Clients Frustrating You? It’s Time to Get Sneaky and Find Out What They Really Want

Clients Frustrating You? It’s Time to Get Sneaky and Find Out What They Really Want

You love your clients. You’ve worked hard to find them and to build a good rapport with each and every one of them. But sometimes, just sometimes, working with them can be downright frustrating.

You’ve probably encountered clients who think they know everything about web design because they built their first company’s site in Dreamweaver back in 2007. And you’ve probably run into clients who want to wipe their hands clean of providing any input… until they see their site in beta, at which point they decide they really don’t like any of the stock photography used. Then there are the ones who’ve explained that they want it to look “awesome” and to get 1,000 visitors a day.

While it’s inevitable that, at some point, you’re going to get mad at some of your clients for not knowing what they want or how to articulate their vision (or for being just plain wrong), that’s not their fault. Sure, there’ll be some clients who fall in the middle and aren’t too difficult to work with. Even so, there will almost always be a deficit in the knowledge your clients have about web design. That’s why they’ve hired you, after all.

Here’s where I’m going to ask you to take a moment to step back and breathe. Understanding where this disconnect comes from is the first step in fixing the problem.

Once you accept that you’re working with people who have limited knowledge of web design and who may or may not have a strong opinion about what you do with their site, you’ll make this a whole lot easier on yourself. The key is to approach the matter delicately and tactfully if you want to find out what your clients really want.

My suggestion? Be sneaky about it.

Finding Out What Your Clients Really Want

Is the client always right? No, of course not, especially when it comes to building websites. But with some gentle nudging from you, you can put your clients in a position where they (i.e. you) are right and all sides walk away happy.

Here are some sneaky ways you can go about figuring out what exactly your clients want and help put them on the track to being “right.”

#1. Meet Them Face-to-Face

Being a freelancer is pretty great, for the most part. There is one aspect of this, however, that I’d argue can work against anyone who works in web design. And that’s the value of meeting with clients in person. There’s something about being able to look someone in the eye, read their body language, or even work on sketching something out on a sheet of paper in front of the two of you that can go a long way in improving your relationship.

As someone who works independently from clients, it’s important to establish that face-to-face connection. A phone call would be okay, but live conferencing would be even better. When you’re trying to suss out what your clients really want, it’s helpful to create an environment that puts you on a level playing field. If they feel like you’re actually partners instead of you just being someone they can bark orders at (or not talk to at all), you’ll have more luck in establishing clearer, more honest communications.

#2. Take Notes

Obviously, any time your clients speak, you should take notes on what they say. Even if it’s an off-topic comment on how much they love to golf, you never know if it’ll be useful later on.

I’d also suggest that you take notes on them as a person. How do they dress? How do their employees dress? What do their offices look like? What is the vibe of the neighborhood? You can tell a lot about someone’s personal tastes based on the aesthetics and personalities they surround themselves with. Even if your clients aren’t able to articulate what they want, you may get a good idea of it from taking the time to meet with them.

#3. Talk About Their Interests

Again, sometimes it’s less about relying on what they tell you they want or don’t want from their website and more about indirectly identifying what makes them tick.

For starters, find ways to take the conversation away from the web and just talk about what piques their interest. You may find that they’re really into Apple technology or that they’re obsessed with shopping at the Gap. Guess what? Both of those brands utilize clean, open spaces really well, so I bet they’d appreciate a minimal web design.

Also, see if you can find out who their personal and professional influencers are. Maybe they’re obsessed with Tony Hsieh of Zappos because he’s so customer-focused. That would give you a good idea of the kinds of elements you should propose for their site (think live chat, social media integration, FAQs, etc).

Even if you can’t get them to speak clearly about what makes their business tick or what they want their website to do, all these little pieces can help you determine the different elements to include on their site.

#4. Learn Their Lingo

This goes back to the point that your clients are not designers or developers. They don’t know what stylesheets are nor do they understand the necessity of responsive design. When you talk to them at any stage during the web design process, keep in mind that the more you can treat this relationship like a partnership, the more willing your clients will be to help get you the information you need. Or to trust that your instincts are right for them.


