that meets your needs. Creative strategies are generally tailored to meet the particular requirements of a specific effort. That being said, it sounds like their site really resonated with you. Let’s take a look at their site, and try to extrapolate what points felt good to you. Maybe it will help us better learn what sensations you’d like to elicit on behalf of your audience.

I’ll end with two other little suggestions that you may find helpful. First of all, don’t just toss the design comps in front of the client. Start meetings with a review of the problems you’ve solved and the steps you went through to do so. This sets the stage for you to unveil the work and orients the clients in your process.

Additionally, don’t screw-up. Make sure you’ve addressed all of the necessary design challenges thoroughly and accurately. If there’s a hole in one part of your solution, it can raise questions about the entire approach. Even a small chink in the armor can erode your client’s trust.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Wolf says:

    Enjoyed this article. Even though I don't have to manage clients very often, these kind of requests are also commonly directly bounced to the web designer.

  2. Des Traynor says:

    Really good article there, nice one guys

  3. Denis says:

    Excellent! :o)

  4. A.R. says:

    I can relate to these situations completely as a solo freelancer. There is such a fine line between being arrogant and offensive to a client versus simply contributing knowledge gained through professional design experience. Great post!

  5. Space Gorilla says:

    Reminds me of a saying we had about clients that kept making bad design suggestions and choices, way back when I still did print design.

    "All his taste is in his mouth."

    But you're right, educating the client as part of the process goes a long way to helping them understand why the design solution you are presenting is actually good.

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  7. wonder woman says:

    If you get even half of these responses from a client, you should not work with them. Or charge them twice as much.

    When faced with these questions just say "Ok. I can redesign it if you like, but I'll need to addon to the statement of work."

    If your client doesn't understand that all of these changes are billable (and some are billable as new projects) don't work with them.

  8. Joni says:

    Great article and some great lessons to be taken away from this. It always amazes me that in web design, clients feel like they have a right to override what the designer does. Do you tell your doctor how to take out your spleen? Do you tell your mechanic how to overhaul your engine? It really is no different .. just respect the professional and TRUST THEM to do what they do best. Easier said than done. This site is definitely getting bookmarked!

  9. Josh says:

    Some of these responses sound defensive to me. I take it as given that there are people the client sees as representative of their audience whom we need to be able to reach, thus the "neighbors" who didn't like it. If I used that reply, I'd probably hear something like "Wow, way to go nuclear."

    Instead we just bring it back to what the client needs, because any feedback that causes the client to make a comment to us is really just a question in the client's mind. So we just need to look at the design brief again and be sure the client isn't trying to change it, and that we're doing our jobs.

    I do agree that many of these comments would cause me to reconsider working with the client on another project.

  10. Sam Figueroa says:

    A really great article. I think I'll use one or two of those hints in the future.

  11. great article. as i was reading i realized that in my experience it has been 'all or nothing' when it comes to these questions. a client will ask all of them or none of them. they trust or they doubt.

  12. As always, brilliant and extremely valuable insight.

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  14. Reed Fisher says:

    Great article, with an amazing pearl of wisdom in the last sentence; having the client's trust is the key to successfully dealing with all their questions, and you get it by doing your work thoroughly and accurately.

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  16. bg says:

    Good post covering the full spectrum of client ‘issues’ as it were, but oh, it was there for the taking:

    “Can you make the logo bigger?”


  17. Sciencefact says:

    I would awnser some of these questions differently I think.


  18. Sciencefact says:

    I was at this sandwich shop the other day, and they have an amazing website. Can we make ours look like theirs?

    Me: 'Sure. Lets open this browser and take a look at it together. So this is the home page. A loaf of bread. What do I do?'
    Client: 'You pick up the breadknife, and you slice the bread. Isn't that brilliant?'
    Me: 'Waaw. That looks really good. Then what?'
    Client: 'You slice up the whole loaf and then you are automaticly taken to the homepage.'
    Me: 'I thought this was the homepage?'
    Client: 'Wel, yes. Or no.'
    Me: 'So each time I wat to order a sandwich from this site I have to cut a loaf of bread into 20 slices?'
    Client: 'You can't acctually order sandwiches on the site.'
    Me: 'Oh.' (slicing the bread; a new page opens)
    Client: 'This is a picture of the kitchen, with the cook in the middle, and here on the right you can see the sandwiches menu.'
    Me: 'I don't see a menu.'
    Client: 'Wel, you have to hover over the empty plate, and then like magic, a sandwich appears. And on the left this card opens and reveals the text describing the sandwich.'
    Me: 'Just one sandwich?'
    Client: 'That's the clever bit: you can click on the sandwich to get another.'
    Me: 'How am I goinig to remember this?, if I want to order one?'
    Client: 'I don't know. Maybe you can print it? (it doesn't work), Or take a screenshot?'
    Me: 'Maybe I could write it down on a piece of paper.'
    Me: (clicking) 'How many sandwiches are there?'
    Client: 'I don't know. It's kinda hard to count them this way.'
    Me: 'And where is this restaurant?'
    Client: 'If you click on the cook, he will tell you. In actual words.'
    Me: (I click, mouth starts to move) 'This doesn't seem to work.'
    Client: 'Do you have sound on you computer?'
    Me: 'No.'
    Client: 'Oh..., no problem. There is an address somewhere. Let me see. Maybe it was the pots here (list of ingedients appear). Or maybe the knife in the cooks hand (the cook starts to slash a sandwich in two). Or...' (after ten minutes the address is found).
    Me: 'To sum up, you want, for your accounantcy firm, a site that makes every visitor do something for three minutes before entering the site, that does nothing, accept for making you click random on all kinds of bits and pieces in the hope that you can find the information you are looking for, and does not work half the time?'
    Client: 'Maybe not.'
    Client: 'How about beige?'
    Me: 'Sure.'

