How to Make Sure Your Next Web Design Client Isn’t a Nightmare

This week I’m sharing strategies to make sure your next web design client isn’t a nightmare.

3 key lessons:

  • From the initial discovery call, it’s critical to set boundaries and manage the client’s expectations to set the tone for success.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate, even about how you’ll communicate. This gives your client clear expectations around timelines, what you need and when, and how submitting late work will impact their timeline.
  • Part of your business is developing project and client management skills. These will help you set those boundaries and value your time.

I also share:

  • My personal experience with nightmare clients as a web designer and how I grew to navigate them.
  • The importance of finding a “right” fit between web designer and client not every client will be right for you.
  • It’s hard to say no when someone wants to pay you, but if they aren’t your ideal client it’s okay to turn them down and even refer them to another designer.

Episode Transcript


Shannon Mattern: Welcome to the Profitable Web Designer, a podcast for web designers who want to work less and make more money. I'm your host Shannon Mattern, founder of the Web Designer Academy, where we've helped hundreds of web designers stop under charging, overworking and create profitable sustainable web design businesses.

Shannon Mattern: Hey there, welcome back to the Profitable Web Designer Podcast. And today I'm talking about how to make sure your next web design client or project isn't a total nightmare. And so lately I've been having a blast hanging out on threads. It's been that new social media platform that launched about a week ago. So at the time of this recording, it's about one week old. Let's see if by the time you listen to this podcast, it's still a thing and if people are still hanging out there. But if it is, definitely connect with me. I'm at Profitable Web Designer both on Instagram and Threads and that is a place that I have found it so easy to connect and create content and post because the like level of effort is is pretty low, right? I don't have to like make graphics and all of this stuff.

Shannon Mattern: I just get to show up and kind of share thought leadership, connect with people and have conversations and it's super fun. And one of the posts or one of the threads I was following was someone that said like Share your nightmare web design client's stories. And then they were like, yeah, someone like yelled at me on the phone for 20 minutes straight and I'm just like, oh my gosh, please listen to this podcast because we don't have to deal with that stuff as web designers, right? Like if they yelled at me for 30 seconds, I would be ending that phone call. But there's lots of reasons that we don't do that, right? And so that's what this podcast is gonna get into is like not only how do you make sure that your next web design client or project isn't a nightmare, but how to handle it if it does go down that road because you don't have to deal with that, okay?

Shannon Mattern: We get to take our power back as designers. We don't need to allow people to treat us that way. So this podcast episode I originally wrote as a blog post a few years ago and at that time I also crowdsourced people to like share their bad experiences with me on both sides. I was super curious like where does this go wrong? Where does it go so wrong when clients have these nightmare stories about web designers and web designers have these nightmare stories about clients. And I heard so many stories. Someone shared that she spent $5,000 on a custom website paid for all before anything happened and years later was still waiting for it. And she shared that She was so devastated that she just gave up on it. She was like devastated and she was like ashamed of herself too. She was like, oh my gosh, she was blaming herself like I shouldn't pay, shouldn't have paid upfront for all of it.

Shannon Mattern: And then she tried to d i y and she says like she's still distrustful and realized like, oh, the person that she worked with, she didn't think that they knew what they were doing or how to run a business and she didn't really know what was required of her too. And it's stuff like that I'm just like, ugh, we can, as if you're listening to this podcast, it means that you care about your client's experience and that you care that your business is set up to be able to provide an incredible experience to your clients. That you're actually have the capacity to serve them at the a high level because you have 'cause you're charging appropriately and you have systems and processes in place to deliver. And so it just breaks my heart that she blamed herself for that. And another person told me that her first web designer offered to build a website for free and they just paid for hosting and they went ahead and did that.

Shannon Mattern: But then they couldn't get ahold of him for anything. He just disappeared and they couldn't get a, any updates done to the site at all. Trust completely went. And now they will only d I yy their website and she said they, she learned that there's no such thing as a free lunch. And on the client side, like we think as designers that we have to do things for cheap and for free. But when we do that, our business becomes unsustainable. This guy didn't just disappear likely because he's a jerk. He probably disappeared because the way he built his business to build free websites and pay for hosting was completely unsustainable because then his time was going to be required maintaining those websites , right? And another client story, Deb, she's shared that her experience was like, it seems like it always takes them twice as long to complete the projects as what they quote one person.

