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When Clients Mess Things Up

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What do you do when a client ruins something you’ve created for them? Anyone in a service business knows that you can’t protect the assets you develop for a client from the client themselves. You can’t defend the work you did for them when it no longer resembles the actual work you did.

Maybe you’ve built a website that the client decides to modify with no regard for best practices or usability. Or you’ve set up and managed their Facebook or Twitter channels, building the conversations and exchanges to a fever pitch, only to watch their updates and tweets generate crickets. All your hard work — on the client’s behalf, of course — disintegrates before your eyes.

What do you do when you’ve handed over the assets that your client has paid for, and they proceed to muck things up? Here are some tactics to temper the pain:

  1. Take out the emotion. Anyone good — developer or creator — infuses passion into their work as well as blood, sweat and tears. But when your contract is over, you have to cut emotional ties with the project or the product.
  2. Be prepared for potential disaster. Once something is out of your hands, it is no longer within your control. You have to ready yourself emotionally — and legally — for the possibility that your client will destroy the work you’ve done. Think about adding a clause into your contracts that outlines how you’ll respond to any changes that occur because the client is managing the assets you’ve turned over.
  3. Have the conversation. Be open with your client about that clause in your contract that states what you may do after the contract ends. Assure them that you are all for empowering your clients to take over their assets and offer training and guidance, but make it clear what your professional response will be if they deviate drastically from best practices.
  4. Develop a contingency plan with your client. Ask your client how they’d like you to handle the potential situation of witnessing them making a gross misstep in modifying the work you’ve done or mismanaging something. What would they want you to do if you saw them go astray?
  5. Document carefully. While you are managing the assets, document everything. Take screenshots, track things, measure things, list things and compile any information that gives a clear picture of what you did and what was working while the assets were in your hands. After the contract ends, if you see problems arising, document everything to show the “before” and “after.” Record your assessment of their changes using clear, unemotional language and outline where you feel they’ve taken a wrong turn.
  6. Make your case to step back into the mix. If you’ve kept the lines of communications open with your former client, approach them respectfully with your assessment and review the state of what you created for them. (Remember, again, to take out the emotion). Give a solid business case for re-engagement to help them get back on track. A smart businessperson will take the data you give them and will determine the ROI of renewing a contract with you versus letting their assets flounder or fail. Throughout this process, stay positive, encouraging and helpful.
  7. Cut ties. If your former client decides they can handle things — and you feel they’re on a downward spiral — exercise your “what we’ll do if you mess things up” clause in your contract. The best course of action if there is no way to salvage the work you did is to distance yourself from the mess. You might consider removing the case study you’ve had on your website. Better yet, make sure your case study doesn’t link to the actual site or asset but instead uses screenshots that demonstrate the work you did. You can include a professionally-worded statement that the contract with the client ended on a particular date, and you are no longer engaged in managing the asset or that the client took over and that the current asset reflects their modifications. Again, stay positive. Never badmouth a client even if they are no longer your client. In the worst-case scenario, you may have to entirely remove any references to the client or the work you did for them to protect your company’s reputation. Only you can decide if and when drastic measures are necessary. At that point, focus on the good work you have done and continue to do and chalk it up to life as a consultant. You can only do so much, and once something is out of your hands, you just have to let it go.

What have you done in the past when a client messes things up?

Photo by stock.xchng user guitargoa

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11 Responses to “When Clients Mess Things Up”

  1. I disassociated myself from one project when the client handed it over to some in-house people who started going off in a different direction. I initially tried to prevent the misdirection, with no luck. So I decided I didn’t want my name associated with the project and asked that it be taken off. I knew that the project would go downhill from there, and it did, but I felt the only way they were going to learn anything was to take full responsibility for it and see the results.

    Now the opportunity is there for me to step back in, but the damage has been done and I’ve been so busy with other projects that I’ve decided it’s not something I want to be involved with anymore.

  2. Recently my agency had to distance ourselves from a client after they decided to decline an award we won for them. What did I do? I turned it into lemonade, writing an impassioned blog post (that never named the client) to use their misstep as a caution to others. I outlined the 5 things they were not understanding about marketing to women. It was the most forwarded, retweeted and commented post I’ve ever written. I believe I helped other brand managers not be “that guy” whose blindness is a liability.

  3. I think we all, as designers, consultants and writers, have the responsibility to prepare our clients as best as possible against messing things up. Too often, contractors just hand over the login information with little more than a good luck wish. As you explain in #5 – document, explain and prepare.

    We can’t plan for every contingency or client’s whim, but at least if they’re given all of the necessary information, we can rest assured that we did the best we could in preparing them to handle their assets.

  4. That is so interesting. I just had a client take over a site and subsequently add huge images and videos which stretched out the layout. If only they would reply to my emails and phone called to fix them. Apparently they are going at it alone.