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  20. The Luu says:

    How do you disarm difficult egotistical art director, creative lead and conceptors observations/requests, even though the client is more than happy with the work?

  21. jeremy says:

    Thanks for the great resource. I've heard just about all of these requests, and this sounds like a great way to handle them. Much nicer than I've ever thought to be :)

  22. Sam says:

    Great article, but I'm skeptical. Most of these replies sound condescending and would really irk me if i was a client.

    If the client wants to design the site himself and then pay me anyway, I'll gladly take his money!

  23. Hi Sam,

    A couple of people have noted the same concern regarding the possibility of these responses seeming condescending. In practice, however, I've found quite the opposite.

    As designers, we are often frustrated when others don't understand why certain points are important to us. This can result in a sentiment of, "Why won't this client just let me do my job?" As a result, we find that some designers burn-out, while others get quite bitter and resentful.

    In my mind, the problem is that we rarely take the time to articulate our beliefs and concerns in a fashion that helps others make sense of them. In my experience, clients are often very welcoming to such dialogue as it helps them see that there's real logic behind a decision.

    I think it all comes down to this:
    - Speak with your clients and really work to understand their concerns.
    - Take time to explain why you made certain choices and how you expect them to work.
    - Present and remain open to options that might solve the problem, even if they aren't in the original plan.

    In my mind, it's all about respecting your client without behaving like a doormat. This kind of approach allows you to give them your best, while affording your clients the opportunity to choose another option if they so desire.



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  25. LuLu says:

    Could these responses be defensive because as creatives, we get a teensy bit unnerved when someone challenges our ego.

    Although Im with the guy that says you wanna pay me while you design it fine, you may regret the outcome.

    Do you allow for work-up sessions with different options that give the client a choice? That way you can have your ideas and also give the client some control. And you can make the client responsible when they chose an option that they regret. As a creative and a client I appreciate choice and collaboration.

  26. Hi LuLu,

    Needless to say, many designers have different approaches for finding a common ground with their clients, as it sounds as though you have. I wonder, however, if you may have misunderstood the nature of this post.

    A month ago, a colleague emailed me, frustrated with the challenges she was facing with her clients. As a result I tried to lend a hand and provide some ideas on how to work around some of these issues.

    As I did so, I realized that we have pretty good working relations with our clients, and that has in part changed from previous years, due to a shift in our way of dealing with such challenges.

    So, I'm not really lamenting a system that is problematic; rather, I'm trying to share what is in fact working very well at our firm. For some, these will likely be helpful, for others, perhaps not so much. :-)



  27. Nancy says:

    I'm a name developer and copywriter, and much of this is equally relevant in my own work. For "Can you add more beige?" substitute "Can you work in 'passion' and 'out of the box' on every page?"

    But I'm afraid there's no suitable response to "I'll know what I like when I see it" when it comes to words. Virtually every naming client thinks he wants a name "like Google" or "like Microsoft," when in fact what he wants are profits like Google's or Microsoft's. Show him a coined word "like Google" and he'll invariably say, "That sounds silly!" And he'll be right. "Google" sounded silly at first, too.

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  29. dingdong says:

    Ive wasted so much of my life catering to the "Ill know it when I see it" mentality, that I can smell it on a client and I run a mile. I even had a client saying that something needed to look more "zooosh". Seriously, That was his description. The ordering food analogy is perfect and Im sure it will come in handy.

    Do you have a solution to this probelem...? A while ago I was contacted by a new client Who wanted 3 illustrations done of some girls. They had reference that was just far enough away from my own work that they wanted to see if I could get the same look. So I spent a descent amount of time drawing one of the illustrations for them in pencil. reasonably finished, that was a pretty close match to the reference. "can you paint it for us?" they asked. They wanted me to finish a third of the job before they even confirmed I was hired. I basicly said that the pencil drawing should be enough and that the portfolio they had clearly showed my capabilities. I never heard from them again. Was I just being silly? Or were they?

  30. Hi all,

    A little off topic, but I wanted to share this note with all of you.

    You see… our effort Design Can Change ( has been nominated for the Cooper-Hewitt People's Design Award. We'd like to ask you to help us build awareness by voting for the project, if you are so inclined.

    The process only takes a moment. Just visit:
    and click "vote". Of course, if you can ask any friends to vote as well, we'd certainly appreciate it!

    The polls close in a couple of hours though, so if you can, please vote soon!

    All the best!


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  32. This is great!! Thanks! I wish I had something similar directed to helping illustrators!

  33. The Colonel says:

    bravo... I love it

  34. Hi dingdong,

    Okay, first off, I feel a little weird calling you that, but that's the only name I have to go by. (For those who think I'm just being rude calling dingdong by this name, please note that it is how he references himself, in the post five back.)

    It sounds to me that these people weren't particularly ethical. In one respect, that's unfortunate, as you're out the money that you had expected. On the other, it's kind of nice that you didn't do the whole job and have them pull a stunt like this.

    I feel that we're all wise to have clear contracts in place before doing any kind of work. Additionally, it's good to avoid any spec work, as this sort of thing does tend to happen when all of the parties aren't clear on end deliverables and responsibilities.

    If you have a chance, check out Creative Business. It's a website, as well as a number of books that have great resources, including sample contracts. No one wants to rely on the contract, but it sure does keep issues in order should things go funny.

    I hope that helps!


