When the client wants to sail into treacherous waters

This week I’ve been volleying multiple rounds of design choices at a client. Of course, I started with one choice – you know, the one I thought was best.

I’ve wrestled with this question many times before:

What is the right thing to do when the client wants to sail into treacherous waters?

And behind it come many more:

  1. What is the job people hire me to do for them?
  2. What is my role in relationship to my clients?
  3. What is my responsibility to my clients as a design and engineering professional?
  4. What makes me think I know better than my clients?
  5. What response can I live with in the worst case scenario?

When things get ugly

A few years ago my team completed a web application for a client. This app was to BE the client’s business.

We did good work. We gave good service. And as the team lead, I mostly did what the client wanted, even when I would never have done it that way myself. After all, the client was the subject expert. And this was their money and their company.

Years later, the client still hasn’t gotten traction selling the app. This could happen in any case, but I’m left with the sick feeling that I might have been able to prevent the client’s failure to realize the success they expected.

Finding my way

I’m always looking for guiding principles to help me make everyday decisions. When faced with a client that wants to pay me to do work that I don’t believe is in their best interest, these questions lead me towards answers:

  1. Is this decision likely to meaningfully affect the project outcomes the client cares about?
  2. Does the client have proven expertise that informs how this particular decision should be made?
  3. Do I have proven expertise that informs how this particular decision should be made?
  4. How sure am I that what the client wants is going to hurt them?

Balancing the roles

My clients hire me to help them navigate the seas of the world wide web, to reach their market and achieve their goals, not to take orders. There are plenty of people out there who can operate Photoshop or write code to the client’s spec without thought.

On the other hand, the client knows their business better than anyone else (I hope!) and I am in business to serve them. And they have the final decision making authority.

At the end of the day, my responsibility is to always act in the best interest of my client, even if it hurts me.

Where the rudder meets the rolling seas

So what should I do when the client wants to sail into treacherous waters?

  1. Review – How important is this decision really? Is my position personal preference or professional belief? How qualified am I, and is the client, to inform this decision? Would outside counsel be helpful?
  2. Listen – Ask questions and take the time to understand the real reasons behind why the client wants it the way they do.
  3. Share – Kindly tell the client what I believe is best, how I’ve arrived at that conclusion, and what relative importance I think this decision has.
  4. Decide – Ultimately, the client decides what to do. All I can do is give professional counsel as thoughtfully and persuasively as possible. But if I truly believe the client’s decision will hurt them in a meaningful way, I should be willing to walk away from the engagement, with an attitude of humility and true care for them.

This time around

This week, I don’t believe the design decisions at hand will make or break the outcomes for the client – we’re just looking at a detour, no reefs or rocks. And in some ways, as is often the case, the client’s feedback helped sharpen my work. I wouldn’t have picked the approach they asked for, but this one is not worth fighting over (on the client’s behalf).


How do you respond when a client wants you to do work you don’t feel you can stand behind? Drop me a line or leave a comment below.

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