Why Your Client Hates You Right Now (and How to Prevent It in the Future)

This time last year, I was working in client services as a project manager with a great digital agency I loved. I originally got into project management because I was tired of seeing creative professionals being taken advantage of by their managers, their clients, or both. Now I work in-house as a content strategist, and I have personal experience on why clients can come to truly loathe their vendors (often to their complete surprise). In the words of the infamous Ice Cube, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Here's why you might be hated.

  • You deliver sloppy work. Part of solid project management is making sure any deliverables you present for client acceptance meet quality requirements and generally using your noggin to look at them through a client's eyes. If you're simply passing on work from creator to client, you're not doing your job (full disclosure: I learned this lesson early on from a great client who was so detail oriented he could catch something that was one pixel off.)
  • You miss deadlines (especially early on). Do not be the first to miss a deadline in a project; it sets awful expectations and does the opposite of building trust. Set reasonable deadlines that you can hit—and if things get tight, double down to make it happen on time. When you go above and beyond to keep your word, your client will be encouraged to do the same.
  • You don't help the client understand what they don't know. Part of your job as a hired hand is to help your client understand something that is not their everyday. Help them think through their choices (focusing on defining a problem rather than specifying a solution, for example), and let them know what to expect during your specific process.
  • You don't negotiate. Scope changes, budgets get blown, and deadlines are missed—and usually this isn't the fault of one side alone. If you've been part of the problem, be part of the solution. It's okay to acknowledge when you're doing more than you may be contractually obligated to do, but use this as a "we're on the same team" opportunity to keep the relationship positive and professional.
  • You make the client look bad to their team. There's nothing more frustrating than having to explain to your boss (or the people who work with and for you, for that matter) why a project went off the rails. Don't make your client go on the defense—help them look good to the people that matter to them.
None of these issues means we should abandon project management. In fact, I'd argue that excellent project management can absolutely make the difference between a project I can't wait to get done with and one that I rave about for months.
It's totally possible to build a love-love relationship.
  • Deliver excellent work, especially early on. Prove that you know how to listen to the core of what a client is saying and that you can bring your smart expertise to the table. Show this early on and you'll build trust for the rest of the project.
  • Talk about scope at the right level. They say children love limits, and it's true for clients as well (although neither would likely ever say that). Clients don't hate scope restrictions—they hate running up against restrictions they didn't see coming. Set a scope that is broad enough for them to actually understand but distinct enough for them to see for themselves when they're butting up against scope creep.
  • Set them up to manage their stakeholders internally. Everyone has an opinion, and nothing brings out ego like creative projects (we've all heard "well my wife thinks this font is too small" kind of comments). Help your client manage their internal stakeholders by giving them ample time to collect feedback and a clear process for presenting it (e.g., ask them to provide one document with cohesive feedback within 5 business days of presenting a draft).
  • Have a contingency plan. Even the best laid plans can go haywire with one weird stakeholder jumping in last minute or a ship date change out of the blue. Be ready for this by providing a contingency budget you can draw from if your client needs one more round of changes or a rush on this version. You'll all hope to never use it, but you'll be so happy that it's there if you need it.
When you manage a project well, you'll have a team that feels good about the work they've done and a client that's eager to work with you again—that's how you'll know you did your job well.