Why is your client acting like a shithead?

More often than not, it’s our own fault. At least in the sense that we can fix it, therefore we can take responsibility.

Very, very few people are naturally painful. They don’t go home and tell their kids exactly how to play with their toys, tell their partners that they are taking too long to do whatever or that their dinner guests need to move their plates a little to the left and down an inch.

(Alright, so there might be some people like this, but they really are shitheads and there isn’t much we can do about that.)

They’re nice people, just getting through the day, trying to get their work done. They have a boss they work for, a family they love, a book they cry at and a movie they laugh through. They have their own stresses and worries and don’t want us to add to them.

They’re normal. I know, I know, a whacky thought. But they’re human and nothing more nor less.

So why is it that they treat us so poorly? What did we do to insult them? Why do they ridicule us and force us to think unnatural thoughts involving the tearing of flesh from limbs by the teeth of angered hounds?

I’m thinking it happens when we don’t talk to them.

I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve had from clients is when we’ve spoken a great deal from the very beginning. Not just about the job but about anything that comes up — it helps develop a relationship and a better understanding of how they describe things, what their nuances with the English language mean and what they’re really hoping to get out of the job.

Children throw tantrums when they’re confused and out of place. Their mind doesn’t know how to handle all the new, unexpected stimuli so they just go nuts. Or they are just shitheads (not your kids, your kids are awesome).

But when they know what to expect and know they can trust you, then they’re happy little campers that are good for a laugh and great for a cuddle.

Clients are the same. (The real good ones might give you a cuddle, but be careful about how you go about it, lest you enjoy explaining to your spouse why there’s yet another HR meeting about some ‘sexual harassment thing’.)

Backing away from that tangent, back to talking to the client.

First — explain the process and desired result.

Let them know what to expect from you and what you expect from them.

Get them to open right up about what they hope the job will achieve, who the audience is, what you can and can’t do, the language the audience enjoys best (visual and written), what’s been done before, what hasn’t been done before and all those other things that are standard questions. It’s the most obvious thing to do, so it’s amazing how often this step is skipped.

Don’t assume they know anything
about your process

Tell them how you want the content (Word document, edited, approved, edited again and finalised) and how you don’t want it (in several emails, unfinished, unapproved by their boss and full of text in red that says “is this right? that’s kind of racist/sexists/idiotic/I don’t get it”).

Explain how you work when it comes to proofs, changes, finals, pricing, billing and so on. Don’t assume they know anything about your process unless you’ve been working together for a while.

Again, all basic stuff, but it’s wildly important that it’s explained to every single new client. Just because you’ve said it a million times doesn’t mean they’ve heard it once.

Second —  be devastatingly honest.

One of my favourite clients to work with is one to whom I once very bluntly said “No, not going to do that” when she made a request I didn’t agree with. Sounding shocked and hurt, her response was ” … why not?” to which I gave a proper, considered, educated response. “Oh, that makes sense.”

I’ve earned her trust

And what’s happened since? No more silly requests or, often better, the wonderful “what do you think?”.

Because of this, I will often make an aesthetic decision I’m not thrilled with but she is, just because she has earned it. It sounds condescending, but I’m in the exact same boat. I’ve earned her trust, so she does the same with me because we trust in one another’s honesty and knowledge.

Third — r-e-s-p-e-c-t

Pay them respect first, even if they don’t reciprocate.

There is a reasonable chance that the client might start the process of working with you with their back up and muscles tightened. They might not trust the process, they might have been burned before or they might not really see the benefit.

take their work seriously, their input seriously,
their concerns and thoughts seriously

In spite of this, be respectful.

This doesn’t mean say thank you and please and all those things you’d probably be doing anyway.

It means take their work seriously, their input seriously, their concerns and thoughts seriously. Don’t fob anything off. Explain when you don’t do something they ask for and when you do something they didn’t.

Above all, do good work. Do work to the best of your ability with your knowledge and your client’s message in mind at all times.

Fourth — ask, and answer, “Why?”

I’ve written about this before so I’ll keep this one brief.

If they want something and you don’t understand why they want it, then ask about it.

… your questioning should raise a flag

This is a great trick as it does a few things to improve the relationship you have with your client.

It shows that you’re paying attention and want to understand where they are coming from and where they hope to be. And even better — it shows that you want to help them get there as smoothly as possible.

If you’re asking why, it means that it might not be worth doing, and you’re the professional, so your questioning should raise a flag.

It also means they have to justify their reasoning, meaning that you’ll be getting into their head a little bit and understanding how they think (very handy). It also means if they can’t justify it, you can probably talk them out of it.

Even more importantly, be prepared to do the same when your client asks.

I said earlier that a lot of the tension that builds up in the client/designer relationship stems from misunderstanding or a lack of information. This is true of the designer as much as the client.

We must be able to give reason as to why we’ve done what we’ve done — why this colour, this shape, this typeface, this image—and how it works as part of a larger machine that the you’ve built into the design.

Just people

I’m sure there are many more things that can be done to improve the designer-client relationship, so I’d love to hear your ideas.

These are just few things that have worked for me, in my experience.

Clients are people, who probably have a head full of stress and a heart full of worry. Help them get past all this and earn their respect — just because they’re paying us doesn’t mean they trust us.

And once they trust us, they won’t be the shitheads we all loathe.


Also worth another mention is that, yeah, some people are just grumpy moles.

They have a little bit of power and they love to abuse it, they have the bosses ear and love to whisper sweet nothings or they just don’t know how to deal with people. These are the true shitheads to whom you simply smile, nod and try to avoid working with – their dollars don’t shine brightly enough to ignore who they are.