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Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!

By John Tabita



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Would you like to be treated like a commodity, have a high cancellation rate, no client loyalty, and get paid the lowest price possible? (I know you do!) Then just follow my simple four-step plan:

  1. Offer a valuable service to your clients.
  2. Whenever a client cancels or switches to another provider, offer them your same service at a cheaper rate. (Other incentives, such as “first two months free,” are also effective.)
  3. Act like a victim by constantly complaining that your clients are cheapskates, and bemoan the fact that you can’t seem to make any money.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

This plan was enthusiastically embraced by AT&T Yellow Pages during my tenure there. (Step 3, however, was delegated to the sales reps.) They called it “reworking an account,” and it went like this: When the directory was ready to be published, we’d have a “fire sale”—everyone who had canceled during the nine-month sales canvass would be offered the same advertising at a reduced rate. Some $300-a-month ads were now just $100.

Another true believer in this “race to the bottom” was a national lawn care company for which I once worked. Cancel your lawn service? No problem! How about two free lawn treatments to change your mind? It continues to astound me. Don’t they understand that this only teaches customers to cancel, knowing they’ll get offered a better deal a few months (or hours) later? And once your customers become accustomed to paying lower prices, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get them to pay full cost.

How Clients Mistreat Us: Let Me Count the Ways

My story serves to make a point, that if clients and prospects mistreat us, it’s because we allow it. And there are so many ways we can let them to do so. Digging deep into my anguished past, I sought to unearth every sordid detail of the gut-wrenching abuse I suffered at the hands of my clients over the years. Unfortunately, I have few horror stories to share (but I do have a few). So in the spirit of crowd-sourcing, I asked a number of colleagues for theirs.

Jochen Daum of Automatem LTD says his firm has “had issues” with buyers who just want a quote “to beat down [your] competitor.” Companies are often required to obtain multiple bids; but deliberately using yours as pricing leverage against another provider goes beyond company policy—it’s a matter of the prospect taking advantage of you.

Another web firm (who asked to remain anonymous) met with one of their existing clients. After seeing a site demo, the client changed the requirements, which meant researching alternative solutions and making recommendations (for which the firm did not charge). Ultimately, the client opted to go elsewhere; but the firm later discovered that the client incorporated their recommendations into their new site.

They weren’t sure whether a competitor was involved or not, but “proposal-jacking” is an all-too-common occurrence. That’s when a prospect hands off your detailed proposal to a cheaper competitor—one who can charge less because, thanks to you, he doesn’t have to come up with his own ideas. In their words, “The lessons learned from this project will last a lifetime.”

Angelos Evangelou of PricklyPear Media had what he calls “one of my worse experiences” when he allowed a client to make continual changes beyond what his proposal had specified. This only encouraged the client to become more demanding, who alternated between loving and hating the design, insisted on several on-site meetings, then refused to pay the full amount upon completion, to “insure” Angelos would provide technical support.

Stephanie Wells of Strategy11 says her worst client experience was when she and her husband “killed ourselves” to meet the client’s deadline, only to have the client delay final payment by taking weeks to review and test the site. “Of course, clients should review and test,” Stephanie asserts, “but when they use it as a stalling tactic and take weeks to actually look at the site is when it gets irritating.”

I promised to share one of mine. I had a prospect meet with me at a desk in the middle of a chaotic furniture showroom floor. Between constant interruptions from his sales staff, he grilled me with questions about why he should hire me. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally managed to get a question in, only to discover that he was not the actual decision-maker. The two owners would make the final decision—and he refused to allow me to meet with them. I believe the “John-sized hole” I left in the wall during my hasty retreat remains there to this day.

Here are other ways prospects and clients can mistreat, abuse, or otherwise take advantage of you:

  • Doesn’t set enough time aside to thoroughly discuss the project, then expects you to return another day to finish the conversation
  • Isn’t willing to discuss the project in detail; just wants to know how much it will cost
  • Won’t allow you to meet with other decision-makers, but “promises” to pass along your information to his partner
  • Expects a detailed proposal, yet won’t commit to when—or even if—they’ll get back to you
  • Avoids your follow-up calls when all you want to know is whether they’ve accepted your bid or not
  • Sends content at the last minute, then insists the site still be completed on schedule
  • Habitually cancels and reschedules meetings
  • Breaks a page while updating it, then expects you to fix it, free of charge
  • Waits until the absolute last minute to pay you

And let’s not forget the granddaddy of all disrespectful treatment, the Big Kahuna Himself:

The client opens your design in Photoshop and starts revising it himself

A word of caution: don’t let this list allow you to become jaded. We tend to get what we expect. If you always expect clients to treat you like this, you’ll most likely get treated like this. A good rule-of-thumb is, expect the best, but be prepared for the worst.

Stop the Abuse!

I know you want to learn how to prevent further mistreatment, but my article was too big and it spilled over into next week’s. Meanwhile, feel free to post any abusive client behavior that I missed, and next week, I’ll talk about how to deal with it. See you then.

This is Part 1 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process

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Former owner and partner of web firm Jenesis Technologies, John is currently Director of Digital Strategy at Haines Local Search, a company providing local search marketing solutions to SMBs, including print and Internet Yellow Pages, web design, and local SEO. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks. When not working or spending time with his family, John offers great sales and marketing advice on his blog, Small Business Marketing Sucks.

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