When “Clients From Hell” Aren’t

When “Clients From Hell” Aren’t

July 31, 2012  |  Branding

It’s the kind of idea that, in retrospect, seems so right you can just imagine a million people kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Clients From Hell, launched in 2009, is an anonymous online repository for horror stories involving clients (mostly for design and creative services) who are unfair, unreasonable, don’t get it, or all of the above. The posts are generally some mix of hilarious and horrifying and are designed to elicit a knowing smile from anyone who’s ever worked in the field.

It resonates, too. So much so that in late 2010 the folks behind the site published a book collecting some of their favorite stories to date. And why not? The push and pull between those who provide creative services and those who need them is an age-old source of tension and humor.

But while Clients From Hell is great at showing how difficult clients can sometimes be, it’s also good at showing something else entirely: how, in many cases, the real problem isn’t a "client from hell" at all. It’s a creative worker who’s coming up short.

Take this post about mobile website design. What we’re supposed to do here is slap our foreheads and say "yep, I’ve been there -- some clients just never listen." And maybe that’s what happened here, but I don’t think so. I read this and think, "Did this person ask the right questions? Did he take a moment to walk the client through exactly what he means by usable on a mobile platform? Did he take the time to show the client examples of how sites that aren’t optimized for mobile will render on a phone? Did he talk the client through the fact that more and more consumers are making purchases from their phones?"

Then there’s this post about search engine optimization. The implication here is that the client is stupid for not understanding what website "traffic" is, but that’s not it at all. More likely, the client is simply expressing a legitimate concern about making sure the site loads quickly. Maybe that concern isn’t being expressed in the right technical terms, but that’s where the designer has an obligation to take a step back and spend a few minutes filling in the knowledge gaps.

To be clear, many of the posts on CFH really do seem indicative of frustrating situations. That’s how it goes sometimes in a service-based business. But the default setting should never be that a client is "from hell." Instead, the default setting should be, "Is there an opportunity here to communicate better? Have I done a good enough job explaining myself? Do I truly understand my client’s needs?" Etc.

It is the job of the creative service provider – agency, designer, writer, etc. – to deliver great work. This much is given. But sometimes creatives forget that it’s also their job to listen and, when necessary, educate.

Sometimes a client needs to be shown why a particular decision is being made and what problem it's going to solve. They might not know the right way to express it, but that’s what they need. Being able to overcome initial frustration and find a way to bridge the gap can be every bit as critical to a project as great work. It won’t solve every problem, but it’s always a good place to start.