by Carl Smith

14 Jul 2015

Three Simple Ways To Turn a Good Client Bad

Before I talk about clients, let’s remember that those of us in the web industry are building the future. In the history of cool jobs, we win. We get to create and leverage the coolest technologies to connect people with things they love.

And yet … we love to bitch about how horrible it is being us.

The focal point of our complaints is almost always clients. But why? It’s simple. Clients refuse to embrace our superiority when they should exalt us in the highest! Or … could it be bad communication on our part?

Are there bad clients? Sure. We’ve known about them for decades. They are easy to spot, and if we let them in that’s on us. Here are some of the red flags we’re all familiar with:

  • Short deadline with no real rationale
  • Unreasonable budget
  • No time for research
  • Doesn’t understand their own business or customers
  • Goes dark frequently but shows up unexpectedly needing you to drop everything
  • No authority to give approval, but won’t connect you with decision-maker(s)
  • Disrespectful

If you take on a client who meets the above characteristics then that’s on you. Write your negative tweets and nasty blog posts, but you chose this. Proper scoping and the right questions will avoid all this pain. Fear of no other work or being greedy will lock you in this dungeon of despair.

But what about good clients? What makes them so hard to work with? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not them.

Using Bad Language

Several years ago I remember watching Cameron Moll explain to a room of conference goers how he estimates a project. It was as if everything went into slow motion after he double-clicked that rancid green “E” icon. As the Excel logo lit up the main conference screen, a collective group of moans and shrieks filled the room. And then he said something that changed my view of clients forever. “You guys don’t like Excel? Your clients use it. Why wouldn’t you use something they are familiar with?”

Familiar! This is one of the most important parts of establishing trust. Make sure the person feels comfortable and in control. If you keep things familiar it can be worth big bucks, just ask Gateway.

In the late ’90s Gateway had invested millions in creating a system that allowed a user to specify every possible component of their computer. They launched to the sound of crickets. Literally tens of thousands of dollars trickled in. After talking with customers, they found that they didn’t understand what they were being asked to do. It was confusing as hell. So instead of asking people to pick a processor, they changed it to say “Fast, Faster or Fastest?” They replaced complex choices with simple questions throughout the site. Cha-ching! Millions in sales.

As an industry, we love to come up with our own language that confuses not only the client, but often ourselves. And if the client knows what we’re talking about we call them “savvy.” The word “responsive” is a great example. Obviously we have to call this best practice something, but we can’t expect clients to know what these terms mean.

Ask your client how familiar they are with web practices. If you use the word responsive and they look confused they may not admit it, but they already feel lost. And that is not a winning relationship. Instead, use descriptive terms like “multi-device." Abbreviations like UX are just as confusing. Just say you want to make sure it’s easy to use.

For fun, here are some common industry terms that make many clients scratch their heads:

  • Responsive or Adaptive
  • Content Strategy
  • UX or UI or Usability
  • Accessibility

Setting Bad Expectations

You’re on a call with a new prospect who was referred to you from a great client. You feel really positive about this opportunity. She asks if your team has experience integrating with P.O.S. systems. Your heart sinks and you say, “All of that is figured out in the Discovery Phase.” She says "Great!", because what she heard was “YES WE CAN!”

You tell the team about the new opportunity. Questions get asked about budget and scope and you assure everyone it will be great. You didn’t get all the info, but the prospect knows that there will be a paid Discovery Phase. You did mention to her that she would pay for the discovery, right?

Sitting down for a nice lunch with the team when the phone rings, it’s the new prospect. She’s excited and has a bunch of ideas she’d like to share with you. She’s drawn them up and just wants to know how to share them. The last thing you want to do is kill her enthusiasm, but you don’t want to let her get set in her ideas before the discovery. So you tell her the ideas are a good starting point for discussion and you need to get a call with the team scheduled. She gets off the call thrilled that you like her ideas.

Eventually you are going to tell the prospect that they have to pay for the discovery. During the discovery the team is going to have concerns over the clients ideas. And then comes the moment when the client hears the P.O.S. system is a huge deal.

Your prospect wants you to be a real business. Act like one. Follow a good procedure or don’t be surprised when they go from excited to concerned.

Avoid Talking About Money

Unless you want your client to pay you in hours or story points, explain where the project is in dollars. Sure they can do the math and figure out 20 hours is $4,000. But they can also think you said you needed 20 more hours to do that and not expect the need for more money. Tell them it’s going to cost $4,000 though, and there is no mistaking what needs to happen.

The concept of buying story points has caused more heartburn, fights and potential lawsuits than any other miscommunication I’ve heard of. It feels like buying tokens at Chuck E. Cheese. You put in $75,000 and get out 14 story points. WHAT? But then story points aren’t always the same weight, it depends on the velocity. Just for fun, if a client asks how much a story point costs, share this equation … and no I didn’t make this up:

Average RSPC per product = ∑ RSPC¹, RSPC²……..RSPCⁿ / N

RSPC? Release Story Point Cost.

Methodology is cool. Confusion is not.

Remember, clients want you to win. They don't give you a lot of money and hope you screw everything up. It's easy to keep them feeling great. Use familiar language, set good expectations and always make sure they know the costs involved. Oh, and create something amazing. That always helps.

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