Dealing with Impossible Clients: What to Do with a Client Who Makes Mistakes

Side profile of two businessmen fighting
Side profile of two businessmen fighting

I began thinking about dealing with impossible or difficult clients after my own nightmare in working with a client who kept making mistakes, resulting in the client and her family spending hours correcting these mistakes, and then correcting these corrections. Afterwards the client wanted to pay me less because they had to spend all of this time finishing the project, as well as pay a specialist even more to correct one of their errors. But more about that later.

In thinking about this client, I found there has long been a series of books and articles about dealing with difficult people in one's life, perhaps dating back to the classic book Coping with Difficult People by Robert M. Branson, Ph.D. published in 1988 by Dell. Others have names like People Can't Drive You Crazy If You Don't Give Them the Keys by Mike Bectle, and Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them by Ronald M. Shapiro, Mark A. Jankowski, and James M. Dale.

However, these books focus on problems in personal relationships, especially in dating and marriage, and at work in dealing with co-workers and bosses, and sometimes employees. But they don't deal with how to handle difficult and impossible clients, though there are now nearly 28 million small businesses in the U.S., and three-quarters of them are sole proprietorships and 52% are home-based businesses. As for businesses providing professional services, there are about 760,000 firms.

If you think of it, all of these businesses may potentially have problems with difficult and impossible clients. So what should they do? That's why I thought I'd write about this in a series of articles directed towards these millions of small businesses and professional service providers.

Which brings me back to my difficult clients who made mistakes that inspired this series. The problem began innocently enough. A client I met at one of my workshops on preparing proposals, finding agents and publishers, and publishing your own book called to say that her family wanted to publish her son's children's book. The client, I'll call Roberta, wanted me to first edit the book and then upload it to a popular self-publishing platform, CreateSpace. She said she only had enough money for part of the job, which had to be done now in time for her son's birthday, but she would have the rest in a week. So I relaxed my usual rule which most writers and editors have with individual clients of getting paid in advance for the work to be done.

At once, the series of mistakes began. First, though I was publishing their book on CreateSpace, they set up their account on Kindle. So their account name and password so I could set up their book on the site didn't work, so I initially told them what to do as I set up a book in my own account, until we discovered the mistake, and I signed on to their account.

Then, after I had edited their manuscript and inserted the pictures to appear on the right page while the text was on the left page on opening the book, the manuscript was ready to go. The son just had to check it over, make any final crops on the pictures, and either he or I could upload it.

But then came a series of mistakes and phone calls for me to help them fix their mistakes. First, their son decided to combine some of the text and photos on the same page, though he used the original unedited manuscript. Unfortunately, when his mother sent back the file for me to review, some of the photos were much larger and outside the margins. Once he fixed that and uploaded the manuscript, it was rejected because it was now below 24 pages, since he had combined the most of the text and photos on the same page. After he reinserted the photos and copy, they were reversed, so the photos were on the left and the text on the right. When I pointed that out, he redid the manuscript to correct it, but since he was working on the unedited manuscript, he had to copy and paste the edited copy into that.

After that, he was adamant he wanted to use his own cover, not a template, but he didn't follow the specs for designing a cover, so at first, he didn't have the right size or a spine, and after he corrected that, the company advised him the cover was unacceptable, because he had designed the front cover on the left and the back cover on the right like he was creating a poster, rather than a book cover where the front cover is on the right and the back cover on the left, since it folds behind the book. Though he could have made the swap himself, he hired the company's design service complete his cover.

At this point, because all his mistakes and changes resulted in more costs, Roberta called me, asking me to reduce the remaining payment I hadn't yet charged. Since I hadn't yet charged the balance, I agreed, rather than object on the grounds that all these extra costs and time were of their own making. Then, I feared, I might not get paid at all, though I had spent several extra hours helping the son fix his mistakes, due to not following my instructions or the company's specs which I pointed out to him

The experience got me thinking about what to do in the future in dealing with payments and mistakes by a client resulting in a lot of extra work and costs - and what others might do in a like situation. So here are my takeaways.
1. Get a retainer or payment in advance, and clearly indicate what this is for.
2. Explain to the client that they are welcome to make changes, but caution them about the risks of added work and costs, if they make these changes on their own.
3. Explain that if they make mistakes in making these changes, they will still be responsible for the extra time you spend to correct their mistakes.
4. Gently point out the client's mistakes, so the client recognizes them and does not think you have made them.
5. Write up these guidelines about dealing with mistakes and submit them to the client before beginning the project or while doing the work, when the issue of making changes comes up.
6. Ask the client to sign or acknowledge these guidelines in an email.

Future posts on this subject will deal with other stories of problems with clients, and I invite readers to send in their stories, which I can post and comment on in future blogs.

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Gini Graham Scott, PhD, writes frequently about social trends and everyday life. She is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients and has written and produced over 50 short videos through Changemakers Productions and is a partner in a service that connects writers to publishers, agents, and the film industry. Her latest books include: Resolving Conflict and Lies and Liars: How and Why Sociopaths Lie and How to Detect and Deal With Them.