Do you often feel out of your depth when managing web design clients?
Whether you’re a freelance web designer or work at a web design agency, handling clients is part of the job.
But how many times have you shrunken in the face of unexpected client feedback? How often have you crumbled and implemented their ideas, knowing that they’re objectively awful? This can be a real challenge for web developers, and in this article I’m going to give you a few simple assertiveness tips to help you lead web design projects with confidence. This will strengthen your position in negotiating situations, help you deal with conflict and improve your overall client relationship.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is a state that sits somewhere between passive and aggressive, and is a way in which you deal with any given scenario. If you’re passive in a situation, you are more likely to allow things to just happen, rather than take an active role in shaping the course of events. And when jolted out of our comfort zones forged by our passivity, we often respond aggressively.
To illustrate this I want to tell you about my dad. On family trips, he opts for a go with the flow attitude to making travel plans, and therefore barely contributes to any of the discussions we have about what to do or where to go during our trip. He’s very passive. That’s all well and good (I mean, he is basically having a trip planned for him!) but when we do something that he doesn’t enjoy, he gets very angry and ill-tempered. He behaves aggressively. Had my dad been more assertive in his preferences, these uncomfortable and frustrating situations could be avoided.
By practising assertiveness techniques, we can take control of situations at work and indeed in our personal lives, which enables us to enjoy a greater sense of confidence and command more respect from our friends, family members and colleagues.
Why assertiveness in business is so important
When I first became a freelance web designer back in 2009, I really had no idea what I was doing. I had no business model, no cash in the bank and struggled with confidence in social situations. Put me into business situations and I would likely crumble. (what was I thinking!?)
Embarrassing moments aside, the real problem with lacking confidence in this way is that it seriously impacts the way you do business. I found myself allowing scope creep to happen often, not being able to say “no” and letting clients pay their invoices WAY past their due date. This was partly down to the fear of potentially losing the work (saying “no” is scary) but also for fear of conflict.
But you don’t need to fall out with your clients in order to have things go your way: you just need to practice assertiveness.
Assertiveness tips for web designers: how to be assertive when working with clients
In a professional context being assertive overlaps with a whole host of other good business practices, such as having clear communication and strong project management skills. But at its heart, assertiveness requires, and builds, confidence. Therefore, its benefits are wide ranging. That is the importance of assertiveness in a nutshell. Let’s run through a few scenarios that you’ve likely faced as a freelance web designer…
Your client has missed the deadline for paying an invoice
Let’s tackle the most common concern of all: client’s not paying their invoices on time. If this has happened to you, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. When I started out, I would behave very passively in front of my client and aggressively in private. I’d write emails like “Hi again, just wondered if you’d seen my email about the outstanding invoice yet?”, but the look on my face as I typed would be 🤬
To respond to this, first of all I would urge you to have preventative measures in place, such as contractually agreed payment dates and a deposit for the work already in the bank. If you haven’t done this, it makes the situation significantly more difficult to deal with because you lack security. Especially if you’ve already handed over the work. But here’s what you need to do:
- Call, don’t email. It’s much harder to bat somebody away if you’re forced to speak with them than it is over text.
- Stop saying things like “I just wondered”. This sounds weak and puts you on the back-foot. When the client picks up the phone simply state (politely) that you have unpaid invoices and then say nothing. Seriously, silence can be extremely powerful and will prompt a response.
- Speak to them as an equal. You’re both business owners: empathise with them and politely enquire about their financial state. They might be struggling. If this is the case, suggest a payment plan or renegotiate the payment date.
These assertiveness techniques will help you avoid conflict with your client (it would be easy, but not helpful, to call them and shout down the line) and basically make them respect you more. If you’re clear, calm and professional, clients are far less likely to mess you around when it comes to invoice payments.
Your client expects you to do extra work beyond the agreed project scope (and refuses to pay for it)
Another very common occurrence in the web design process is functional requirements changing during the course of the project. Less-confident developers will passively accept the whims of their clients, where those with a more assertive attitude will handle it far better.
It’s important to recognise that change does happen, and often for the right reasons. An aggressive response would be to deny your client’s desire to change their mind. This would be detrimental to the relationship, and so instead you need to handle it. But how?
- Clearly state that this is a change of plan, but emphasise that it’s okay
- Give the client the option of paying more now to integrate their changes, or bundling the work into a second phase (for future payment).
This approach acknowledges that something has changed, makes assurances that that’s okay and makes it clear that the work must still be paid for. Don’t simply do extra work for fear of losing a client. They’re far more likely to respect you if you stand up for yourself. It is, unfortunately, the nature of business, and some clients will play hardball.
Your client is tardy in responding to your request for materials or feedback
For me, clients need to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the process. Yes, as web developers we are doing the job for them but your customer plays an important role in shaping the process and the outcome.
To this day, I have clients drop off the radar, or fail to provide materials which have been contractually agreed (like text content, raw assets such as print-quality logos and marketing materials such as photographs). These are the things designers need to carry out their work!
If you’re not getting the materials you need to do the job, it’s important to emphasise exactly that. To keep things simple, I tend to write short emails with bullet points that describe exactly what I need. I then stipulate a date by which it needs to be received, and make it clear that any agreed deadlines will slip if content has not been supplied by that point.
It’s important to capture everything and date-bound it. This way you can refer back to previous emails if things get tough. My key takeaway from this point is: keep control of the situation. Don’t allow your client to lead this bit of the project – they will likely be busy with lots of other things and your website project might be a low priority!
You and your client have creative differences
This is the polite way of saying “your client thinks your works sucks”. Or, as equally may be the case, you disagree with your clients feedback. This can be a terminal situation if handled poorly!
Creative people are often reluctant to compromise, but compromise is your friend here. An aggressive response would be to stubbornly reject your clients input, where a passive response would be to simply do everything they ask. Compromise. But this requires assertiveness.
If you can, back up your design decisions with evidence. If you can articulate why you’ve made the choices you have, and point to an external source for backup, this will give your choices more credence. For example, when urging a client not to use a carousel, I’ll quote usability data and even send them a link to this website!
Ultimately, however, your client is just that: the client, and it is their decision. But if you cite evidence to reinforce your opinion, and articulate your position clearly using “I” statements (e.g. I don’t believe this is the correct approach because … I feel the best approach is …) you can at least know that you tried your best. This is far better than rolling over or throwing your toys out of the pram!
Practice assertiveness techniques daily 📅
Being assertive in business, and in life, requires that you be self-aware in all situations. Recognise when you’re being passive, and check yourself when you feel your reaction is aggressive. Dwell on the thought patterns and behaviours that have brought you here, and back-trace them learn about yourself in this way.
When you learn how to be assertive, you’ll notice how much your relationships improve, your work improves and your income improves. This is one of those life hacks that will make you a more professional web designer, and a better businessperson. Go be assertive!