3 Rules to avoid a complete client meltdown

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My son, August, is just under two and is showing all the normal signs of two-year-old behavior: throwing hard objects at my head, refusing to put his diaper on, and protesting even when I give him exactly what he wants.

Trying to get clients to cooperate during a project can be a lot like parenting a 2-year-old.

Here are 3 rules I’ve found helpful to understand when dealing with both clients and two-year-olds. These help form a powerful framework for managing many different types of relationships.

1. Setting their expectations is crucial

The times when I’ve described in detail what is coming up next, have always been smoother than if I just spring an event on my son. For example, when August started pre-school, we started telling him a month in advance what to expect when we drop him off, who’s in charge, mommy and daddy always come back, etc.

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When the time came, he knew what was happening and even if he didn’t like it, he still wasn’t surprised by it.

The times we’ve set his expectations, things always go much more smoothly.

For clients, when you set their expectation of the process, they can anticipate what is coming up next, and that puts them at ease and helps eliminate confusion.

For example:

I send a welcome packet to all new clients explaining what to expect and letting them know my policies. I also include my office hours and vacation times during the year (I take a vacation each summer, and I also break between Christmas and New Years). When I remind them on December 1st I’ll be off at the end of the month, they aren’t surprised by it. They’ve already anticipated it because I’ve set their expectations early on.

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2. Giving them options makes them feel in control

When I tell August to do something, like putting his pj’s on for example, the options in his mind are either yes or no. (Most often it’s a no.)

But when I say, “Which set of pj’s do you want to put on?,” now he’s got real options. He can still say no, but more often than not he chooses either option 1 or option 2.

For both clients and toddlers, when you give them options, you’ve given them something they can control and they feel like they are part of the process. Your job as a parent or professional is simply to control the pool of options they are choosing from.

That’s how you involve them while still staying in control of the overall process.

So when you present a logo design, you offer 3 options for the client to choose from.

When you present a proposal, you offer 3 packages for them to pick.

And when you’re confronted with scope creep from a client, you kindly tell them that if they’d like to proceed, there will be an extra charge for the additional work. Or, they can stick to the original scope of work if they want.

Again, you are giving them options instead of backing them into a corner with a yes/no decision.

3. Set limits and boundaries early

I always try to treat my son with respect, but that is different than letting him walk all over me.

It’s the same with clients; if you let them call you at all hours of the night or acquiesce to every demand they make of you, you’ll be giving them too much power and giving them too much power can quickly derail a project.

First, you need to establish boundaries.

Every freelancer has had a client call you out of the blue and expect you to take their last-minute call.

Unless it’s urgent, I never answer with a “yes” to the question, “Can we talk right now?”

Instead, I direct them to schedule a time on my calendar where they have plenty of options to pick.

See what I did there again with options?

This also happens a lot with design revisions or concepts. If you make the mistake of not setting a limit, such as a specific number of revisions, the client will often keep going and going and wanting to see more.

Instead, I set the limit early and specify the number in the contract and then tell them what happens if they want more.

With August, this often comes up at the park. If I don’t set a time limit, he’ll want to keep going on and on and when it’s time to leave he screams his lungs out in protest. So I’ll say, “We are leaving in ten minutes. Do you want to go on the slide again or go on the swing?”

This sets his expectation that we are leaving, tells him how long he has left and gives him a few options to focus on and make a choice.

Doing this has been a huge meltdown preventative.

And of course, you can use this with clients.

How to tie it all together

This framework of limits and boundaries, expectations, and giving options can be a powerful tool for guiding and managing relationships.

When you can tie all three together, magic happens and you can keep everything running smoothly and everyone happy.

Here’s an example of a logo design project where you can see this framework in action.

We had worked on a few concepts up to this point and I had given the client time for them to review. I was looking to keep the project moving forward so I sent this email below.

Hi [client name], 

Hope you had a nice weekend. 

I saw your comments on the board and it looks like you might have another favorite. 

Are you ready to pick one of them and move forward? Or would you like me to take another shot at it? (*giving options) You have one more design concept available to you if you’d like. (*setting limits)

Otherwise, we would pick one, I’ll refine it (small detail touch ups), and we would move on to the stationery layout/design and then on to setting up the files for you. (*setting expectations)

Please take another look at the board and let me know your thoughts. 



In this example, I’m giving the option of moving on or taking one more shot at the design, reminding the client of the limit that was set early on and letting them know what to expect when we move forward.

Needless to say, this has prevented many client meltdowns.

If you drive the process and lead them along the path, they’ll follow.

If you let them drive, there is no telling where their behavior might lead you.

Set their expectations, set limits and boundaries, and give them options. You’ll keep everyone happy.

Have any good tips of your own on to share? Let’s hear it in the comments!

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  1. This is one area I really need to work on.
    There’ s this particular Client that calls me at any time of the day and even at night. Asking me to do revisions upon revisions on his site.
    But with this, I can take my stand and put it in the contract going forward.

    Thanks a lot Ian.

  2. Thanks a lot, Ian.

    This is very useful in customer sevice, project management and sales.

    Expectation management, providing options, and setting boundaries are very important.

    The way you explained this using your son is also very delightful.


  3. Managing the client expectations is a very important point, You don’t want your client to expect anything more than what they are paying or you are offering. Mainly this is the point that causes most of the issues in projects.

    Thanks for this writing

  4. Great life advice!

    Options, options, options makes everyone involved in the process, your clients are, usually, the one telling people what to do, they are not used to it the other way around. This way they are still in the position of power, just with more focus.

    I have found that when clients are given options, they are very appreciative and excited by the prospect of being involved with the process.

    1. You said it Justin. Not just clients, everyone (for the most part) likes to feel heard and giving options is a way to make that happen.

  5. Oh Ian,

    This is the hardest thing I’d have to deal with. Everyday, Monday to Monday, for the last 12 years or so. It never ends.

    Either I am not able to communicate this right or clients just read what I write but the clients never get the memo.

    It looks like I have to be available post my working hours, on weekends, on Holidays, and regardless of whether or not I have the physical strength left in me to do stuff.

    How does anyone deal with this? That little sample email does look promising (but I’d have to rework that one since I am more into blogging and digital marketing.


    1. Hey Ash, that’s tough. What happens when you tell the client you are not available to work on weekends or simply don’t respond until Monday morning? Do you get push back from them?

      1. Hey Ian,

        How are you doing? I’ve sad success (if you can call it that) when I just ignored emails and skype conversations until monday mornings.

        The timezones don’t help usually.

        But ever so slowly, I am working to get these sorted. They are a part of life, I guess 🙂

        I’d like to wish a Merry Xmas and a super prosperous New Year, Ian 🙂


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