Shannon Mattern: All they wanted to do was argue. So they fired. So she fired them. The second person said it'd be done in 45 days and they didn't like do all of the things that she wanted done and all of this stuff. And as I was reading what she shared, she wanted all of these things and he didn't create them for her, but she never communicated them in the first place. But he never asked either. So it's like lack of communication in a lot of places. Lack of communications systems, sustainable business practices that creates these really bad situations. And you could sit here listening to this and be like, oh, it's all the client's fault, or oh, it's all the designer's fault. But the blame typically the responsibility, and I don't even wanna say blame, the responsibility lays on both sides. So on the flip side, I hear from web designers, especially web designers who are in our, who come to work with us in our program, they just cannot get content together for their clients.

Shannon Mattern: Or they're like, I wanna launch in two weeks, but they haven't gotten any of the content to the designer. And you know, they're like, oh, I keep telling her I need that content and that there's no way we'll be ready by her launch date, but she's insistent that I have to have it done, done then. And so if you have experienced any of this type of thing, I just want you to know like you're so normal and you're not alone. And we spend so much time as web designers like learning the skill, right? It's like, oh, we feel like we need to be excellent at graphic design and web design and SS e o and all of the things. And you, you take classes and courses to learn the skill. But what happens is you don't develop the skill to deal with people. So whereas you can spin up a website in a couple days and have it done and out the door, when you add the variable of a human, another human into the project, it changes the whole dynamic completely.

Shannon Mattern: And it's a learnable skill to manage clients and it is a learnable skill to run projects. But you have to deconstruct everything you think about what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do and who's in charge and who's running the show in order to be able to do this. And listen, I am not immune to challenging projects and clients, especially when I was just starting out. I had so much trouble getting content from clients, you know, revisions got completely outta hand and projects would drag on and on and on beyond the target completion dates. It left me spread way too thin with so many open projects at once. And this is probably a whole nother podcast episode in and of itself. I remember when people would come to me, those few like client stories I shared with you in the beginning when people like that who had been burned by another web designer would come to me feeling desperate and so afraid to trust hiring someone again because they'd had such a bad experience with another designer, I'd want to help them so much.

Shannon Mattern: I'm like, oh my gosh, that's horrible that that happened to you. That should have never happened. That designer should have done X, Y, Z. And I wanted to help them so much. I wanted to like swoop in and save them and prove that I wasn't like that. But the on the flip side, I also felt like it was my responsibility to save them money because they already lost so much. Like for the, the person that paid someone $5,000 and their website and their designer completely ghosted her, I'd feel responsible for that. I know it sounds like so backwards, but I felt responsible for that. Like somehow I just felt guilty or I felt like I needed to save them or I didn't want them to have to spend more money on this. So I'd massively undercharge. And so when our students come to me now and they say they always come on coaching calls and they're like, oh my gosh, I know I should charge this much for this project.

Shannon Mattern: It's a really big project. It's kind of a mess because their last person ghosted her and I feel really, really bad because she already spent this much money over here with this person and she didn't get what she wanted. I'm always like, okay, I know you wanna help this person, however would you take out your wallet and give her your own money to pay for that? And they're always like, well no. Like I'm like, would you just go ahead and like give her $5,000 right now to compensate her for what happened with someone else? And they're like, no, I would. Of course not. And I'm like, but that's what you're doing when you lower your price because they got ripped off by someone else. And I felt like I had a black mark on my record as a web designer even though I'd never worked with that person.

