Business - dealing with hellish clients

5th of June 2019
Business - dealing with hellish clients

Your customers are not perfect angels. You accept their halos may slip from time to time. But you will likely have had run-ins with customers so hellish to deal with they can only have been spawned by Saturn himself. Hartley Milner shares a few of his own encounters with…the Client from Hell!

Demons that bedevil the corporate world are far from the horned goat-like creatures of folklore that prance around on cloven hooves mischievously poking their victims with a pitchfork. Neither are they interested in bagging your soul. No, they are sustained by feeding upon your misery, which they seek to ramp up at every opportunity.

And now you are hearing your tormentor is on the line again, just as you are frantically preparing for a deal-clinching meeting later that day. You wonder at their uncanny timing. Then your thoughts start to race between the different scenarios that may be about to unfold. Whatever the caller wants, you know it will mean you jumping through a whole lot of flaming hoops to meet their preposterous demands.

But your loyalty to your customers is strong. So you take a deep breath and pick up the phone. The following are actual conversations I had with nightmare clients over a career in corporate publishing.

Local government communications director. This demon’s ploy was to assign her minions to work with us on a project and only jump in herself at the final stages of the process when she could wreak maximum carnage. We were awaiting the client’s approval to send the council’s magazine to press but heard nothing back. My polite email and voicemail reminders that the print deadline was looming fast went unanswered. Then, finally, a call…

Client: “Good morning. Firstly, I appreciate you have a job to do but so have I, and my priorities have been elsewhere these past few days. What I do not appreciate is being harassed by
our suppliers. Please remember that in future. Now, I have had an opportunity to look at these pages and I am not happy with them.”

Uncanny timing

Me: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. So what don’t you like in particular?”

Client: “Well, for one thing they do not reflect the political make-up of the council. I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on that yourself.”

Me: “In all honesty, I wasn’t aware that they had to. Our choice of colours has always been determined simply by how we feel they best enhance the design.”

Client: “Well, you are aware now. So please go through the publication and change all the colours to only the brand colours of the political parties. And make sure they’re proportionate to how the parties are represented on the council. For example, the controlling party is Labour and their colour is red, so I want to see mostly red.”

By now I was seeing red myself, but replied meekly: “Right, will do…anything else?”

Client: “Yes, I need to reassign some of stories to different pages and replace a number of images. I will send everything over along with the marked-up proofs later today. When can I expect to receive the revisions? I will be in meetings for much of tomorrow and will have only a very narrow window of opportunity to review them.”

Me: “Well, it will depend on the amount of changes required, but I will pull out all stops to make sure you get fresh PDF proofs first thing tomorrow.”

The client was as good as her word. Her revisions did indeed arrive later that day… much, much later when my staff had all cleared off! That left yours truly alone in the office with a pile of changes that dwarfed Everest, and they had to be completed in double quick time. So with coffee pot percolating away and munching on pizza I set about the task in hand.

I will not go into the gory details, except to say that it required gutting the entire publication and remaking most of the pages. Dawn was breaking over the gasworks by the time I had forwarded a new set of proofs and could shuffle off zombie-like to snatch a couple of hours in the sack.

The email that pinged in contained not so much as a nod to my night’s diligence, simply a terse message that she was “too busy to look at the pages just now” and they would have to wait until tomorrow. My tactful but firm response was that the printer required the finished artwork by this evening and there would be a thumping cost penalty to the council should the publication miss its print slot. This appeared to concentrate her mind and with a frantic final push we made the deadline.

Then on receipt of our invoice the client had the gall to say she was disappointed I had charged for the extra work when the council was having to make sweeping austerity cuts to its services.

Firm response

Pharmaceutical company HR manager: “This front page group pic, can you please Photoshop out the person third from left? They’ve just left the company under a cloud.”

Me: “Er…mmm…yes, we could but it would leave a large hole.”

Client: “Well, couldn’t you shuffle the other people around a bit to take up the space? We can’t leave it as it is.”

Me: (detecting a hint of irritation in her voice): “OK, leave it with us, we’ll see what we can do.”

Our head designer worked his usual magic and the results after several hours’ toil were nothing short of miraculous. But then, just as we were about to send the image back for the client’s approval, the email: “Don’t bother, I’ve just had the photo retaken. I will forward it to you shortly.”

Bus company marketing manager: “Why have you sent the proofs in this state…I see the copy has fallen off some of the pages!”

Me: “I think if you expand the PDFs you will find the overmatter on the pasteboard. It’s what we do when we can’t fit the editorial within the parameters of the pages. Perhaps I could ask you to make the cuts where indicated.”

Client: “Oh, yes, I see now. But I cannot do anything about the copy…it’s all been approved by the heads of department. You will just have to find a way to fit it all in.”

Me: “We could have a go, but it would be a ‘quart into a pint pot’ exercise and mean drastically reducing the size of the text and headlines, and reducing the images to the size of postage stamps. I fear you will basically be left a great wodge of copy that will be virtually unreadable.”

Client: “Well, go ahead anyway and then send me a fresh set of proofs for review.”

Then later that day, after we had dutifully complied…“Yes, I agree, it does look somewhat cramped. I will make the cuts you requested.”

This was all very frustrating as we always provided clients with guidelines ahead of starting a project to help avoid “copy falling off pages”. But what can be even more exasperating is when you have been put through the mill for no gain whatsoever. Such was the case when we quoted to retain a contract with a regional police authority.

The cash-strapped authority was scrambling round looking for ways to divert money to front-line policing and believed it could cheaply replace its print magazine with an online version. Our IT offering was in its infancy at the time, but we decided to give it a go.

Anyone who has bid for a public sector contract knows it can be a minefield. Showing you can do the job is not enough; the procurer needs to know you are up to date with employment and health and safety legislation, and have strong CSR (corporate social responsibility) policies in place.

Time wasters

We put a huge amount of work into creating an ‘all singing, all dancing’ e-mag and after a nail-biting few weeks were thrilled to hear we had won the contract. Then…the bombshell email: “Regretfully, for technical reasons, we are unable to proceed with the online magazine. However, we want you to continue producing the print version for the time being.”

We later heard the “technical reasons” were that the authority had launched the procurement process without checking its IT systems had the capacity to run an online magazine.” There should be a law against wasting a supplier’s time!

Other clients are more playful sprite than demon. A leisure chain asked if we could produce a spoof red-top front page to mark its ceo’s retirement. They provided the images and a few anecdotes about him for us to write up. “Don’t be too respectful, you’ll see we haven’t,” the contact chortled.

Then, a few days after we sent over the mock-up…“There’s a Mr Angry on phone asking for you.”
It was the boss himself. “I understand you played a big part in this piss-take,” he barked. “Well, it’s outrageous, simply outrageous…outrageously amusing. Thank you.”


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