How to Deal with Demanding and Unrealistic Clients

April 15, 2014


If you are a small business owner like me, chances are you have dealt with clients who want instant results. During the early years of our search engine optimization business, we took on a small handful of such clients, mostly because we were eager to get the business. So eager that when they said that they needed to see results within an unrealistic timeframe, we took on the projects even though we weren’t 100 per cent sure that we’d be able to accomplish them.

Despite the fact that we worked our hardest to deliver results for the clients, there were occasions when we missed timelines. The result: a few disappointed clients who would eventually switch to other companies guaranteeing quicker results.

Losing clients we had worked hard for was certainly a letdown.

Standing firm

After several such experiences, our team began to wonder what would have happened during the initial negotiations if we had stood firm on not being able to deliver on the clients’ timelines. And what if we had explained that we wanted to follow all of the proper SEO tactics so they would remain in good standing across all of the major search engines? Would the clients have looked for another company? Possibly. But we also thought it was possible they would have still hired us, after appreciating our experience and our ability to set realistic expectations.

The test

We decided to test that theory. Fortunately, it worked many more times than it failed. And when it worked, we would end up with smoother, easier working relationships and happier clients in the end. And repeat clients, too.

Our firm now follows specific principles and steps to developing healthy and realistic client relationships.

Two guiding principles

Our two main principles are:

  1. We never promise the client that a project or task will be completed by a specific date when we know we cannot meet the deadline.
  2. We never promise certain results that we do not believe we can deliver.

Nine steps to happy clients

Here’s the nine-step process we use to set a realistic timeframe, fulfill all of our deliverables and keep our clients excited and engaged:

1. Be forthright with the client about how long similar projects typically take.

2. Set a timeline based on experience and realistic expectations.

3. Add extra cushioning on deadline dates, in the event of unforeseen issues.

4. Provide the client with a schedule of tasks and deliverables, and let them know when to expect to see results.

5. Be sure the client knows what is and isn’t included in the project mandate, and what the repercussions are for work they request that is beyond scope.

6. Provide a list of the benefits the client can expect from the work and when they can expect to see results.

Once we’ve started on the project, we follow these last three steps:

7. Provide reports that record when a task is completed or a goal is reached.

8. Inform the client immediately if any issues arise. (Transparency saves time in the long run.)

9. Communicate with the client, and listen carefully to their feedback (they invariably provide valuable insights). Communication allows the process to become collaborative and the client will feel more involved in the project and more excited by the results.

Finally …

If you are a small business owner, you don’t need to promise the world in order to secure a client. By being forthright and realistic, your client will appreciate your honesty and come to understand the true meaning of the motto, “Patience is a virtue.” Ultimately, this will result in a satisfied client and a more rewarding–and less stressful–process for all.

More great ideas to grow your business

Discover 3 ways to smell a bad client from a mile away.

Learn 5 ways to deal with dead-beat clients.

Check out the best terms and conditions checklist for website designers.

Find out 4 ways to handle price-obsessed prospects.

FreshBooks Tip

Discover how to use value-pricing as a strategy to move up market and work with the best possible clients.


about the author

This is a guest post for the FreshBooks blog. FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.