How to Handle Dysfunctional Client Relationships in Web Design


As reality TV has (repeatedly) shown us, any relationship can slip into dysfunction. Unfortunately that includes the relationships you’ll have with your design clients. Even if things started out well enough, there are a number of factors that can lead to eventual heartbreak.

Personally, I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter. I’d much rather make an effort to salvage a relationship. But I’ve found out the hard way that sometimes things can indeed be broken beyond repair.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some dysfunctional situations that can arise between designers and clients. Then, I’ll play the part of advice columnist (Love Guru, even?) and decide if we can put the relationship back on track or if it’s time to call it quits.

Dysfunctional Relationships in Web Design

“I’ve been working with a client for a few years and am frustrated. It seems like there are constantly changes immediately after a project was already approved and launched.  And, I often receive conflicting guidance from different people within the company.”
– Hopeless in Hamburg

One of the toughest things for any freelancer to deal with is an organization that doesn’t communicate with each other. When that happens, you’re either being led in multiple directions by multiple people or receiving guidance that hasn’t been properly vetted with others.

True, attaining a complete consensus may be near impossible when dealing with some organizations – and that’s okay. The problem is when there wasn’t much of an effort to come to a consensus in the first place. This leaves a designer at the mercy of someone who may not have the final say in these types of situations.

This seems like a situation you’d want to leave – particularly if you’ve ever noticed this type of pattern showing up previously. Do you really want to continue dealing with this?

Depending on what’s at stake, you may want to gently discuss the subject of doing whatever you can to make the client happy in the short term and then moving on.

“I have a client who sends over changes and additions for their site – but with very vague instructions. It’s hard to know what they really want! They always seem a bit scattered with their thoughts.”
– Vexed in Virginia

There are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. The more detail you have regarding a project, the easier it is to ensure you’re providing your clients with exactly what they want.
  2. Many people aren’t very adept at providing you with those types of details.

Knowing this, it’s up to us to ask the right questions. Ask your client about a specific goal they want to accomplish or what they want a visitor of the site to get out of the experience. Probing questions will get them to really think about the issue and those little details may just start coming out.

Sometimes, a client may simply not know exactly what they want or may have a hard time articulating it. We’re all different in how we communicate these things. Connect with them and help to guide them in the direction they want to go.

Sticky situations with web design clients.

“There is this one particular client who seems to always be months late in paying invoices – even small ones. They are really nice to deal otherwise, but I feel so disrespected.”
– Penniless in Portland

Whether someone owes you a lot or just a little, it’s only natural to feel frustrated when payments are, in your view, unreasonably delayed.

The steps you take to try and rectify the situation can really depend on the type of client. If it’s a larger corporate client you might want to get in touch with their accounts receivable department and find out if getting invoices to them earlier may help. Some companies do have their own specific schedule for sending out payments.

If it’s a smaller client, one thing to realize is that they (like you) are often responsible for just about every aspect of their business. Some are better than others at keeping up with bills.

The fix for this may be as simple as a change to when or how you send invoices to them. If you’re emailing invoices, ask if they’d prefer to get them through old fashioned snail mail. If you’re billing them monthly for a recurring service, perhaps switching to a yearly bill might take some pressure off of you both. Then there’s also the possibility of adding automation to your billing system to get paid with no effort required from your client.

If your client is otherwise pleasant to deal with, then try to work with them. Even though you may feel disrespected (and understandably so), that’s probably not the client’s intent. Otherwise, if you found they were a bit insufferable, you may just want to wash your hands of the whole thing.

“I work from a home office and maintain a lot of websites. But I have a client who insists on meeting in person over and over again, when it seems like a phone call would be enough. It’s taking too much time from my other projects – help!”
– Behind in Brussels

Welcome to the real world! Office workers have long endured the dreaded pointless meeting. But even freelancers are not totally immune to its effects. When you’re the only one there to take care of business, being away for stretches can indeed negatively impact your schedule (and sanity).

Of course, everyone has their own way they prefer to do business. Some still prefer the good old face-to-face meeting.

While you want to work in a way that makes your clients most comfortable, your comfort matters, too. Honesty is the best policy here. Kindly explain that your availability for face-to-face meetings is limited (maybe no more than once every few weeks). Explain that you’re glad to chat via Skype, phone or email as needed in between.

Function Beyond Dysfunction

Function Beyond Dysfunction

Your relationships with clients can help to make or break your business. And, try as you might to both work with and please them, it’s not easy. We’re all human, but we’re also all different. So we’ll make mistakes and won’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. We work and communicate in different ways.

In many situations, communication is essential to solving problems or avoiding them in the first place. But when communication breaks down or attempts to communicate are rejected, that’s when dysfunction takes over. It’s at that point where you have a choice: Try to fix the relationship or move on.

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