  35. Chris says:

    I'm an editor who hires creative types for magazine illustration work and comics.

    I appreciate the sentiments in the post, but I'm sorry--if someone trotted out language like that I'd wonder what planet they were from. I consider carefully what I say to a freelancer, and I don't like being deflected!

    Just the "bad guy's" point of view--grist for your mill, y'all!

  36. Hi Chris,

    That's fair, but you sound like a more saavy design buyer. It stands to reason that you'd likely be more informed than to come back with a phrase like, "Someone in accounting mocked-up a really neat idea for this."

    The reality is that many of us work with first time design buyers, who are often led by different motivations than those who purchase creative services on a regular basis. Wouldn't you agree?



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  40. Bunny Chow says:

    Regarding DingDong and Eric Karjaluoto's discussion on the client wanting to see a third of the work before agreeing to even give the job to him:

    We've done some scamp work for an advertising agency (two directions they wanted to present to their client), and after approval of our innitial quote, the GM later decided to drop the one direction. She then asked us to charge her a 50% rejection fee for this. A month and a half later, she phones us asking that we drop the whole amount we charged her in rejection fees (for work that we've already done, for them, not their client, which they requested from us) as well. Her excuse was that they "were not satisfied with it", but I think they just didn't want to present two ideas to their client, it had nothing to do with them not being satisfied with the quality of our work.

    Since all we did was make scamps and feelboards (according to the CD and CW's creative idea), in the same style as the idea they DID accept, and presented.

    Has this ever happening to any of you?
    Is there a way to refuse to charge a rejection fee, even if the client's client didn't buy the work?
    (since the ad agency is my client, they should pay me for work THEY requested me to do, no matter if they ever presented it, or if their client didn't buy the idea)

  41. Kenny says:

    Great article, one of the best I've read lately. While the choice of language is different to what I would use the counter-arguments (if you can call them that) are gold!

  42. Mr. James says:

    Wow! I loved this article! If only I ran across it four months ago when I was working with a particularly difficult client.

    I'm a full-time designer/illustrator for a company where I deal with art directors and other artists all the time but I also take on many freelance clients on the side and every one of these situations have come up at least once in my experience. It's good to have a rough template to use for deflecting the more extreme examples.

    The folks that have responded back that they are, "more than happy to take someone's money for designing their own product" are just fooling themselves. Ultimately you will end up running in circles allowing your client to dictate what they "think" they want, when in reality they don't know what they want, other than to be in charge. Think about all the time you will waste on one bad/needy client when you could be working on 3 other successfully smooth projects in the same amount of time. That's getting paid three times for less stress and hassle! Plus, clients sometimes treat artists like tools they've borrowed. They use and abuse us and then don't want to take responsibility for the damage they've caused when the end result is less than perfect. They should treat us like an auto mechanic. Tell us the problem you're having. Go away and leave us to do our job and then pay us, drive away, and don't call us again until you're next problem along the road.

  43. Mark Fresh says:

    first line in the first observation:
    "I can appreciate your looking.." it should be "I can appreciate you're looking.."

    a picky client's first impression would be that you haven't read your copy properly, therefore you're not thorough.

  44. Touché Mark; you have me there. ;-)

  45. Paul Hughes says:

    I think you and most of the other commenters have forgotten the t primary rules for success in any business.

    1. The customer is ALWAYS right.

    2. I you don't think so, see rule # 1.

    Your suggestions, while well said, convey the arrogance of an expert deigning to help. That attitude, no matter how subtle, is deadly in a service industry.

    Your livlihood depends upon satisfied customers.

  46. dingdong says:

    To Bunny chow
    Yeah, its a nasty one. When I was first starting out I had a client who didnt know what they wanted, they explained this job to me, I did it. I showed it to them. They kept asking for changes, this went on and on until eventually they sent me directly to their client, who said None of this is want we what we want! And I started again.

    Meanwhile I keep contacting the original client saying 'This is starting to get expensive, Im charging hourly and its a really small job, and i kept getting "yeah thats fine" so eventually a girl in the office does a drawing the client liked. Fine my ego can cope with that, I sent in my invoice which was ignored. I make phone calls that are ignored. months later I get a meeting with the accountant who tells me they dont owe me anything because they didnt use my work. But out of the goodness of their hearts they offer me 20 bucks. for $1000 worth of my time. (Not even cash they still wanted me to invoice for it) I never invoiced them for that 20 bucks. They gave me a $1000 lesson in trusting my intuition. Once a client goes over a certain amount of changes I drop the job like a plate of vomit.

    Thankfully Ive only ever encountered this once since then, but that guy was paying me weekly, and really well, so it wasnt a probelem.

    And to Chris
    No one here is complaining about intelligent well reasoned editorial feedback. These tips are all geared towards those few horror clients that all freelancers run in to throughout their careers. All the best editors Ive worked with are open to the idea of two way discussion. And when Ive made my point to an editor and they say 'fine but I think my ways best" I default to what the client asks. But If I made a point to an editor who said "what planet are you from!? dont deflect me!" I wouldnt have any interest in working with them again.

  47. Hi Paul,

    Although many share your opinion, I feel it's an irresponsible one. In my mind, it's symptomatic of a myopic perspective that results in ineffective work, which ultimately hurts the client. Real customer service isn't about ass-kissing or acquiescing on all points.

    We must strive to provide value for our clients and sincerely care about their needs. (It seems that people who solve problems are rare, but those who blindly say "yes" are hardly ever in short supply.)

