What to Do When Your Client Asks You to Do Something Stupid

Sooner or later, it’s bound to happen.

If you’re a freelance designer, eventually a client will ask you to do something stupid. Something that you know won’t work.

I’m not talking about moral issues here, but rather about practical design issues. The client has asked you to design something that simply won’t be effective. (I would hope that you already know what to do about moral issues.)

If you enjoy this post, you may also like What to Do When the Client Is Wrong.

Your Three Options

If a client asks you to do something stupid, you basically have three options:

  1. Refuse to do the work. You know it will go badly and make both you and the client look bad.
  2. Grin and bear it. You need the money, so you say nothing and do what you’re asked–knowing that you’ll never ever claim credit for this work.
  3. Try to educate the client. You attempt to explain to the client why their idea won’t work.

Since the first two options are basically self-explanatory, this post focuses on the third option.

Educate Your Client–The Right Way

Educating your client is less straightforward than you might think. But when done right, it can actually strengthen the freelancer/client relationship.

There’s an art to dealing with people and educating someone is one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with people (that’s one reason why I admire teachers so much). The absolutely last thing that you should do is call your client stupid or belittle them in any way.

Instead, you should attempt to use this as an opportunity to help your client grow. A more knowledgeable client is actually better for both of you.

Positive Tips for Educating Clients

First off, make sure that you are right about the client being wrong. Don’t try to educate the client if the issue is simply a matter of taste or something else that is open to interpretation.

As a professional, you should be willing to overlook minor flaws or small mistakes. If you constantly point out every minor difference, you’ll get the reputation of needless nit-picking.

Instead, save your educational attempts for more serious problems. The mistake you attempt to educate the client about should be important enough that it would have a significant negative impact on the client’s business.

Here is a list of tips that you can use to help your client realize their mistake:

  • Start by pointing out the positive. Lead into the discussion by saying something like, “You’re on the right track with X, but I wanted to make you aware of Y problem…” Bad news is usually received more easily when it is cushioned like this.
  • Use your authority as a professional. Say something like, “in my experience, this approach creates the following problem…” Experience carries a lot of weight.
  • Refer to third-party resources. Say something like, “this article documents exactly what we’re trying to do and I’ll think you’ll find it interesting.” Usability studies are great for this.
  • Don’t judge. It can be tempting to place the blame for the bad idea on your client, but this is generally a bad idea. We’ve all had bad ideas, and you are the expert–not your client.
  • Avoid inflammatory language. Don’t make accusations like, “this a really dumb approach..” or “what a stupid idea.” You want to keep this as positive as possible.
  • Take the team approach. Use your language to show the client you’re on their side by referring to “our project” and “our goals.” You want the client to know that you are working with them on solutions, not just pointing out problems.
  • Know when to drop it. It’s a fact that some clients just won’t listen to advice from anyone. Plus, some people can’t stand to be wrong about anything.

The most important tip of all is to be professional and courteous regardless of the approach that you take. It may help you to remember that it may not be the client’s fault that they aren’t as knowledgeable as you are about your field.

Your Turn

Have you ever been in a situation where a client’s approach to a project was seriously flawed? How did you handle it without telling them that they were stupid?

Share your stories in the comments below.

Image by David M. Goehring

Laura Spencer is a freelance writer from North Central Texas with over 20 years of professional business writing experience. If you liked this post, then you may also enjoy Laura’s blog about her freelance writing experiences, WritingThoughts. Laura is also on Google+.

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