5 Ways to Deal with Difficult Clients


Most independent web workers have had the experience of trying to work with a difficult client. Perhaps they insist on nitpicking graphics and wording on web pages that they’ve been clearly told are not final. Perhaps they try to dictate which tools you use, or (worse), that you partner with their kid brother “who really needs the experience.” Perhaps they pay their bills late, or call with their latest brainstorm at 3AM. Perhaps they keep adding new requirements to your carefully-scheduled work.

If you haven’t been faced with any of these situations, consider yourself lucky. But if you’re currently in this boat, or worried that you might find yourself there in the future, you have to deal with it. While in extreme cases you might find yourself firing clients, that’s a dangerous thing to do in today’s economy. Here are some strategies that can help you make the best of a difficult client.

1. Always work with a contract. This is one of the very good reasons that you want to have a lawyer in your corner: not so you can sue people, but so you can start any job with a contract that clearly lays out what work is involved. If you and the customer haven’t agreed on what work you’re going to do, it’s very hard to push back on requests that you think are out of scope and they think are reasonable.

2. Avoid fixed cost work. I’m sure there are some web workers out there happily making a living off of fixed cost work – but that has not been my experience, or that of many other developers and designers that I know. Demanding customers and scope creep seem to go along with agreeing to deliver something for one flat fee. If you absolutely must bid fixed cost on a large job, try to structure it with escape points: $X for problem analysis and design, to be followed by a fresh contract for implementation, for example.

3. Keep communicating. Don’t assume that the customer realizes that they’re a nuisance. Sometimes a well-placed email can work wonders: “Let me assure you that I’ll address all of your concerns. Please remember that you hired me because of my experience in this field, and I’ve come up with a process that works over the years.” Alternatively, you may need to be a bit tougher, and remind the customer of things that they already agreed to.

4. Offer additional service for additional pay. Often “difficult” is just a mismatch between expectations. If the customer wants 24/7 support, and you prefer to get some sleep, it’s time to negotiate: “I’ll be happy to extend our engagement to provide you with the support you want. The additional fee for this will be $X.” Make sure you set the rate high enough that you’ll be happy with the result if the client doesn’t back off.

5. Be ruthless about getting paid. We’ve covered the basics of invoicing, and ways to remind customers about late invoices, in the past. I’ve found that it can be helpful to put more than ordinary effort into getting paid with problem clients. This may not make them less of a problem, but having the money come in can make things more bearable.

What tips do you have for dealing with problem customers?



The principal benefit of sticking to T&M is that most devs’ billables consist of labor, and hours worked is a hard metric to argue.

At the end of the day, a haggling account is a haggling account. The difference is that when you have a document to which both parties have agreed, and it states the terms of payment, clients inclined to haggle have less leverage.

I usually resolve the issue by reviewing invoices with clients before they’re officially sent – I know where I’ve screwed up and taken too long to do something, and underbill accordingly. I’ve never actually had to haggle over line items on an invoice.

The best part of T&M is that when you set a budget, you have a target you can beat… and a mechanism by which client contacts can be held accountable for their refusal to come to final decisions. This differing dynamic makes life a lot easier when it’s time to tell a client to fish-or-cut-bait.

Avonelle Lovhaug

I’m not sure how avoiding fixed cost work will help web workers deal with difficult customers. In my experience, customers are difficult regardless of whether you are dealing with fixed fee or hourly pricing. In fact, I have seen difficult customers nitpick every minute when being billed on the basis of time (“Why did that take you 2 hours? It should have only taken you ten minutes!”, etc.) Ugh.

I do only fixed bid work and am very happy. I do break things down as you described, although I don’t think of it as “escape points”. But I don’t provide a fixed bid for development work until I’m fairly confident I know what it will contain (i.e. I’ve have a design or something else that helps me to size it appropriately). But I agree that those “escape points” are good – for both me and the customer. If they aren’t comfortable working with me, they can always take the design to someone else to code.

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