How to Wake Up From A Professional Nightmare


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Setting Client Expectations: Learning and Improving the Hard Way

A couple of weeks ago, after receiving a series of hostile emails from a client, I burst into tears. I spent that night sleepless, having conversations in my head with this client who I felt had treated me badly and debating how best to walk away from the project.
Now, three weeks later, the project is successfully completed. Communication has lost some of its nastiness and I have made my best effort to make this client happy.

A business coach I work with, Maura Fredericks, often reminds me to remove/separate emotion from business. In this case, part of the problem was that the tone of communication from this client was so hostile, I was unable to see past how this made me feel instead of stepping back and trying to understand what was causing the hostility.

The experience was devastating for a while, but also enlightening. After my initial feeling that I had been wronged, I started to imagine the situation from the client’s perspective. In doing so I realized that, while I thought I communicated the design and development process to this client, I could have done a better job of setting expectations clearly to protect myself and my client from disappointment.

The result of this experience is that I have taken some immediate steps to improve my process and to reflect on aspects of this situation that could have prevented the conflict.


Looking back, I should probably not have taken on this project. In our first meeting, the client told me they had worked with other agencies and designers and had ended ultimately ended the relationships. Most of us have taken over websites from developers and agencies who dropped off the face of the earth or were not able to service the client, but this client indicated multiple severed relationships. The client also asked me to reduce my proposal by $1000 by taking one task off the list (which was not by itself worth this amount of reduction). Despite these warning signs, I agreed to take the job, because the brand is interesting, the project had some nuances that intrigued me, and the client wanted on going maintenance, so I saw the potential long term benefits as well.


One of the first resources I turned to after I pulled myself together during this experience was sign up for Erin Flynn’s “Nightmare Clients” section on her website. Erin provides some great email templates to use in difficult client situations and provides advice on how to avoid nightmares to begin with.

Erin provides lots of brilliant words of wisdom! She says: “Remember: you expect certain things from the client, and the client expects certain things from you! … When expectations are not met, people get frustrated and angry …. Screening clients and communicating clearly helps make sure everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected of them.”

With that in mind, I set myself to immediately improve my systems and processes.

I already use Teamwork for project management and communication. It is a great tool, but I have found my clients don’t really USE it. It has basically become a method for managing messages and keeping them in one place, but the tasks/due dates, links and files are not used by clients, who don’t ever log into Teamwork. To improve this process, without burdening clients with extra logins and extra work, I have started setting up “Canned Responses” in Gmail.

This could be a life changer! I am setting up emails to send to clients on a regular basis. In addition, I can use this as an opportunity to let clients know what I am working on for them, what I am waiting for from them, and to review next steps and procedures. Jennifer and Brian Bourn have spoken and written about automating client communication, and exceeding expectations by communicating well on a regular basis with clients – I have had it on my list to implement this in my workflow and this experience reinforced this as a priority.

Canned responses are not automated, but they sure improve my workflow – I can personalize the messages as much as I need to, but the process is very quick and easy to implement. And, I can copy the teamwork message address into the gmail message and also add the text into my task templates in Teamwork in the off chance clients actually look at the Tasks!

Here are the email templates/responses I have created so far:

  • After first meeting recap/follow up with review of next steps/process
  • Reminder for content due (with date – send a few days before deadline)
  • Sending wireframe document (one version if presenting on person, another version if not)
  • After wireframe recap/follow up with review of next steps/process
  • Revisions to wireframe message
  • Update on design in progress, with reminder for any content due
  • Before presenting design message, reviewing steps after design presentation
  • After design presentation, with area for specific details from meeting recap, reviewing next steps (Clear message that changes require change order.)
  • After design approval. Clear message that changes require change order.
  • Change Order Notification.
  • Check in with update on development process, reminder for any outstanding content due or questions to be answered.
  • Pre-Launch Checklist
  • Post Launch – Sign Up For Maintenance


In hindsight, I realize I tend to be too casual about change orders. Clients don’t always understand what a “minor” change includes, which might not require a change order, versus a change in scope that is more involved. Also, a few minor changes may be easily accommodated and not be worth a change order, but 10 pages of “minor” changes could total many hours, which obviously expands the scope. What happens when you reach an impasse with a client who insists on changes and doesn’t want to pay you for your time to make them? Do you walk away, stick to your guns or work out a compromise?

In this case, I compromised … probably too much. Admittedly, I have never disappointed a client and was not prepared to live with that feeling this time, but it has forced me to think about how much I value my time and respect myself. I have been considering when it might be worth walking away from a project in order to save my self-respect at the expense of losing a client.


One of the most helpful things I did in the midst of this “crisis” was to reach out to my friends on Slack. I received words of comfort, support and stories which made me realize I am not the only one who has faced a difficult client relationship. I also reached out to my local network of women entrepreneurs, who were encouraging and listened to me whine. (In full disclosure, in the heat of the moment, I also reached out to some colleagues I should not have, so also realize that I need to be more careful with knee-jerk reactions).

Have you lost sleep over business situations? How did you manage to regain your composure, fall back asleep and move forward?

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