How to Avoid Difficult Clients

Michelle Hunter by Michelle Hunter

Creative work involves close collaboration with clients. For web designers and copywriters alike, it takes careful listening to avoid difficult clients. Here’s how.

How to avoid difficult clients

Creative work – when it’s done well –  requires close collaboration between experts and clients. Web design projects, for example, typically begin with a discovery phase full of communication and honest inquiry into topics such as ideal client profile, core values, and project goals. Most creative or consulting services follow a similar process. 

Collaboration like this requires clear communication and trust. It’s all about relationships – making it vital to connect intellectually around the work in order to achieve the best results. 

In my experience, there is actually no such thing as a difficult client. Projects break down when we (as creative service providers) choose to work with clients who simply don’t fit our process or the business model we prefer. 

The difficulty comes from our failure to properly evaluate client fit before the project begins → meaning the problem lies with us and not with the client. Ouch! 

While that realization stings a little, it points us to an effective solution. The most effective way to avoid difficult clients is to improve how we evaluate potential client fit before we ever accept the project. 

Not sure how to do this? Here’s what works for me.  

Identify your personal project pitfalls. 

Once I accepted that my process was the source of potential drama and not my clients, my mindset shifted. I began to evaluate my creative process through a client-facing lens to identify potential traps and pitfalls. 

My goal was simple. I eliminated as many of these rough spots as I could, streamlining client communication and simplifying in ways that would keep clients informed and engaged as we collaborated together. This was helpful, but it honestly wasn’t the complete solution. 

I realized quickly that my process requires a few crucial elements in order for the best possible creative work to emerge. These became my non-negotiables and the personal project pitfalls that must be avoided. 

My list of non-negotiables includes: 

  • Alignment around project pricing so we don’t experience budget-related issues. 
  • Clarity about project goals so we work together toward the same results. 
  • Open communication and dialogue so we can freely share ideas and explore options. 

When any of these requirements are lacking, the project nearly always encounters difficulty. Clients get frustrated or become disengaged. My creative energy is depleted and I struggle to complete the work. Or we simply push forward toward different goals and find it incredibly difficult to achieve anything.

Your list of non-negotiables – your project pitfalls – will likely be a bit different than mine. Identifying them takes a bit of work and a lot of introspection, but it’s worth the effort. You must understand the traps if you wish to avoid them. 

Ask open-ended questions and listen intently.  

The sales process is the ideal time to evaluate potential clients for fit. Yet, many creative entrepreneurs miss this opportunity in their excitement to land the new client or book the new project. I recommend you take time to be intentional here and use your initial inquiry or discovery call as a tool to help you avoid client-related drama. 

Rather than simply limiting your discussion to the project scope itself, dig a bit deeper. Ask open-ended questions as a way to uncover areas of misalignment with your potential client. 

There’s nothing magical about a particular question. Your goal is simply to get your potential client talking about the topics of concern to you. Listen intently as the other person shares what is most important from his or her perspective. Guide the discussion to explore areas that are important to you.

For example, I always ask potential clients about their budget from multiple angles. I don’t limit the discussion to the budget set for this project. Instead, I ask questions about overall profitability and the positive impact a successful project will have on long term financial goals.

I listen carefully to what is said and I also pay attention to what is not said. I evaluate verbal tone and body language – if we’re meeting virtually or in person.  When a potential client becomes tense or withdraws from the conversation in some way, it’s a clue that we might not be a good fit. 

I haven’t encountered a “difficult client.” I’ve uncovered an area of difficulty between us. 

Dig deeper into potential problem areas. 

Of course, conversations are rarely smooth. In my experience, there’s room for misunderstanding and a lack of clarity – especially early in a relationship. Both parties bring expectations to an initial inquiry call, which creates the need to dig a little deeper before making a decision about client fit.

You might wonder how to dig deeper into a potential problem area. You might overthink it a bit, but you don’t have to worry. It’s as simple as asking a small follow up question in an honest, inquiring tone. 

Effective inquiry questions include: 

  • Why is that important to you? 
  • Will you tell me more? 
  • Interesting. Will you explain? 

During this process, be willing to set aside your own opinions and perspectives. Just lean in and listen with a desire to truly understand and wait to share your own viewpoint until you have a good understanding of the potential client’s views. 

You may uncover misalignment. That’s okay… in fact that’s preferable to running into future issues. Be willing to identify the misalignment openly and share your reasoning with the other person respectfully.

Recently, I encountered an area of misalignment with a potential customer related to a pricing issue. The potential client was honest about budget and goals, but lacked a realistic expectation of the investment required to meet the project goals we discussed. 

In that moment, I had three options: 

  • Move forward even though I knew the budget wouldn’t fit the scope
  • Walk away from the project due to budget constraints
  • Highlight the misalignment and work with the potential client to resolve it

I pursued the third option and the client and I were able to reduce the project scope to better align with the available budget. By taking the time to openly and graciously educate the client and present options, we were able to find common ground and move forward to work together. 

Sometimes alignment issues can’t be resolved, and that’s okay. Better to part with integrity knowing we are misaligned than to move forward and encounter problems throughout the project.  

Trust your intuition and act accordingly. 

Your intuition is your biggest ally when evaluating client fit. Trust your gut to help you determine how to best work with a potential client – and when to walk away. Resist the urge to ignore poor fit out of a desire to win the deal.

For me, creative work requires a level of trust and connection. When the client trusts my expertise, I feel free to explore options and share my ideas openly. When I choose to move forward with a client who does not communicate openly – for example – the trusting relationship breaks down. 

This breakdown in trust limits my ability to provide high-quality work to my client. I get stuck second-guessing myself or limiting my exploration of options to those I feel the client will expect and approve of without hesitation. The end result is less than my best.

This issue is caused by my response to a client’s communication style. It’s my problem (not theirs) but I have a responsibility to trust my intuition and decline projects where an issue such as this seems likely. 

There are no difficult clients – just people who don’t fit your process. 

In my experience, there are no difficult clients – just people with honest needs and a desire to work with someone who can meet those needs. The difficulty comes when potential clients don’t fit within our processes or empower us to do our best work. Take the time to intentionally ask probing questions and listen carefully. Discuss with a goal of creating alignment and you’ll successfully avoid problem projects. 

Curious about how to handle declining a project that’s not a great fit? Check out this article about how to do it graciously. 

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