Dealing With The Client Who Is Never Satisfied

by Susan Zweibaum on March 23, 2011

It is inevitable that at some point in your career you will encounter a client, whether internal or external, that just never seems happy with the end product.  You have presented them with what you consider good work, the best you and your team can deliver and then they make a funny face, sigh or simply say, “This isn’t what I was hoping to see” or “why did you do it this way?”  You want to argue with them, explain why it is what they asked for.  But, instead you most likely apologize and then figure out how to make it better – you don’t want them disappointed or angry, and you want to get paid for the work you have done.  You also want to maintain the relationship you have been developing for months.  

To be honest, I have been on both sides of the table and have given the sigh or dirty look of disbelief to an agency at least once or twice.  Sometimes you won’t get it right and in most cases the client will work with you until they are satisfied.  But there is a difference between the client who gives honest feedback with an occasional disappointed look and the one that is never happy.

The reality is that there are a number of steps you can take to try and rectify the situation with the never happy client once you are in it and some actions you can take upfront to avoid this situation happening in the first place.

How to avoid miscommunication and unmet expectations from the onset:

  1. Agree on format and deliverables:  So many clients think they are communicating well and have provided you with clear direction.  Reality is, they probably haven’t.  Once you receive the assignment, discuss it with the client and determine the scope of the project.  At this point you should provide the client with a written outline of what you heard from him or her along with a suggested format for their approval.  Make sure to get this approval in writing.  They can’t say it isn’t what they wanted when they approved it in the first place.
  2. Interim Project Check-ins:  Schedule a few check-in meetings with the client and share with them where you are directionally.  This will give you a chance to course-correct early on if the project is going in a different direction than the client assumed it would.  You also can discuss early findings so that the client can determine if there needs to be changes to the project scope.  This is especially important if the end client is your client’s boss.  They will be able to best assess what their boss expects to see and will provide a perfect filter for you.
  3. Determine Ultimate Client:  A client who is never happy may be receiving feedback from above and it is the miscommunication between these different constituents that is creating the unhappiness with the deliverables.  To pre-empt this situation you should develop a strong relationship with your key contact upfront which will make any issues easier to deal with down the road.  Determine approval hierarchy at the beginning of the process and suggest participation by the ultimate approver at key meetings.  This way you will get direct feedback limiting misinterpretation of meaning.
  4. Compare the deliverables agreement to final output:  This seems pretty obvious, but often we get sidetracked.  Does your final presentation deliver against the original goals of the project?  If you went beyond the scope, did you still deliver against the original format as well?  You don’t want to enter a meeting having taken a different direction than project brief indicated – it is a sure recipe for disaster.

 

But what do you do if they say, “This isn’t what I was expecting” and it isn’t the first time you have heard it?

  1. Stay calm:  This may not be your fault; it probably isn’t.  Getting upset and angry won’t solve the problem or magically change what you have delivered.  Also, it will make it harder to focus on a clear solution.
  2. Ask questions to get to the source of the problem:  What didn’t you deliver on?  Did you answer the questions that were posed by the brief and deliver on expectations?  Read between the lines of what they are saying.
  3. Review the original deliverables document with the client:  Review the document with them and compare with them what you delivered vs. the original agreement.  Discuss what you each see as the differences.  Once you review they may back down since it is all written down in black and white.  Do not get defensive – stay calm!  You don’t want it to become a he said/she said argument, but you need to take them down the same path you went to get to the end product.  If you are working with someone in between you and the ultimate client (their boss) then it might be best to let your direct client work with the boss to resolve the issue, especially if your immediate contact approved the work along the way.
  4. Determine what needs to be done to satisfy them:   Determine how much additional work must be done and if it can be done within the financial scope of the project (or at least close to it).  Work with your client contact to address the revised scope of the project and include a firm timeline, and get it all in writing again.  Can you deliver a little extra to show you how important the work is to you?  The appearance of some kind of bonus can often help alleviate the bad feelings.

The reality is that some clients are never happy and there is rarely a magic bullet to fix it.  The client wants to blame others for their miscommunications or for changing their minds on the deliverables.  It’s possible things may have changed on their end and they didn’t communicate how those changes would affect what you were working on.  You can go back a couple of times in the interest of partnership and rework the effort to make sure you have met expectations.  However, in the end, if that still doesn’t get a satisfactory result, you may just have to cut your losses and walk away.

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