What To Do When A Client Hates Your Work

DING! A new email!

To: Will Myers
 From: John, the Client
 Subject: Re: Logo Designs

“What made you think that was even appropriate to send us? We just spent the last hour making fun of all the logo designs you sent. I expect an explanation about why you thought these were good designs and new mock ups.”

I just sat there staring at my computer screen, the color draining from my face.

We had just mocked up some new logo designs for a client and sent them over asking for some basic feedback on which design direction they liked best — and that was the response we got.

My second impulse was to reply back, “It seems like we may have miscommunicated and given your response, I’m not sure that we’re a good fit to continue working together.” Or even, “Who the hell do you think you are to talk to me that way?! We’re out, find another designer to work with!”

But my first reaction was to be embarrassed about the work we sent.

“Yeah, who DO we think we are?”

“I’m not a real designer.”

“I’m a fraud.”

“I’m an imposter.”

As a new business owner, I was still getting my footing in the world of design, and although I had had some success up to that point, this email just shook my confidence.

We did respond in an email, being direct, but not confrontational, telling him we’d send some new designs over and apologizing that they were disappointed in the work we sent.

After hitting “send”, I took a breath, counted to 10, and started to get some perspective.

After a full nights rest and eating a well-balanced breakfast, I felt better immediately. Then the money started to pour in.Soon I was making MILLIONS IN MY SLEEP!

Yeah right….

What really happened is that after hitting “send” I couldn’t concentrate on any of my other work that day, I slept poorly, spiraled into a state of anxiety and my confidence plummeted as this same client continued to send rudely-worded and critical emails at just about every step of the process in working with them. The DING of every email gave me nausea, “Shit, who is it? Is he emailing to tell me how much I suck again?” I was honestly afraid to look at my email every morning. I had literal nightmares about this project and this client. 

Every shower I took was completely occupied with crafting eloquent verbal arguments in my head, responses that would leave him apologizing and me with a new sense of self-confidence… but of course I never actually used any of those shower-constructed arguments, and that never happened.

I told my family and friends the story, and being good friends, they would commiserate with me. I found such validation in me being “right” and him being “wrong”.

When I told my good friend / business guru / wise sage, Barney Cohen, about this whole situation with no small degree of frustration towards my client, this was his response:

“You know what, these are the people that will help you grow your business the most. Your customer pointed out a gaping hole in your business that you need fix; a problem that your friends and family wouldn’t point out.”

In our case, the hole that needed to be fixed was our design on-boarding and collaboration process. It was too loose and unstructured, with no clear expectations set with the client for each step in the process.

Barney taught me a business principle that I now run my business by:

“Your business must be great at everything.”

The Business-Owner Paradox

But, there’s a catch, and it turns this business principle into a business paradox:

“Your business must be great at everything- but you are not great at everything.”

I sure hope you know this already, but you’re not great at everything. We’re all predisposed to like some things and dislike others, to be naturally talented in one area and not so much in another. You simply will not ever be great at everything.

The problem is, your business must be great at everything.

  • Your business must be great at producing your product.

  • Your business must be great at delivering your product.

  • Your business must be great at selling.

  • Your business must be great at responding to emails.

  • Your business must be great at billing, accounting.

  • Your business must be great at marketing.

But you’re probably not great at all of those things.

Building a Business that’s great at everything

So, how do you create a business that is great at everything? You listen to what people, especially your clients, are telling you, no matter how much it sucks to hear it, and you fix things as you grow. Entrepreneurship is a messy business- what separates the good entrepreneurs from the bad, is that the good ones know how to clean their messes up.

Entrepreneurship is a messy business- what separates the good entrepreneurs from the bad, is that the good ones know how to clean their messes up.

Don’t hear me say that you should accept people talking down to you. But learn how to separate the message from the delivery.

This experience taught us that our internal processes for collaborating with clients on design work weren’t very clear. We assumed that, “Surely our clients will understand how our design process works.” But that’s obviously not true.

Of course looking back it seems like we should have known that, but especially when you are just getting started in business, many of the gaps in your processes and offerings don’t become apparent until they’re directly pointed out to you… kindly or otherwise.

We’ve since tightened up our communication on the front end about expectations, timelines, and process. And our business continues to grow. I still struggle with hearing criticism and not responding appropriately in the moment — but I’m working on it. :)

Eventually, with much angst on my end and several bluntly worded emails on theirs, we did land on a design that worked for their company and they they were pleased with, we completed the logo redesign, and moved on as a healthier business and with a better processes that would allow us to continue to grow.