Clients from hell

posted by Kelsey 16 June 2010

    We've all had the experience of dealing with unreasonable people. It's not just designers who have 'clients from hell', but it's designers who've built an homage to client horror stories with clientsfromhell.com.

    I'll be the first to admit - I had more than one sympathetic laugh as I clicked through the backstories.

    At the same time, I grew more and more uncomfortable with what I was reading. Not that I think the site's inappropriate in any way, we all need a place to vent and a sympathetic ear to commiserate. I'm certainly not engaging in some PC tsk tsking about the poor treatment of clients at the hands of merciless designers.

    Instead, as I read through the site, I came to realise that for many of the authors their war stories represented their own failures as businesspeople rather than that of their clients.

    When things go wrong, it's easy to blame the client.

    They're underestimating the amount of work, overestimating the simplicity, unappreciative of the effort, unconcerned with the limitations of the project's scope. All of these things and more.

    Yet for the most part these complaints can be explained by a failure to communicate.

    Take this week's most prominent story:

    Client: “That’s way too much money to charge for an email campaign. It’s not hard to put a few graphics in an email.”

    Me: “I charge based off of my regular hourly rate and that’s how long it will take to complete the project.”

    Client: “Forget it. We’ll just do it in house. We have a copy of Dreamweaver.”

    [Phone call 2 weeks later]

    Client: “Can you talk for a second?”

    Me: “Sure.”

    Client: “OK. We made that email campaign, but I can’t figure out why all of the links take me to the unsubscribe page.”

    Me: “I’m not sure. Is this a test email you’re talking about? I can finish the project for you based on my hourly rate.”

    Client: “Well…no. We already sent it.”

    The client sent an email campaign to a list of 74,000 customers with every link in the email being a one-click unsubscribe.

    In this scenario, no-one wins. The client lost a significant portion of their hard-won subscriber base, the designer almost certainly lost the job, the client and some of their hard-won reputation.

    A small amount of education could have saved the day.

    While I'm certain that most of the stories on Clients From Hell are edited for brevity and punchiness, my thoughts turned immediately to what I could have done to retain that client from the outset.

    The designer lost the client's respect for the value of their work when they had no response to "It's not hard to put a few graphics in an email". Here's what could have been done to salvage the situation:

    • Point out that a polished and professional newsletter requires careful layout

      Nothing we do is as easy as producing a word document, but that's the only frame of reference many clients have. Let them know why our work takes time.

    • Address the issue of compatibility

      Email newsletters need to be tested. Every email program has different rules and they're usually based on an ancient subset of HTML, modified (it seems at times) to have their own special quirks. If you don't test, you don't know if those fancy graphics will even display in the end user's email client.

    • Spam filter testing

      Modern newsletter management tools allow us to test how the final email will fare when pitted against the myriad spam filters used by businesses and consumers alike. If you want your message to even reach your audience, you need to know if it will be allowed to arrive!

    • Analytics

      What's the point of engaging in customer retention/acquisition marketing if you have no clue as to its success or failure? You need to know who's opening, who's clicking, what they're clicking on and what they're doing once they have. Otherwise all your email marketing is just a shot in the dark.

    • Automatic unsubscribes

      The newsletter management tool should handle this for you - a simple {unsubscribe} tag that can't be mistaken for any other link

    The client in the example above clearly didn't know about any of the above points, it was the designer's duty to provide that level of service and to point out the value it represents.

    So everyone loses. Subscribers and possibly sales are lost. The designer lost that job and all future jobs with the client. And make no mistake, the client blames the designer and will never refer that designer for further work.

    I know how easy it is to let pride get in the way of business. We all want our work to be valued. It's a regular battle all of us face professionally, to maintain and grow our portfolio of satisfied clients rather than burning bridges.

    If we educate our clients rather than just bridling at their perceived effrontery, everyone wins and good design triumphs.

    About the author

    Kelsey

    Kelsey

    Kelsey Brookes is a professional designer, online strategist and writer.

    From the late 90s Kelsey managed the multimedia and film courses at the prestigious Computer Graphics College, Sydney and eventually founded the Melbourne chapter of the college.

    At the same time, Kelsey was a feature writer for Digital Media World magazine, interviewing subjects from the Australian and overseas film and production industries.

    Since 1999 Kelsey has managed thinksync, providing design, online strategy and marketing services to clients around Australia.

    E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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