Shannon Mattern: Because as you hear people that get screwed over by other designers, they're like, the trust is gone. I don't trust anybody anymore. Like they wanna have their finger and everything 'cause they had a bad experience. And so it's one of those things where when you feel that way and you try to overwork to prove that you're not like other designers, I think I saw another post on threads from a designer that's like, oh my gosh, like I just dropped everything and rearranged my whole schedule for a client who had some emergency because their other designer wasn't available to do that. And I'm like, good for you. That's awesome. I hope you charged for that significantly because that is going to turn into an unsustainable way to run your business. Like you're gonna end up coming to me saying, I'm so burnt out and I'm not making enough money.

Shannon Mattern: , right? Because it's like you wanna sweep in and save the day. You wanna overwork and work twice as hard to earn people's trust to remove this faux black mark off your record. That's not even on on their record. And so eventually I learned, or I wouldn't say I learned, I integrated into my mind that clients who had been burned by other web designers became my nightmare clients because I'd end up undercharging and overdelivering for a situation that had nothing to do with do with me. So if there was any mention of a bad experience with another web designer that would be like a red flag for me, I'd be like, Nope, nope, nope, I can't work with you because I know that I'm gonna end up trying to prove myself because I think you think that I have to earn your trust, right? And that person may not even be thinking that at all.

Shannon Mattern: But I've like projected this story on them because of bad experiences I had had because I didn't have boundaries or know how to deal with other people and I had this need for people to like, like me and trust me and I assumed that they didn't because they had a bad experience with someone else. So that's just one example of how our thoughts and our own stuff comes up to create weird situations in our business that we do all kinds of self sabotaging stuff to avoid or deal with. If I have a conversation with someone on a consultation and they're like, yeah, here's what happened, I can hear that and acknowledge that and honor that and still present my pricing, my positioning, my offers, what I would do with them outside of like regardless independence of the fact that they had that bad experience happen.

Shannon Mattern: I don't have to accommodate their bad experience. I can still put forth how I run my business and give them a choice on whether or not they want to work with me. I don't have to like go deep to earn their trust because they had been burned by someone else. I get to let them decide if they want to trust me or not trust me. And that's a decision that only they can make. So I have heard so many stories of freelancers who want to burn down their business around the flip side, put a moat and a 40 foot fence around it because they've had so bad experiences with certain types of clients and then they write them off as nightmare clients. Like people will say to me, I'll never work with a brand new business owner ever again. They don't know what they want.

Shannon Mattern: They have too many revisions, they need too many things. Or I'll never work with someone who's had a bad experience with another web designer or I'll never work with this type of business. I'll never work with a company that has too many decision makers on the team. And so I am all about helping our Web Designer Academy students identify PHI client red flags and there absolutely are client red flags. Like there are absolutely situations and scenarios that you do not have to deal with. But what I want you to examine is where can you take your power back? Where are you giving your power away and where can you take it back and also empower other people to make their own decisions? So let's talk about the juicy question of whose fault is it for these nightmare client web designer experiences? And so after working through my own crap with clients back when I was freelancing and having coached hundreds if not thousands of web designers at this point to help them manage their clients, what is so clear is that the problem in all of these scenarios are not that the web designers are bad or that the clients are nightmares.

Shannon Mattern: I mean if someone's gonna get on a call and yell at you for 20 minutes, yes that is a situation where that person is that's that's not okay and we don't allow it, we don't stand for that and we, we let that client go immediately and we end the call and we say, I will not accept you speaking to me in that way. I'm gonna end this call and then I'm gonna send you an email canceling our contract and handing over the work that I've done because I'm just not going to be treated that way and I'm not gonna let you, I'm not gonna continue to work with you. But it, that's an extreme scenario in the scenarios where it drags on, they ask for a bunch of revisions, all of the things, it's almost always about poor communication, lack of boundaries and lack of setting expectations and mine trash that we have on both sides rather than bossy clients or inept designers.

Shannon Mattern: So like I said, there are total jerks out there that are completely disrespectful. There are designers out there who take people's money and don't follow through or don't listen or don't ask the right questions and just build whatever they think the client should have. There are absolutely people out there like that. I'm not talking about those people people. I'm talking about learning how to deal with clients as a skill that you need to learn just like you needed to learn the skill of building a website, especially if you were programmed with an employee mindset where it's your job to take orders and make your customer's, clients, colleagues, and bosses happy at all costs so that you can keep getting paid. What we need to understand as web designers is like clients truly don't know what they don't know about all that it takes to build a website for them and what their role is going to be in the project.

