Difficult Web Design Clients: How To Hug A Porcupine • New Tricks
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How Do You Hug A Porcupine?

Gwen Millward, Illustrator

The other day, I came across a little book called, How to Hug a Porcupine. Easy Ways to Love the Difficult People in Your Life  by June Eding and Dr. Debbie Ellis.  When I looked it up on Amazon, I found a couple of other books with the same title. One was a sweet children’s book by Laurie Isop and Gwen Millward.  Some of it went like this:

How do you hug some billy goats?
Entice them with a bag of oats.

And surely you can hug a pig,
just spread your arms out extra big.

Hugging bunnies is just divine,
But how do you hug a porcupine?

This porcupine thing had me thinking about the problem of how to hug our “difficult” clients. I have to say that I am really blessed to have the greatest clients ever. But of course, I too, have had  a few porcupines to deal with and it is challenging.

Every industry has their version of the difficult client. In the design business there are some infographics going around, and some posters like the one here, ” I love your style, but……” which portray some of the most frustrating things designers hear from our clients.

We love your style, but!

Another dreaded statement we sometimes hear is, “No, that’s not it but, I’ll know it when I see it.”  That one can be especially hard on designers when the client is dismissive of their every attempt to please.

One of the funniest things I ever received from a client who was obsessed with the graphics on his site but had not yet given me word one of content, was a text message that read, “It will be perfect when you put some teeth in the lips on that donkey’s ass.” OMG! I had to just shake my head.

Being a psychologist does give me some deeper insight into the psyches of people who are getting their websites designed and built. You may not realize it but it, but the process can be very confronting for many small business owners.

They have to evaluate their business and their positioning, they have to find their voice and create their message and most importantly, they have to write it all down and commit to it. Believe me this is when their stuff starts to come up.

There is the person who doesn’t want to offend some group or another so they water down their message and broaden their niche so much, trying to be all things to all people, that they attract no one.

Then there are others who feel bad that they are not a bigger company than they are, so they avoid putting anything personal on their site in an effort to look like a larger organization.

This is not a wise move these days when authenticity and transparency are so highly valued. If you can’t make the flavor of your business distinct, then you are plain vanilla, just like the next guy. And why would anyone choose your company?

To be authentic online requires that one is okay with who they are and what they believe and they go ahead and put it out there in a way that will build positive, trusting relationships with people who, in most cases, never actually met them.

Most people have a lot riding on their website both in the cost of creating it and their hopes for what it will do for them, yet the majority of them are not technical nor very savvy about online marketing. Only a few come to us with a good idea of what it is that they want or even more importantly, what they need.

When working with people, I just assume that they don’t know and that is why they have come to me. I give them permission to ask what they might think are “stupid” questions and ask me for what they want.

I have an analogy about someone coming to me to get a kitchen remodeled. They tell me that they have a low budget, but is there something we can do to redo their kitchen for that amount of money? I say certainly we can do that.

So we do a design and we start to build it and as it comes together they look at it and get excited and say, “Wow, it would look great with a Viking Stove”. I look at it and say, “Wow, it sure would but too bad you don’t have the money now for a Viking Stove”. It is pretty easy in that case to stick with our boundaries.

But as artists, we web designers look at a website and also get carried away.  We think how good it would look good with that extra slider, or some equivalent to the Viking Stove; and because we can build it, we sometimes do and often, that is the piece of the project that the client adds a million changes to; and it ends up turning the project upside down where the designer is cussing the client under their breath. Now tell me who is responsible for that?

I explain all this to my clients and promise that I will tell them whether what they are asking for is a 2 second tweak or the Viking Stove. And if we are working together on a rather low-budget project and they ask me for the Viking Stove, I will explain to them, nicely, that anything is possible, but they didn’t buy that package.

I also will also protect my clients by telling them the ramifications of doing something one way versus another rather than just obediently following their direction when I know it is not in their best interest.

Being a psychologist also has some other unintended consequences. I have asked other web developers if anyone has ever cried when they gave their client the website. “No! Of course not”.  But I have had it happen more than once.

The fact is that the process of launching a new business or putting yourself or your business out there online is a huge deal, fraught with emotions and brings up whatever fears or hangups one has, even if justified.

I had a client who did not want to put his picture on his websites because he is black. Yet this same person was going to put Christian messages on the site when his target market are primarily Jewish owned businesses. I told him he had to be willing to show himself since his clients in this service business were going to find out very quickly he was black, and that religion, in this case, did not belong on the front page of his business site.

When creating your own online business and website, there is a lot of fear and unworthiness to be overcome. I had to give one of my clients a fuck fear button to get her over herself, step into the limelight and be willing to own that she is a rock star.

Once you show someone who has gone through this process, their website launched on the Internet, they feel as real as the Velveteen Rabbit and that can make them shed a few tears.

Knowing they have their website also gives my clients a dose of courage and they can live into their potential, developing Shakti (a Sanskit word meaning “to be able” but used to mean letting the sacred force or empowerment flow from you), which, in turn, creates irresistible presence.

So although our clients may make us crazy from time to time, and we may end up working with a porcupine every so often, we have to put the situation in context by understanding what is behind it and pay some attention to our own part in creating or exacerbating the situation. Of course a cocktail or two sometimes makes this easier.

And while you are having that cocktail, you might remember that relationships where tension exists are the ones that provide the biggest opportunity for growth.

Fostering Good Client Relationships is Important to Have Your Business Run Smoothly.

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind to have your client relationships work.

  1. If there are major red flags at the beginning, before you even sign the contract, pay attention to your gut. Know that those are the issues that will come up time and again and consider whether or not it is not a good fit for you. Keep an abundance mindset and know that your right clients will find you, so you can let the others go.
  2. Remember that your clients are not experts and have to be gently educated.
  3. Set your boundaries. You can hardly blame your client if you were not clear about how you work or the scope of what you are going to do for them.
  4. Do what you say you will do and keep in good communication, always.
  5. Don’t be afraid to apologize for your part in any problem.
  6. If there is ever any hint of an issue, pick up the phone and get it worked out.
  7. Try and understand where they are coming from and it will help you from getting angry.
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Showing 5 comments
  • @kfdpcom

    Excellent! And something I needed to hear, specifically today!

  • Andrii

    I agree with you that honesty is the way to go, especially in the business of web designing. The client must understand and see what the end result will look like.

  • Jason

    They come to us for "web design", but we know they need so much more. You laid this out so brilliantly. At Asheville Web Design Company, we too have our share of porcupines (er, uh, problematic clients). The key for us is managing expectations clearly and directly, and guiding them through a proven process that involves a mix of business coaching, strategy mapping, marketing, and design as the last and final element.
    My recent post Hello world!

    • judi knight

      Jason, The client’s stuff always comes up. Sometimes I am more graceful than other times in dealing with it.

  • Alex

    Some clients are really difficult to deal with. That's just the perks of our profession.

    Being patient with web design is the key.
    My recent post Domain Name Registration – The Secrets Revealed

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