Design Domination Podcast Episode #85: The Client Is Not the Enemy

Situations may arise when working with a client that make you feel like you’re on two different sides. But the client is not the enemy. Find out how to deal more effectively with situations that make you feel like you’re on two different sides.

Show Notes

Episode 46 for how to screen clients.

How to Deal With Negative Feedback on Your Designs

One situation that may arise is getting negative feedback on your design work.

Understandably, a lot of designers get upset when a client doesn’t like the designs you’ve just presented. I get it. I’ve been there. It’s super frustrating and sometimes we take it personally.

When I see designers talking about this online, a lot of times other designers are quick to defend the designer. But they don’t have all the details of the situation, first off. Second, the client may have a legitimate point.

Maybe you as the designer could have done better.

Maybe this wasn’t your best work, and you knew it.

Maybe you didn’t follow a creative brief or have a good understanding of the client’s goals.

Maybe you need to sharpen your skills.

The client is not your enemy. It’s not you versus them. It’s you with them.

So take a moment to consider their side and where they’re coming from. Take the emotion out of it and try to look at their concerns objectively.

There’s a saying I like from Paul Arden, who was creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi and an author:

“Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.”

This is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to our work and interaction with clients.

Praise isn’t necessarily all good and criticism all bad. We can learn from both.

If you always seek praise, why is that?

  • Do you need affirmation from the client to give you confidence?
  • Do you need it because you’re not comfortable with criticism? You take it personally?
  • Do you want to make yourself happy?
  • Do you need to be seen as right or perfect in the client’s eyes?

When you don’t seek criticism, you might be saying:

  • I don’t want to be challenged by anyone.
  • I don’t want to challenge myself. I don’t want to be better.
  • I don’t want to see a different side to things.
  • I don’t want anything to change.
  • I don’t want to change.

Obviously, sometimes it’s not the designer, and you get stuck with a client who is controlling or needs to put their own stamp on things.

That’s why screening clients is important. Check out episode 46 for how to screen clients.

How to Deal With Client Requests That Are Out of Scope

A client might ask you for something that’s out of scope.

They may or may not know that what they’re asking for is out of scope. You might take it as, “Oh, they must be trying to get some work for free,” when that’s really not at all what they’re expecting.

Saying something was out of scope used to make me nervous because I hated being put in this position and asserting myself with clients.

What if they got upset and didn’t want to pay? What if they balked when I told them?

I have had that happen.

But you have to relax and take the emotion out of it.

The contract spells it out. I hope you have one at least and that it does indeed spell out these things.

It’s up to you to enforce the terms of your contract.

Let the contract be the bad guy. You don’t have to be.

As long as the terms are addressed there, it’s not like you’re springing something new on them. You’re just enforcing your contract. It’s objective too—and was agreed upon by you and them.

It’s not for you to suck up extra work because you’re afraid to assert yourself simply because they asked you to do more than you originally agreed to. You just can’t do that unless there’s a good reason why, like they’ve been a good client, you’ve worked with them quite a bit or maybe you didn’t do your best work on this project and need to put in a little more effort on it.

Keeping them happy is good within reason, but don’t succumb to being a people pleaser to your own detriment!

So speak up! If you’re not going to be profitable, what’s the point of the work?

How do you respond if they ask for something out of scope? Just say, “That wasn’t included in our initial agreement. Let me get you an estimate for that.” If it’s going to cost additional time, let them know that too.

Acknowledge the request and tell them how you can accommodate it.

Come across as, “Yes, I can help you. I’m happy to, and here’s how much it will be to do that and how long it will take.”

How to Deal With Ridiculous Requests From Clients

A client often will request something that we see as silly, and it just might be. But you have to remember that they don’t have our expertise. That’s why they’ve hired us in the first place.

While we can laugh at some of these requests, the best way to handle it is to be objective and explain why they wouldn’t work for the project. Ask why they are requesting what they are.

Sometimes your main contact thinks it’s a ridiculous request too, but a higher-up has decided to pursue it anyway. Your contact might be hoping you’ll exert your expertise and shoot down the request with a good reason. You never know the situation.

How to Deal With Client Requests Outside of Business Hours

Another situation that comes up is getting requests from clients outside of business hours.

I used to get really lathered up by this. I’d get irritated when clients would call or email after hours.

Of course, they can call and leave a message or send an email at any time. They have a right to do that.

But you don’t have to be waiting on call or not responding at those hours, unless you’ve agreed to do so beforehand, like for an urgent deadline or something. I mean, you’re not a heart surgeon!

If you’re irritated by client requests after hours, you need to stop checking your messages.

The client is not the enemy because they send requests outside of business hours.

If they’ve come to expect you to respond outside of business hours, that’s on you. This was a hard lesson I learned a long time ago.

You’ve set that expectation with your behavior—by responding when you have. You need to untrain them. You need to reset expectations and let them know when they can expect to hear from you.

How to Avoid Endless Emails

Also, I can’t tell you how many times in my earlier years in business that I was afraid to or didn’t want to pick up the phone and just talk to a client. And, back then, people talked more on the phone than they do now!

I used to go back and forth with so many emails, and clients would be like, “Can we just talk?”

Yes, that’s how it should be. Just get it done and resolved. I would feel so stupid for putting up a wall in the first place.

So stop wasting your time—and theirs—going back and forth via email and just get on the doggone phone!

A call can resolve things so much faster and amicably because:

  1. You can speak words faster than write them and
  2. You can assess each other’s tone.

I can remember many times in the past when I thought the client meant one thing from their email—or assumed their tone was a certain way—only later to talk to them and find out that I was completely wrong.

Also, there’s a saying that if you have bad news to deliver, always do it by phone, not an email, not a text.

Remember that business is about building relationships. Relationships are much more than emails and transactions.


Now I’m not saying things don’t come up that warrant a “heck no!” or “Are you crazy?”

But most of the time, trying to be more understanding, more empathetic, can go a long way to staying professional in your replies and in keeping your sanity. It also can keep you from making assumptions that someone might just be a jerk (they might in fact be) when they might be having a horrible day.

Having empathy doesn’t mean rolling over and getting taken advantage of. You can be empathetic and professional while still enforcing your terms and boundaries and charging more for out-of-scope work.

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