Shannon Mattern: And honestly, after having looked at literally thousands of web designer websites for all the people that apply to work with us inside the Web Designer Academy, it's really no freaking wonder that clients have a hard time choosing the right person. Because most web designers do the exact same thing. All they do is say, here's what I'm gonna build for you. Here's the number of pages, it costs this much money. It either does or doesn't include a logo and branding or doesn't, doesn't include a logo and copy our copy and copywriting. And here are some pictures of other websites I've built and here's the however many step process of working with me. Every single web designer does that and it doesn't give the client a picture of what their responsibilities are in co-creation of the outcome. Outcome. And as a web designer, it is your responsibility to absolutely know your own capabilities and how you can best help your client.

Shannon Mattern: It's important for you to know what you will do for your clients, what you won't do for your clients. But it's also so important that they understand what is expected of them throughout the project and when and that they are fully committed to deliver on that. Because even super talented web designers may not have developed the skillset to manage people, projects, deliverables and expectations. So I hear this all the time, like there's so many web designers that are like, they don't even wanna get that deep into a project with a client. They're like, I just want them to tell me what they want and I'll do it. But when no one's taking control of the project, that's where you can end up like that one story I shared and just be like, well I paid them and no one took control and three years later it's $5,000 out of my pocket.

Shannon Mattern: And I'm so ashamed that that happened. And I am not blaming that person like that. There's no circumstance I can think of where it's ever okay to take five grand from someone and then disappear. But I've also seen web designers get completely overwhelmed with how to manage a client project. The client has no idea what's going on, gets frustrated, one fires the other or just worse, completely ghosts the other. And the client leaves desperate with no lab website and a looming launch date and the designer feels frustrated and defeated and like worried about giving the money back when they probably spent a ton of time trying to navigate the client and maybe they already built stuff like it can just be a mess. So whether you are a client listening to this, probably not likely or a web designer, my top two rules for making sure you find a good match for your next web design project and that you stay a good match is that you have to know yourself.

Shannon Mattern: You have to know who you are, what you love doing, what you hate doing, the types of people you love working with and the types of people that you don't love working with. But it's also important to know why, like I had a conversation recently with someone that's like, I just wanna work with graphic designers, designer who don't want to build the website, they just want someone else to develop it for them. And I was like, I'm so curious why you want to do that. I'm like, we can help you do whatever, you know, find whatever kinds of clients you want to, but I'm super curious like why that's your chosen client. And the more we dug into it, the more it was because she didn't have the skill of setting boundaries with clients. She didn't know how to say no to the extra revision.

Shannon Mattern: She found herself overworking saying yes to everything. And the deeper issue there is it doesn't matter who you end up working with, if you don't solve that core problem of being able to safely communicate expectations and boundaries, it doesn't matter who you work with, the designer is gonna ask you for a million revisions and you're gonna feel burnt out and then be like, well that graphic designer's not my best client. And so you need to know yourself on that surface level. But then you need to question like, am I trying to protect myself with my choice and do I like that decision, right? And what is the real problem to solve? Changing a niche or solving the problem of what do I need to explore and create safety around in myself to confidently be able to work with any, any type of client so that so much so that even if someone's getting on the phone and yelling at me, I know that I don't have to stand for that and I'm not afraid to put an end to it and I'm not afraid of them leaving me a bad review or not referring me because I'm confident that I know how to handle that situation.

Shannon Mattern: So knowing yourself is so important and knowing like what's underneath some of the reasons why and then deciding like, do I like this reason? Like if that person would've told me, oh my gosh, I love so much to collaborate with designers, they're so creative, it's such a good working relationship, we bring out the best in each other. That is a really empowering reason to go after working with designers as a developer. But if it's to protect yourself from something that you think isn't gonna happen if you work with this type of person, that's where your work is. So some people love clients that like wanna run the show and know exactly what they want down to the pixel. Other people hate that 'cause it stifles their creative process and they wanna a more collaborative relationship. Some people love a good redesign and other people don't wanna touch something that someone else built.

