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I’ve written before about what to do with ungrateful clients (Those *#^$%&#$ Ungrateful Clients!). Since I regularly work with organizations that are dealing with ungrateful clients, I’m writing about the problem again.

Here’s an example. I’ll change some of the identifying details, but basically the dispute was about a website-design company that was developing a new web site for a human factors engineer who specialized in consulting with memory-care facilities. The design company had been in business for years, and they had a lot of delighted clients. They’d survived the aftermath of the dot.com bubble and the recession after the housing bubble, that’s how good and business-smart they were.

The project started out well, but the relationship got strained after the design was signed off on and Website Design Company began implementing the site. The feedback they got from Human Factors Engineer was increasingly critical; he thought their work was sloppy and the interface didn’t meet current usability standards. Website Design Company got tired of Human Factors Engineer requiring changes that didn’t need to be made until much later in the process.

When Website Design Company told their client that they needed a new schedule and additional budget to accommodate his attention to detail (as they diplomatically put it), the client wanted out of the contract and demanded his deposit back.

When I work with clients like Website Design Company, often the greatest value I can provide to them is to help them put one ungrateful client into context. When I was caucusing with the founder and creative director of Website Design Company, one of the questions I asked her was, “Given how many years you’ve been in business, and how many delighted clients you have, how much does this one client need to matter to you?”

“He doesn’t matter at all,” she replied. Her happy clients who loved the work her company did, they were the ones who mattered.

With Human Factors Engineer and clients like him, often the greatest value I can provide them is to surface the underlying reasons that they’re not happy with a vendor’s work. Human Factors Engineer, when he was an undergraduate, had studied usability design for human-computer interfaces, and knew a lot more about website design than 99% of Website Design Company’s clients. What he saw as their sloppiness was actually their way of getting at critical design decisions with clients who weren’t trained to notice the details that hadn’t been finalized.

When I got the clients back into the mediation room together, my work with them in the private sessions paid off. Website Design Company and Human Factors Engineer agreed – diplomatically – that they preferred to not continue working together. Human Factors Engineer acknowledged that the design was of value to him, along with the results of the proprietary client assessment instrument that Website Design Company had performed. They settled on a partial refund, I wrote up their agreement, and they went their separate ways.

If you’re ever dealing with an ungrateful client, consider finding a graceful and professional way to ease out of the contract. If the client wants out, consider agreeing. One unhappy client out of many delighted clients isn’t worth worrying about.

Yes, You Can Deal with Strong Emotions
How I Get Rude Clients to Behave

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