    Your argument could lead one to believe that you don't really care about what's in your clients' best interest. For some additional thoughts on this perspective, take a look here:



  48. I love this. it gives me talking points with my clients. :O) ophelia

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  50. Mr Fnortner says:

    Paul Hughes nails it. Customers don't want experts. They want results; they want their stuff. Arrogant, creative types, whether in the architecture, print, engineering, fashion, or systems (or whatever) world who patronize will ultimately lose. Those who congratulate our author don't get it either, and have just been lying in wait for someone to launch a session of customer bashing. When a customer offers one of the ten deadly complaints, it's a screaming banshee alert that it's time for the expert to LISTEN and CORRECT--something heretofore obviously not done.

  51. Mr Fnortner says:

    Paul Hughes nails it. Customers don't want experts. They want results; they want their stuff. Arrogant, creative types, whether in the architecture, print, engineering, fashion, or systems (or whatever) world who patronize will ultimately lose. Those who congratulate our author don't get it either, and have just been lying in wait for someone to launch a session of customer bashing. When a customer offers one of the ten deadly complaints, it's a screaming banshee alert that it's time for the expert to LISTEN and CORRECT, something heretofore obviously not done.

  52. Ravi Vora says:

    Oh this is killer. I love it!

    I usually sit there and fume and try to convince them with less tactful language, but this is a great learning tool!

  53. Suffian says:

    I like this article. =)

    I think the point of this isn't client-bashing, rather, it's how to communicate your concerns to the client in a more agreeable way, instead of just saying 'No!' and drowning them in technical or creative details. It's true that the customer is always right, but when it comes to the Web, in the long run, it's also true that it's better to gradually educate your clients about possibilities rather than simply agreeing to any old crap they say.

    I've helped sell ideas to clients who wouldn't dream of such things in a million years. An online contest based on 'tags' for the launch of a new BMW? Done. A blog-driven 'alternate reality' campaign for the new MINI? Done. A user-generated online contest for a new KFC burger? Done, done, done.

    It's up to you, as the agency or creative, to constantly push your clients to open up to new ideas. If you don't, then you're just going to end up building grandiose, bandwidth-stealing, slow-loading and temporary websites with no clear consideration for navigation, usability or accessibility.

    It's an uphill battle, but at the end of the day, it's your choice. It's either 'Same Shit, Different Day' or 'Let's try something new this week!'.

    Your pick, dude.

  54. raintree says:

    To be honest, a lot of these responses would be ok if they didn't use such grandiloquent language. "Crystallize the concerns in a fashion that will help us respond best", "extrapolate what points felt good", "learn what sensations you’d like to elicit on behalf of your audience", please...

    Good call on the text size response, though.

  55. Sam says:

    Firstly, sometimes arrogance/ego/confidence help to sell a good idea. That doesn't mean I'm totally in favour of it, or that it's necessary.
    Secondly, how you work with your client in the initial stages can help mitigate these stresses as you get further down the line. For example discussing ideas fully at length, asking lots of questions, ensuring you have a mutual understanding of the problem you are dealing with and of the proposed solution.

    I agree that the customer is always right - but it's the client's customers, we should have in mind when we say this, not the client.

  56. rick fox says:

    I'm getting tired of all the tiptoeing that seems to be the norm these days in these kids of relationships. The main problem I have with your advice is that you are essentially finding ways to obscure the simplicity of the issue, which is that you are the designer, and the client hired you to do that part of the work. When they start mucking it up, you don't want them to. I know you want to express that it's about more than that, but it really boils down to your opinion/expertise over theirs, and wanting less interference from people who don't know what they are talking about.

    I miss the days when clients expected the creatives to get pissed off and negotiate things that way through their ego and attitude. I think the client SHOULD feel some fear when they are asking for something makes them think before they talk. Having to adopt a bunch of boilerplate conflict resolution/negotiation tactics and disingenuous platitudes seems like a less glamorous approach to me. Believe me I understand the practicality of your approach, the customer is always right, nothing's really changed, I just see one way as treating the creative as a "unique personality" and the other way is treating the creative like just another suit at the table. You may not see the value in hotheaded discourse, but I respectfully disagree. I just feel like the "new way" of selling creative these days is more BS than truth, I hope/think there are still some clients out there who don't mind a little rough play.

  57. Hi all,

    First off, I'd like to thank all of you who have shared their thoughts and opinions over the past few days. This discussion has proven to be far livelier than I had anticipated.

    In reading some of your responses, I realize that my writing style may have compromised my intended message. As such I'd like to take a moment to address this point.

    You see, I didn't intend this piece to be a client-bashing exercise, nor, a collection of ways to ostracize those we work with. Those who know me would attest that I'm not particularly arrogant, and I certainly don't suggest being so in one's practice. In fact, for those who haven't already read it, the precursor to this post may shed some light on this:

    That being said, I certainly am a novice writer, and perhaps this weakness has colored my post in a fashion that wasn’t intended. Please do your best to look past this shortcoming; I find that tone is difficult to convey in written communication, and I clearly missed the mark if some found an undercurrent of antagonism here.

    What I do, however, feel is very important to this discussion is the notion of working with clients and finding ways to create resolve. When generating new ideas, it's sometimes hard to get everyone on the same page, and that's what these approaches are intended to achieve.

    The reality is that many great ideas require struggle to get off the ground as people just don't know how to take them. (Just think of the Aeron chair.)

    The points above aren’t intended as hollow patronizing responses; instead, I suggest following through on them. For example, if a client wants to consider a neighbor’s opinion, that's fine, but then, let's make sure they understand exactly what we're trying to achieve.

    Why not ask them in for a quick meeting? It's a great way to swap ideas, and see if the approach holds water when examined with a more complete understanding of the design challenge.