Shannon Mattern: So when you get the right match, it is a beautiful thing. If you're the client, you walk away having loved every minute of the experience and feel totally empowered and as the designer, you can't believe it's your dream job and you get to work with your dream clients. So it's not always a niche, it's the interpersonal dynamics of the relationship. And that is something that you tease out in your consultations, right? People wanna say like, all of the copy on my website has to prevent someone who doesn't fit this mold from scheduling a consultation with me. And I would invite you to like, sure, yes, we want copy that speaks to our our ideal client, but I'm gonna ask the kinds of questions that I need to ask on the call to tease out what type of person this isn't if I feel like it's gonna be a good match.

Shannon Mattern: And just because someone scheduled a consultation with me and we talk about their project does not mean that I have to make an offer to them to work together. And so we as designers, in order to make sure our next project ist a nightmare, we have to take full authority and autonomy and take our power back over how we who we let work with us, who we choose to let work with us. Because the last thing either of you, you or your client want to have happen is them to get labeled as difficult. And then the web designer gets labeled as being unprofessional, inept, and you both walk away broke and miserable. So like I said, that's why having an effective consultation is critical. As a web designer, your role on that call, it's not to close the deal, it's not to sell a website, it's to find out as much as you can about the client and their needs and make sure they are a good fit for the way that you work.

Shannon Mattern: It is your responsibility to decline projects that aren't gonna be a good fit for you. Or if you do decide to accept them, know exactly what you're getting into, have sustainable pricing and a good plan and support system in place to make the project successful. So what I mean by that is, in the example of someone coming to you with this horrible thing that happened to them with another designer, but also, you know, it's a pretty big project that's going to be resource and time intensive for you when you make that offer and you start thinking, oh my gosh, my pricing is too high because they just wasted all this money over here with this person for you to say no, in order for me to support this person at the level that they deserve to be supported, this is how much it's gonna cost.

Shannon Mattern: And it's not my job to make them whole for a decision that they made before I came along. So potential clients are not always going to understand what they need in a web designer. It's your job to educate them, to ask them lots of questions to find out what they have the time, energy, and capacity for in terms of delivering content and collaborating with you on the project. And honestly to help them make the best decision for them, even if it's not working with you. So if part of your process is not to write the copy and your client's like, oh, I can write the copy, then you get to ask them more questions about, oh, do you do a lot of copywriting for your business? You get to ask like, how much time do you think you can set aside during this project? 'cause We, we recommend that you set aside X number of days or weeks in order to write your own copy.

Shannon Mattern: Is that something, does that sound feasible to you? Right? We want to really make sure that they know what is expected of them and the the capacity that they're going to need to contribute to the project. If they are ready to commit at that level, it is going to cost you more to take their money to work with them than it will for you to say no and go find a client that is ready. And I know it's hard to say no to someone who wants to work with you, but there's opportunity costs to taking on the wrong, wrong clients. So if a client is listening to this, which I doubt 'cause this is for web designers, but it's your opportunity to learn as much as you can about the process and the amount of work and time required on your part to make the project a success.

Shannon Mattern: But as the web designer, please make that conversation a part of the consultation. It's not just all about here's what you get, here's what I can do, all of the things. It's also like, okay, let's talk about what your role is in this project and how much time you should expect to set aside and straight up asking them like, are you able to commit that amount of time to this project during these dates based on your go live date? And be realistic on both sides of the project. So my second rule, , for making sure you find a good match for your web design project is that you teach people how to treat you over and over and over and over again. Dream clients don't just show up already dreamy because you had all the right copy and went into the right room and attracted the most perfect person.