  • Don’t talk to them using design or development lingo. Keep it neutral.
  • Invite and encourage their thoughts and feedback so they feel more like a colleague or partner.
  • Never talk down to them.

#5. Get Your Facts Straight

Some of your clients are going to push back on your suggestions because they don’t know any better. Others are going to do it because they’re a pain in the rear. You know what I say to that? Always be prepared with a counter argument. Business owners and marketers cannot argue with stone-hard facts.

Going forward, I’d suggest you compile a go-to list of statistics to support the web design musts you know your clients may try to shoot down, but really shouldn’t. Here are some you can start with:

  • “With only 15 minutes to consume content, 66% would prefer to view something beautifully designed vs. simple and plain.” – Adobe
  • Google takes online security seriously and now uses HTTPS as a ranking signal for websites. – Google
  • Between 2013 and 2015, smartphone Internet usage grew by 78%. – comScore
  • 36% of people assume that the logo at the top of a website will direct them back to the home page. – KoMarketing
  • Landing pages with video can improve on-page conversion rates by 80%. – Hubspot

#6. Play Around Online Together

Whether you’re able to meet with your clients in person or not, you should at least take the time to do a live share of your screen. This is beneficial for a number of reasons. For one, it gives you the opportunity to put something in front of them that they can follow along with. It also gives you a chance to play around online and get a sense for what they actually do or don’t like on websites.

I’d suggest you pick a few sites that are similar to theirs to explore together. Rather than focus on what one web designer got wrong or what one got right, approach this walk-through from the eyes of their visitors. Explain how a particularly poor execution of a CTA confused you or how a landing page that took eight seconds to load made you want to leave. Put it into perspective so that you can teach them about best practices without asking them to just blindly accept them.

#7. Support Their Goals

After assessing all the information they’ve given you, directly or indirectly, lay out a few goals. Then have a conversation with the client to see what specific goals they had in mind for their website.

Make this seem like as natural a conversation as possible and, if one of their goals matches the one you had imagined for them, fully encourage it. Anytime you can support one of their ideas instead of defaulting to something you came up with (even if you did), your clients will feel as though their opinions matter too. Show them that they’re not just stuck letting a designer tell them what to do with their own business, and they’ll be happy to follow you.

#8. Limit Their Options

Once you get down to working on the website, be very careful in what you show them. I’m not suggesting that you hide anything from your clients or that you lie to them about what you are able to do. I do think it’s important, however, that you keep a number of options they have to choose from small.

With less open-ended scenarios, you’ll be less likely to run into problems when they want to pick and choose from each option and ask you to come up with 20 different mockups for their consideration. Clients need to be guided in a way that makes them feel like they’re still in control. Give them a good variety of high-quality choices to select from (no more than two to four, ideally), so they don’t feel like they’re being painted into a corner.

#9. Always Solicit Their Feedback

One of the greatest mistakes you could make is to assume that you 100% understand what your client wants. That’s why clients should not only be aware of the steps you’re taking behind the scenes to create their website, but they should be involved in the decision-making process along the way. It may make your projects run a little longer, but it’ll be worth it in the long run if you have to spend less time (and money) reworking your designs.

For every stage where you have a tangible that can be reviewed, loop your clients into the conversation. The more involved they are, the less work you’ll have to do later when you find out that you didn’t actually understand what they wanted. Show them the site map. Walk them through your wireframes and prototypes. Review the mockups in real time. Do a test run of the beta site with them.

Wrapping Up

Above all else, what you want to do here is listen. Your clients might not know all the terminology like exit intent technology or responsive design, but they’ll let you know what matters most and what they really want through other things they say or do. It’s your job to act as a sort of “client whisperer” and translate their business owner speak into a creative and beautiful web design.

Over to you: What’s your biggest pet peeve with your clients? Have you found a foolproof way to nip that bad habit in the bud?

Brenda Barron

Brenda Barron Brenda is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, and business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing about all things, she's spending time with her family.