Avoiding Client Conflict - interview with Zach Alig
Other than pricing, probably the biggest concern for a freelancer or studio is the question of how to manage clients. I had a chance to sit down with Zach Alig, a veteran Production Manager at JH Media Group, in Athens, Ga., about his approaches on managing relationships and avoiding client conflict.

BrainLeaf: First, tell me a little about yourself, where you work and what you do.

Zach: I manage the production team for a design & development studio. We are a small team of developers and designers, and we build websites and apps. We have a variety of client projects ranging from small projects to large scale medical systems. I manage two full-time designers, one full-time developer and a host of contractors. I also manage the budget and make sure everything related to a project happens on time and within the budget.

BrainLeaf: What are some of the most common sources of client conflict you’ve seen?

Zach: Mismatched expectations are the number one source of client conflict. When people make assumptions on any side, you can get to a point you realize those assumptions are completely wrong. To avoid this kind of conflict you have to set the right expectations and eliminate as many assumptions as possible.

The second source of conflict is intense anxiety. Clients hire us to do something they cannot do themselves, which means they often have very little knowledge or direct control of the build process. They are also spending a lot of money and taking personal risks when they put trust in you. This lack of control results in intense anxiety, particularly around product launch time.

Adding anxiety on top of mismatched expectations is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

BrainLeaf: How do you build trust with a new client?

Zach: By making few promises, and keeping the ones that you do.

BrainLeaf: How would you repair a relationship that’s gone sour?

Zach: It has to be addressed on an individual level. You have to treat every client as an individual, and try to understand what their concerns are. Most of the time it’s just a matter of listening and saying things like, “I understand where you’re coming from” and “I hear you.” When you listen well, you can talk them through their anxiety by letting them know what’s happening on your end and what you’re doing to address their concerns.

Listen well. Admit when you’re wrong. Do what you can to make it better.

BrainLeaf: What rules do you set for yourself to avoid client conflict?

Zach: There aren’t really rules, more like guidelines. My mantra is to try to have no surprises, which you can do with good communication and setting realistic expectations. An example of this is padding any estimates you make. Think, “what would this cost in an ‘almost worst-case’ scenario?” I sometimes refer to practices like this as front-loading disappointment. If you set realistic, or even slightly pessimistic expectations, you can then work hard and exceed them! It works.

BrainLeaf: What’s the worst client conflict situation you’ve heard? How would you have handled the situation?

Zach: This is a general answer, but the worst is when an overly optimistic picture is ‘painted’ for a client early on to close the sale, or avoid difficult conversations. Early on in an account, the client is told one thing, but the realities are glossed over or left out completely. It’s understandable. Nobody likes hard conversations! Also, we really, really want new clients to like us, right?

The truth is, hard conversations are inevitable because we build in the real world with tough constraints of time and money. From the very start, you should get these hard conversations out of the way. How much is the project really going to cost? How long will it take to actually launch? These things are not fun to talk about, but do it anyway. It pays off because clients will begin to trust you when you’re able to consistently keep your word.

When it comes to dealing with an actual conflict, the best way to solve a problem is face it head-on. Be brave. Be honest. Make the phone call, don’t wait for the phone call, etc. It’s inevitable that, even if you’ve done everything right, conflict will happen. It’s temporary, and you can totally handle it! It helps me a lot to remember that anger is almost always a secondary emotion, so if a client is yelling they are commonly scared or anxious. Listen for that subtext and try to speak to it and solve the problem.

At the end of the day, if you’ve done your best, repeatedly tried to solve the problem, and it won’t go away it may be time to consider whether you’ve got a bad client on your hands.

BrainLeaf: As a freelancer, you sometimes feel desperate for any new project, and it’s often those projects that end in a mess. Do you have any way of measuring potential clients, making sure they are someone you want to work with?

Zach: That’s a good question. There are two factors to consider: One, Is the potential stress this person is going to add to my life worth the money? And two, is taking on this client a good business decision?

It’s not just a question of, “can I take this emotionally?” I’m convinced that bad or unkind clients are bad business decisions, as in they will cost you money. Many difficult clients end up being a loss if you include all the time you spent talking them down or catering to their unreasonable and neverending needs.

It is scary to walk away from a client, but you should consider every new client as a business partnership, because we usually have relatively long term relationships with them. It never ends when the project is over. If it’s going to be positive over a long period of time, then it must be a mutually beneficial partnership.

Sometimes you just don’t know if they’re going to be a problem because people can be real charmers. But more often than not, your gut instinct is correct. You can often tell just by going through the proposal process. The way the client communicates with you about contracts is probably how they will communicate about revisions etc. in the future. Are they reasonable? Do they give you good feedback? You should be able to tell right off the bat because writing the proposal is really a deliverable. If your gut says ‘no,’ start looking for a way to duck out before commitments are made.

BrainLeaf: Do you have any advice for designers taking on their first client?

Zach: I generally don’t recommend doing anything for free, but if it’s literally your first project, you have to earn trust and demonstrate skill before you’re going to be able to ask for money. One of the best ways to learn a new skill is to take something you inherently care about and do a project for it. A community group or organization you already know and care about is a good place to start. After you’ve done your first project, the principles remain the same. Once you have proof of skill in your portfolio, don’t be afraid to charge for your work.

As a freelancer, you don’t need much business—you can have 1-2 active projects at a time and make a great living. You don’t have to do a lot of selling. You just need to be active in life. Go to meet-ups or other events and talk to people. When I was freelancing in Atlanta, I would sometimes go to a makerspace called Freeside. We messed around with robotics and a bunch of other stuff totally unrelated to interactive work, but I got several great clients out of casual conversations there. So long as you are putting yourself out there, it won’t take much to secure a client when you need to.

BrainLeaf: Are there any tools you use to help manage client relations and expectations?

Zach: I’m not a big fan of holding up tools as solutions to problems. Do whatever works for you and be really empathetic with your clients. Treating the client relationship as you would any relationship in your life.

That said, I’ll answer your question! For day-to-day interactions I use Jira Agile to keep track of all incoming requests. We also use Basecamp for all client communications as there are some blind spots with email. In Basecamp, all discussions are in a thread, and clients seem to have an easy time using it. But it’s really about whatever works best for you, not necessarily these tools.

BrainLeaf: Final thoughts on minimizing client conflict?

Zach: Yes, make sure you secure enough budget to finish the project! A recent realization I’ve had is that we work in ahaggling industry.’ Everybody expects to haggle on a proposal the same way they haggle about a car on the sales lot. Clients feel like they aren’t doing their job if they don’t try to get some money off, just as anyone who bought a car at sticker price might be considered lazy or passive. I’ve started allowing for this in estimates.  I pad a little more time or add some optional pre-approved, post-launch support. It’s amazingly helpful and helps ensure that the final approved amount is enough to keep on budget and on deadline, even after ‘cutting’ a grand or so. As a person who despises haggling, I didn’t realize this dynamic until I’d been doing this for years!

You can follow Zach on Twitter at @zachalig.