Shannon Mattern: Your communication creates dream clients or nightmare clients. Your processes create dream clients or nightmare clients. Having boundaries and holding boundaries creates dream clients and not having them and not holding them creates nightmare clients. From the very first interaction with you, you have opportunity to send a client down the path of dream client or night nightmare client and the web designer academy. We talk about how we set boundaries from moment one, right? We set boundaries through our schedule for when we allow people to have consultations with us. We set boundaries through our processes. We set boundaries through our project calendar and our start date. And when we're working and when we're not project milestones and deadlines and all of those things, we set boundaries in our communication. So you teach people how to treat you over and over again. And it's not through saying this is how this is gonna go.

Shannon Mattern: It's through your actions every step of the way. Your thoughts also create dream clients. And what I mean by that is say your client misses a deadline and doesn't tell you why. You can decide to think things like they don't respect me. This is hard. I'm so frustrated. And waste your mental energy and drain your capacity telling that story. Or you can stay outta their brain, stop putting thoughts in their head, stop trying to read their mind and think they missed a deadline. And I have a process for this, which is to communicate to them what happens now that they missed a deadline. Beep, beep, boops, and email closed. The laptop moving on, right? Your thoughts create dream clients or nightmare clients. And you allowing your clients to experience the consequences of their actions or inactions because you've designed a process that allows for that, that expects that even the dreamiest clients aren't perfect, that they're not gonna meet every single deadline.

Shannon Mattern: Life's gonna life. And we can work with that and roll with that because your process allows for that. But it also allows clients to experience the consequences of their actions or inactions. You teach people how to treat you over and over and over again. So ultimately making sure your clients are not nightmares, it's your responsibility and you have total autonomy in that decision. And when they become a nightmare, you don't have to keep working with them. You don't have to hold a consultation just because someone booked it. You get to look at that intake form. And if you're like, Nope, you get to send an email declining that consultation. You don't have to make an offer just because you had a consultation. You don't have to continue a project when a client is belligerent or isn't cooperating. You decide who you work with. You set the rules, you continually remind your clients of the rules every step of the way.

Shannon Mattern: And you don't ignore it when the rules aren't followed. And you can do all of this without feeling like a bossy bosson . So if you're ready to stop working with nightmare clients and take back control of, of your web design business, just book a discovery call with me. You can go to, click on schedule a call, fill out our form, and if it feels like a good fit, we'll have the call. We'll talk about what's going on in your web design business. We'll map out an exact plan for how we can help you fix it inside the Web Designer Academy so that you can take back control of your web design business so that you can learn the skill of client management and project management so that you can just feel confident and safe in your web design business so that you don't hold back from marketing and booking clients and that you don't keep your prices low because you don't know how to handle dealing with the client side of your business.

Shannon Mattern: And that goes for you. Whether you're early on in your business or whether you've been in business for a long time, we can help you either way. So if any of this resonated with you at all, go to, book a discovery call with me. If you don't find a time that works for you there, you can always fill out our application and we can chat asynchronously about what's going on and see if working together is the right fit for you. So that is all I have for you this week. Thank you so much for listening, and I'll see you back here next week. Bye. If you are ready to finally stop undercharging and overdelivering, if you're ready to take back control of your time and book more high paying clients you love and make more money as a web designer than you ever thought possible, then book a zero pressure discovery call with me today.

Shannon Mattern: All you gotta do is go to, choose one of the available time slots, fill out the intake form, and we'll meet on Zoom to talk about your goals and what's really in the way of you reaching them. And if it looks like I can help you inside the Web Designer Academy, we can talk more about what that looks like. It is super chill. There's zero obligation to say yes to working with us. If you book a call with me, it is simply a chance for you to learn more about how we can specifically help you, you personally, with your unique skills, personality, and experience to create a highly profitable, sustainable web design business and create the freedom, flexibility, financial independence, and fulfillment that you started this business for in the first place. So just go to and I can't wait to talk to you more about your web design business.

Speaker 2: This podcast is part of the sound advice FM network. Sound advice FM Women's Voices amplified.

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Hi, I'm Shannon!

I’ve been coaching + mentoring web designers on how to package, price, market and sell web design for over 7 years… it’s time to forget everything you think you know about selling web design projects!

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