    Raintree, you make a good point. These responses should be bent to one's circumstances and personality. I use words like "crystallize", but that's how I naturally speak. You, of course, should phrase these however comes naturally to you.

    Again, thanks all for the well considered arguments. It’s fun to be part of a discussion like this. :-)



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  60. Alexandra says:

    This is great - the answers are actully very eloquently answered and slightly sarcastic too (or did I just imagine that?). Anyway, the point "I know what I want when I see it is soooooo relevent. What are some more qualiftying questions to ask the client?

  61. Hi Alexandra,

    I believe a number of people felt the responses had a bit of a sarcastic bent, but there really shouldn't be. I intended these to be exactly as they read: very straight-forward, and intended to elicit discussion and ultimately a mutual understanding.

    Thanks for visiting!


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  63. Guy McLaren says:

    I have a few rules. The customer and I look at the customers corporate Id and I stick to that, no questions asked.

    two, I don't start anything untill 50% of the estimated amount is in my bank account.

    Changes to the specification are billable.

    I quote for time allowed, excess is billable.

    The client can make any changes he likes. its simple the more changes the more he pays.

  64. German Village says:

    Excellent article. I have clients that fit those questions and descriptions perfectly. I even had one client ask me if I could find a online tool so she could track the project better. I signed up at, gave her access and now she's very happy for a change. Clients can be demanding, but that's the nature of the business.

  65. Yann says:

    Good post!

    I can see why some people would find the language condescending, I would probably not be so verbose myself in the same situation. But the essence is spot on.

    I feel bad for the clients of those on here who think that "the client is always right." it's your job as a designer to balance what your clients want and what they need, which often enough not the same thing... and in my field (web design) I constantly have to explain how and why a certain design decision or structural change will improve usability which ultimately benefits their business. You obviously know more than your clients on the subject and that's your job to educate them enough so that they can take advantage of what you bring to the table. If you just agree to everything they say and take the money, you're not doing your job and most likely you won't gain any respect from your client. In my experience, clients appreciate the fact that I'm opinionated and I can back up my decisions with the thinking that went into them. It does not mean that you shouldn't be flexible and should not listen to comments. Some clients have more difficulties than others with abstract stuff like site maps and wireframes, some others approve the creative brief without reading it even though you warned them it was a very important document and explained the implications... It doesn't mean they're stupid or don't respect you. They just have different priorities. As a designer, I believe it's part of my job to understand that and meet every unexpected legitimate requests as a new creative challenge. You don't always have complete control over all the variables though... and those won't work in all situations.

    By far the best advice in the whole post is to present your comps instead of throwing them at your clients without any explanation. I would recommend to try to get a 30 mn appointment with all key players to present your designs in person. If you sell your concept in person, you'll dramatically reduce chances for these kinds of client's comments.

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  70. octavian says:

    very usefull article.

  71. siggy+spain says:

    even though i am not that involved with WORK anymore, i am very impressed with the HELPFUL HINTS in this article, aimed at anyone that has to get up close and personal with anyone, including clients. i suppose everyone will use his\her own words in formulating a response to the next question aimed at them and these hints will certainly help to keep the discussions from overheating and at the same time get a result to please all involved!!!!

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  73. Chris Coyier says:

    Fantastic article. It's so easy just to either just give in all all your clients stupid ideas and ruin the project or say no and tick them off. The best approach is to stick to your guns and explain why things are they way they are and only incorporate their random thoughts if it makes sense.

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  75. bernie says:

    These are absolutely fantastic. Well done you!

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  79. DavidW says:

    I loved the piece, and I've had reactions comparable to all of those you listed. An excellent summary of the feedback that certain kinds of clienrt are wont to produce, and hillarious with it.

    The designer’s instinctive reaction (well, mine, at any rate), is often to wonder whether the client would be so forthcoming with advice for their brain surgeon. And some clients do just like to see their paw-marks on the work; the only way to please those is to give them a paint pot, and wear protective clothing. Most often, though, these kinds of suggestions come from a client who is unconfident and, though it pains me to think it, it means that I haven’t instilled sufficient confidence in them for the work. The solution is usually to allow the client more access to the process – using early planning meetings to nail the objectives, and being fairly open about the creative tools and techniques.

    Chris’s response (way back there); someone who understands design the way that he seems to is unlikely to say; ‘how about beige?’ AFTER a workable presentation. If beige important to Chris, I think he would have written it into the brief, and he doesn’t sound like somebody who will throw random ideas in at innapropriate stages – or ask the advice of his neighbours without a fairly good reason.

    The bottom line, though, IS, “the customer is always right,” and an equally old adege in sales is, "win the argument; lose a sale." The important question to keep in mind is; 'do I want this client?' and be guided by the answer.

  80. Mr Fnortner says:

    Having read through all these posts, and Eric K's responses to them, I now have a more developed understanding of his perspective on applying design expertise in client sessions. Still, however, it's not obvious that our author is clearly on the side of artisan versus artist. We, all of us who are not starving for our art, produce works for hire. Graphic artist or architect, aircraft engineer or data analyst, package designer or landscaper, photographer or fashion designer, we all work not for ourselves but for someone else that we must make happy.

    The only one in the transaction who will know when the customer is truly happy is the customer. The trick for us is to listen with as many ears as we can possibly bring to the engagement, ask as many intelligent questions as will elicit the customer's wants and needs, and apply our skills in a way that will reflect the customer's desires.

