How to Speak up to Your Clients When They Just Won’t Listen


In 1996, I was an 18 year old web designer. Fresh out of high school, I was a bit shy and not very eloquent when expressing myself verbally.

My first job was for a local newspaper. The position not only required maintenance of their news-oriented site but also trying to sell web design services to local businesses. The demands of the job would require me to break out of my shell. That proved to be a much tougher process than I’d imagined.

Fast-forward to 1999 when I started working on my own. Eager to impress, and a little desperate for business, I decided that simply doing what my clients asked of me was the best way to get along. After all, web design was still a fairly new concept to most people. I felt it wasn’t my place to rock the boat with my opinions, even if the client had been way off base with their requests.

Clients requested outlandish background images, blinking text, the use of cheap clip-art and virtually every other "no-no" that we designers despise. I did them all. And, after a while, I found an absolute emptiness in my work.

Not only that, but I began to feel that I was also doing a disservice to my clients. I realized that I was being paid for both my design capabilities and my expertise. It turns out that I had only been providing the former. Because I was withholding my expertise, my design work suffered as well.

These days, I’d like to think that I’m no longer that scared kid just trying to get my foot in the door. I’m not afraid to (politely) tell a client what I think will work best for their project.

Here are a few tips to help you find your voice:

Stay in your Comfort Zone

When your client mentions that they really want their print designer (who, by the way, has NO web design experience) to create a template, don’t be afraid to mention the potential pitfalls of their strategy.

If a client asks for something unreasonable that will take you out of your comfort zone, it’s time to speak up. In the example above, you may be stuck working with an unusable template and also be hit with the blame when, despite your best efforts, the site doesn’t turn out well.

Politely explain to the client why this scenario might not be in their best interests. Then, at least the ball is in their court.

Don’t Be Afraid to Charge for Extras

We all run into those clients who change the scope of the project midstream. Initially, they may have stated that they didn’t need a particular feature. A month into the project, they’ve changed their mind.

Years ago, I tended to let the client get away with making additional requests at no extra charge. No more. Make sure your clients know which items are and aren’t covered in your proposal. Explain to them that it’s perfectly fine to add something later on – for an extra fee.

Set Boundaries

I’m typically in the office from 8am – 5pm. But, there was a time when I would do pretty much any project at whatever time the client emailed it over to me (even weekends). It led to a burned-out feeling and clients thinking I was a 24/7 operation.

Freelancers can often keep different hours. Some don’t mind working at night or on the weekends. But if you’d rather just get away from your desk after work, make that clear to your clients. In non-emergency situations, there’s no reason an update can’t wait until the next day. Extra bonus points if you politely send a note stating that you’ll gladly take care of their request "ASAP in the morning".

Be Confident in your Suggestions

Probably the most important tip I can give is to have confidence in your abilities as a designer. When discussing a project with your client, listen carefully to their needs. Then, feel free to make suggestions on items that you think will improve the site. Whether it’s a CMS you like, a cutting-edge app or a great resource for stock photos, take the initiative to help your client achieve (and possibly exceed) their goals.

Most likely, they’re going to appreciate your input. It’s a great way to develop trust as your relationship grows. Down the line, it means that they’ll be more willing to ask your advice on future projects.

In Conclusion

Of course, every client and situation are different. Thus, you’ll have to develop a knack for knowing when to speak up. There may be times when clients just don’t listen. Even if they don’t, at the very least, you’ll feel better knowing that you made the effort.

Do you have any tips not mentioned here? Any horror stories? Please leave a comment and let me know!

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