How to Hug a Porcupine: Tips on Dealing With Difficult Clients

Sometimes in life we brush up against people who are hard to get along with. And since business is no different, we need to figure out how to deal effectively with more difficult clients.

One of my favorite little books on the subject, How to Hug a Porcupine?  poses the question 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?”

Every industry has their version of the difficult client. When you’re looking back on your interactions with these difficult clients you can usually spot the red flags that were there from the beginning.

Seeing these signs in a prospect doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid taking on that particular person as a client, but you need to understand upfront who it is you are dealing with and make clear agreements ahead of time.


Some potential red flags

1. History of Bad Experiences. Sometimes a client will come to you to fix an issue on a site that someone else worked on. This happens all the time and is not a problem. But if a client comes to you with a long history of dissatisfaction with previous vendors, then you may have a problem down the road.

When you hear that, go ahead and ask the client questions about what happened so you can get a clear understanding of whether this person actually  had a lot of bad experiences, which could happen, or if they helped to create the problems.  This will let you know whether you believe it will be different with you.  But be very careful to manage their expectations.

2. The Bad Communicator.  There is the client that cannot tell you what they want but is extremely critical of what you do.  This, “I’ll know it when I see it.”  is very time consuming. You can circumvent this issue with a clear contract that offers a set number of designs and revisions.

Make sure your client is aware of the terms of the contract before you start.  If it appears that they may exceed this number of hours with their picky ways, let them know how many revisions they have left and discuss their options with them. They may need to add more hours to the job or if you really don’t think you will ever be able to satisfy them, let them know that they may need to find someone else.

3. The Slow to Respond Client. You may not know that you are taking on this type of client until they fail to get back to you time and again. Build into your contract a clause that states that approximate date to complete is conditioned upon a regular timely back and forth on approvals and needed materials if there are delays by the client then the deadline will be extended, and another project may take priority to their project.

I also include a “pause clause” covering situations where the client takes a break of 30 days or more. This starting and stopping ends up causing a lot more work for everyone since you have to get back up to speed after every long break.  I also will institute a monthly fee to do maintenance of the partially developed site, or back it up and store the site with a start up fee to cover reinstalling the site and beginning to work again.

4. Client Who’s Eyes are Bigger Than Their Wallet. In this situation, a client has big ideas or is very picky about tiny details of their website but they did not buy the website package that included that many hours of work.  Manage expectations early and frequently by reminding them that production is better than perfection and as they get more business and money from that business they can upgrade their site.

[Tweet “Our failure to set appropriate boundaries sets the relationship up to be difficult from the start. @judiknight”]

I think about it this way, if I was doing a very small kitchen renovation project for someone on a tight budget, we could get to a point where they might say, wouldn’t a Viking Stove look great in this kitchen? I would have no problem saying, It sure would look fantastic, too bad it isn’t in your budget this go round. But when the same happens when designing a website, many web designers have a hard time telling the client that the additional feature was not included in the package they bought and they end up resentful of the extra time and trouble they now have to go through. But they did not have to add the additional feature just because they could. Our failure to set appropriate boundaries set the relationship up to difficult.  If you have trouble setting boundaries, read more tips here.


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Being a psychologist gives me some deeper insight into the psyches of people who are getting their websites designed and built. You may not realize it, but the  process is very confronting for many small business owners when they have to evaluate their position on things as well as their messaging, and they have to write it all down and commit to it. All of their “stuff”  starts to comes up around that.

Clients have a lot riding on their websites both in the cost of creating it and their hopes for what it will do for them, yet many are not technical nor marketing savvy.  And only a few have a good idea of what it is that they want or even more importantly, what they need. I just assume that people don’t know what they are asking for. so I tell them to ask for what they want and I will tell them if it is a small change or if it is a Viking Stove.

I 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 what they are asking for is not in their best interest.

I have asked other web developers if anyone has ever cried when they gave their client the website. “No! Of course not”,  they say. But I have had that happen more than once. It is a huge deal to launch a new business or go out on your own for the first time. There is a lot of fear and unworthiness to overcome.  Seeing their site on the Internet can have a person who has gone through this process, feel as real as the Velveteen Rabbit and that can make them shed a few tears.

So although our clients may make us crazy from time to time, and a few might seem like you are dealing with a porcupine, make sure you are not contributing to the problem.  Here are a few things to keep in mind to have your client relationships work for you.

  1. If there are major red flags at the beginning before you even sign the contract, pay attention to your gut and know that those are the issues that will come up time and again and maybe 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Say what you will do and do it. If you cannot do something in a timely manner, let the client know when it will be done.
  1. Keep in good communication, always.
  1. Don’t be afraid to apologize for your part in any problem.
  1. If there is ever any hint of an issue, pick up the phone and get it worked out.
  1. Remember that your clients are not experts and have to be gently educated.
  1. Try and understand where they are coming from and it will help you from getting too angry to work things out.
  2. Here are a few other tips I like from Carrie Dils to help deal with clients when  it all goes to he**

What have you found helps to avoid the issue of working with difficult clients?

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