    A terrifically instructive show on cable is HGTV's Designer's Challenge. Here, homeowners present a design problem to three design teams who go off and prepare presentations. The homeowners and audience sit through the three presentations and the homeowners pick a winner. The second half of the show shows the execution of the winning design. But the revelation of the winner is almost always accompanied by some statement from the homeowners that "they really listened to what we wanted," or "they really captured what we were saying." I think this is the whole point of my position.

    For the thirty years before I retired I developed computer systems, or managed teams that did so. One of the best compliments our guys ever received was simply, "I didn't think you could do that," referring to a seemingly impossible automation task. I attribute our success to careful listening. More than once it let us and the customer change the landscape of the solution together. On many occasions it allowed our teams to pose the question, "so if we were able to do this and this for you, would that work--would you be satisfied?"

    We learned to listen and propose, listen again and propose again, throughout the entire life cycle of the design. And it is very true that seeing a design will cause the customer to change all his ideas about the problem and the design. Consider each design to be another part of the problem--a feedback loop into the next version of the design.

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  82. Kramer says:

    I agree if you read these comments you might find them a little pushy, but the thought and voice behind them is still good. Nice job Eric.

    To those who foolishly claim the customer is always right: Why would you hire a designer/firm/agency, pay them thousands or even more to do your ad/design/web work, and then tell them exactly what you want, possibly at the expense of your biz no less? The whole point of hiring these folks is to lean on their expert knowledge of these fields. They SHOULD (and I say this because most are not that good) know what's old hat, what's bad navigation, what's original, what is appropriate for your brand, etc. What I like about this article is that it addresses common issues that normally don't help the design process at all. Things like copy cat designs of other sites? It’s illegal and if they sell cars and you sell books, it makes little sense to reference them anyway... Or WHY use the guy's logo in accounting if they hired you to do it? Addressing issues like these don't make you an arrogant creative, it means your trying to earn your keep for them. That being said, the designer/writer etc. should also have the guts to admit when they have missed the mark. If you used Comic Sans or Dom Casual in the headline you deserve to have your butt handed to you. This is why creative briefs and documents like them are so important. You get on the same page from the start. A good brief states things like audience, competition, tone of the piece, etc.

    If I tell a painter to come paint my house and then stand under him telling him how to hold the brush for 4 hours, I might as well do it myself. Why pay someone else to come in and do it? Because they usually know what they are doing, and they make my life easier. Same for using a designer. Let them help you. It’s a partnership.

  83. Bunny Chow says:

    I disagree with Paul Hughes:

    The customer may always be right, but the client is always WRONG. The fallacy exists that the client is also the customer: the difference is, a customer is someone who buys a product, already existing. In that sense, he agrees that he likes what he sees, and then decides to buy it. A client, on the other hand, admits that he needs professional help, say to create a Corporate ID for his company. For this, he needs a designer, who is a professional in aesthetics, typefaces, perspective, colour etc.

    Just because the designer shows the designs to the client, does not mean the designer admits to something like "we have come up with this, but now we are stuck, so please mister client, since you are paying for this job, we realise you have gained a miraculous design sensibility and are now equipped to tell us how to proceed, since we don't know anymore".

    Because the client pays the designer, he is often fooled into believing his opinion should matter when it comes to messing with a well-balanced and conceptualised logo for instance.

    If nothing works, the clients sometimes even resorts to "we all here agree that..." as if one can VOTE whether something is well-designed or not. Just because the majority of players at the clients company (who are almost never designers and who have no design sensibility) voted on some stupid decision, doesn't mean it is right or will make the logo better.

    If the client lets the designer do his job, he'll get a much better logo out of the process, but because most clients feel paying for something gives them the knowledge to crit something, they will always get a shitty product, and then blame the designer if it doesn't work in the long run.

    I say, 9 times out of 10, THE CLIENT IS ALWAYS WRONG.

  84. Paul says:

    Great article. I really enjoyed these, and even though we've only been running for just under a year, some of these types of questions seem to pop up quite often.

    Thanks very much for the insite.

  85. Beejamin says:

    Spot on in your first sentence Bunny Chow - the client isn't the customer - in most cases, the client's clients are the customer that you need to make happy.

    The client is happy when *his* customers are happy - which means his customers are paying. If you follow the 'client is always right' rule and end up with an inferior solution, those customers pay less, your client ends up dissatisfied in the long run, and as a designer, you fail.

  86. MJ says:

    I get the one about text sizes a lot, that and logos. The logo can never be big enough for some clients and it can be maddening to say the least.

    These are often the same people that like to write emails and messages in all-caps. They are determined that people notice them no matter how foolish and low-class it makes them appear.

    I've been tempted to create a number of side-by-side images comparing high-end brands with tiny logos to used car lots and "crazy sale" furniture stores that deploy 9000pt all cap logos outside their stores to ask "Which one do you really want to be?"

    If your client responds "Crazy Guy". Fire them on the spot.

  87. Curtis says:

    Fantastic Read!!!

  88. aj says:

    Every single one of these questions has been posed to me at one point or another! I agree that diplomacy is absolutely key to dealing with them. I've found that it's best to indicate that you hear what they're saying, and then offer a better solution.

    That doesn't mean that you want to run away screaming whenever you hear these, however!

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  91. Mr Fnortner says:

    If you are in this game for anybody but the customer, you will fail--maybe not dramatically or all at once, but perhaps by degrees. The winners are those who understand who pays the bills, who makes it possible for us to buy our shoes, feed our children, own our condos, travel the world, fulfill our dreams.

    The one who makes the cash register ring is the one who controls our universe. Our job is the care and feeding of the customer so the customer will take care of and feed us. Any other interpretation of this relationship will be fatal.

    In the grand scheme, it matters not that your product is not the best it could be, that the design is less than optimum, that the result is not state of the art, that imagined colleagues would sneer. What matters is that the customer is happy to pay you what you think you are worth.

    Your energies are best spent on quickly coming to an understanding of what the customer truly wants and how to make that happen. No time should be wasted on wrangling with the customer about expertise, superior solutions, credentials, interference, or whatnot. Neither should you spend any effort on solutions that *you* want or that would make *you* happy. At the end of the engagement take the commission, get another engagement from your happy customer if you can, get referrals to other customers, and go on about your life.

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  95. Wow. Deja Vu. The author here clearly has had a lot of experience and has seen it all. I can't believe how well you articulated answers to some of the most frustrating comments I've heard over the years. This one goes in the delicious archive for reference, so please don't move it - I'll be returning later to read your answer word-for-word over the telephone - and I'll be lost and speechless (as usual) if you've deleted this.

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  97. EXCELLENT! You manage in every example not to insult, sell your work and satisfy needs. Perfect wording!

  98. Robert says:

    Nice and funny post - but I've founded that people who ask those kinds of questions don't really pay attention to your arguments. Some people simply won't listen - and all you could is make the project as they want it (to earn money for living and forget about that right away) or don't work for them (I would choose that). Cheers:)

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  101. Pelayo says:

    I liked so that I translated it to spanish on my blog.
    Good post!

  102. Mindy S. says:

    I haven't enjoyed a thread *anywhere* as much as I have enjoyed this one. Thank you for this wonderful blog and the articulate contributors who made it such a joy to read. I don't know how it is possible, but I agreed with every point of view expressed to a large degree, because they were all valid and all had truth to them. The customer is always right may be the healthiest way to conduct a business, but I think it would end up killing me if I operated under that philosophy. It's not for everyone, folks.

    For me, it comes down to mental health. That my sound histrionic, but I am quite serious. Clients who tell me "I'll know it when I see it" or clients like the nightmare-bread-slicing-website-admirer make my stomach roil and odds are I cannot do a good job for them. It's either six bottles of Valium, insane rants directed at my long-suffering husband, or walking away. No paper from someone's checkbook is worth that to me.

    I don't think anybody mentioned the psychological impact to the designer of working with a client who insists on having everything done their way, even when their ideas are absolutely ludicrous, destructive to their own business and even puerile. Not to mention the abusers who will make the most petty little excruciating, time-consuming changes--just because they *can*--or the ones who hired you because you were "the most creative" yet they want the equivalent of Wonder Bread and baloney when it comes down to their design preference. And let's not even get into the clients who said they showed your design to their plumber brother-in-law who said the green was too pale, so could I change it to fuschia?

    Somebody said something I have been saying for years: you don't go to a doctor, say, "this is exactly what is wrong with me and this is what you should prescribe." I am grateful that my husband and I pay my mortgage through the sales of art on tile (glass, stone, ceramic) and no longer my web design. Because if I was forced to take every project that came my way, as I used to do, I'd end up in New York City's Gracie Square.

    Thank you again for such a lively, thought provoking thread. You guys are just the greatest.


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  107. Wayne says:

    hey, i like your layout, can i copy it ;-)

    Only joking, but great article. Have had many clients ask me to copy a site or one in my portfolio and always politely tell them no. It's not hard, but soemtimes they just ask because they think it will be cheaper that way.....

  108. squid says:

    witty+intelligent perspective on retaining one's dignity in design :>

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  110. Tamara says:

    This is a GREAT article! It's the kind of essay that you can take seriously while still smiling at the light touch of gentle humor. The tone was just perfect.

    Two cent addition, I couldn't resist: "We don't really know, so we leave it up to you to decide." A killer, and one to watch out for with really nice people who don't want to impose at the beginning...until they see the first iteration. As a freelancer, I got nailed on this one a lot in the beginning. As Mindy said above, it's a matter of mental health. You really do not want to have to constantly "floss your mind."

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  112. Michael says:

    This is great guys thanks so much!

  113. Joe Teixido says:


    Been there, done that... hope I had reat this before thou... ;)

    I probably should have some flashcards printed with these and hand'em to my coworkers.

    BTW, loved the writing style, funny yet true to life. Keep it up!

  114. Joel says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write down and submit for public scrutiny your insights into client diplomacy. The client is carefully directed back to reviewing the scope of the project and the all important contract. They are not told "no" outright, and that options can be further explored, but they will be billed accordingly.

    I see two schools of thought in our industry and I am not saying either one is right, just an observation. (both make money)

    1) The Client is king and we serve them as glorified production artists. i.e.-we channel their vision directly without injecting our input.

    2) We are a professional service and can elevate your business through effective visual communication. We internalize the clients wants and needs and then present a vision based on our expertise and experience.

    If school 1 works for you, great. Do it and bill.

    If school 2 is your path then get ready to learn. Learn about your craft, its history, networking, understanding personality types, diplomacy, effective communication and most of all business. Live it and bill.

    This article is for school 2.

    P.S.- don't work for "SPEC". What perceived value do you create for the future if you provide services for free? Why handicap yourself before you are even at the negotiating table? If you want a portfolio piece or potential lead, then you are better off donating your time for a charitable organization. -Just my $.02

  115. I subscribe to most of the points but sometimes you don't have a choice but to give in to the client

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  120. bozo says:

    If someone working for me said this stuff, I would fire them.

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  123. whiskey says:

    I've been there... and tried to address not too differently those issues as they arose.

    My advice to you is this: "Keep it short and simple, with q&a later". Why? Because most gigs require you to communicate with a client that does not understand what you say... at all.

    "You asked us for this and that, and we delivered this and that". Then this 10 things will come up (some will and some won't) in the q&a.

    Oh, yes, and leave a paper (eeerrr... email) trail... You do not want your client telling you "no i don't remember discussing this with you".

  124. lu-cee says:

    Great article and and great comments too - 10 of the most common ones - I will be writing down my own responses in my own words using yours as a guideline. Thanks!

    We have customers that as soon as they leave the first brief meeting we all say in unison..."I don't know what I like but I know what I don't like".

    I'm currently reading Call To Action by the Eisenberg brothers and recently I've been trialling a new response that I'd like to share that so far is having the desired effect.

    "Remembering that at the end of the day I'm not actually designing for you. I am designing for your customers. You of course know how to market and sell your products/services better than me, but not always how to buy them. I believe my job is to use my skills and experience to assist your buyers to choose you over your opposition.
    (next is when the focus changes OFF them and their likes/dislikes.... and you get the REAL brief)

    "Please give me 3-4 Personas of your typical clients of yours and I'd like to show you what your buyer's would like.'

  125. Dave says:

    A lot hinges on a upfront contract. Is there a reference on where I can get contact wording for designers and illustrators?

  126. Hi Dave,

    The AIGA has that sort of information available to members. Find them here:



  127. Jim Mollica says:

    3 things I try not to do:

    1. Allow client to choose from 3 concepts (become Creative Director)
    2. Allow client to make aesthetic decisions (become Art Director)
    3. Allow client's colleague to offer layouts (become Designer)

    Thanks Eric, this will help in trying times.

  128. Great article and how right you are! I have faced this kind of clients a lot of times!`

  129. Simon James says:

    Brilliant, very nice post indeed. AND some really interesting comments. I think I have nearly heard all of these over the years . I believe that it’s very important to remember that the client is King and without them there would be no business! When observations and requests are made like from clients it can usually indicates that we as designers and managers need to be more systematic in our approach to our processes.

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  132. Jacob Cass says:

    This is a really useful and original article. Thanks :D

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  134. Zana says:

    These are one of the articles that we really need. Often times, we are presented with one-sided articles of how to please our clients and stuffs like that. Thank you for sharing.

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  137. These are great responses. I'm going to print these out and train my staff to refer to them when dealing with clients in these circumstances. This is great valuable resources. Thanks very much.

  138. sesli sohbet says:

    These are one of the articles that we really need. Often times, we are presented with one-sided articles of how to please our clients and stuffs like that. Thank you for sharing.

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  141. Ejly says:

    Thanks for the practical advice on handling impractical suggestions. I especially like your point in the penultimate paragraph; engaging the client during the design process is important for making sure you've addressed all the items you need to in the design.

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  146. Sally says:

    Great article and I agree, educating the client as part of the process goes a long way to helping them understand why the design solution that you are presenting is actually good.

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  150. I generally agree with the article and the comments left here, but the "customer is always right" comments are rather infuriating and in my estimation, not reflective of someone who is actually in the trenches doing this kind of work.

    It is certainly healthy to let the customer control the general direction of what's happening with their site (with some occasional exceptions -- some customers are truly "out there"), but if they want to actually design the site, perhaps they should learn how to do it themselves. After all, do we let the car driver do the engineering on the car? Of course not. They decide the general features they like and how it looks and feels, but they don't decide how it's put together. Ever.

    An assumption made by the "customer is always right" people is that we freelance webheads _have_ to do anything. No we don't. And we don't have to make all possible money by letting our designs be controlled by clients who don't know the first thing about design. Many of us would rather make less money and keep our sanity, thank you.

    In the final analysis, it is reputation that sells our work through word-of-mouth. If all we did was continuously bow to the direct control of clients, we would end up with a body of work that un-sells us. Sorry, no way.

  151. Haha! Fantastic piece, I know Ive had to deal with people like this regularly

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  153. PhotoshopWarrior says:

    Nice read, Thanks for the post

  154. Nathan says:

    "I’ll know what I like when I see it." clients are soooo hard to deal with!

  155. I think you may have missed the point of the article, and I'd ask you to perhaps reconsider your stance.

    Some client engagements are difficult. This is due to the comfort level of the purchaser, the ambiguity of the projects we take on, and the capability/approach of the designer. While these situations can be tricky, we shouldn't lay blame on the client: they're the ones who foot the bill, and live with the solutions we create. They aren't trying to make designers' lives difficult; they're mostly just concerned with whether they're making the right decision.

    This post was intended to provide means of getting around potential obstacles, not as client-bashing.

  156. Sara Malik says:

    Good strategies however works only if you're small-mid size digital agency.

    We are a large offshore development/outsourcing company delivering anywhere in between 40-60 projects per day with most of the business being B2B. So what we have realized is to, without arguing, comply with the client's request. Client getting feedback from his client and then taking feedback from us back to his client, usually delays the projects on an aggregate or an unsatisfied client.

    I think the best way to go would be get your Project Coordinator to clarify each and every aspect from design to features and functionality and have everything in black & white (in writing) before you start the project. Offer unlimited changes during the mock-up design phase though, if you can ie.

    Even though it doesn't discourage the client to ask for changes, at least it keeps the changes within reason.

    We like perfectionist clients and without a doubt they add value to your teams but then again there are the "Chronic Hissy Fits" kinds. We've learned to identify them and refuse work from the very outset even if their offers too good to be true.

  157. Kerry says:

    Interesting read it sure gives you a lot to think about!

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