How to deal with clients when you’re in over your head

It was 2010, I was out on my own doing freelance work by myself, and I somehow got approached by a guy to build a website for his upstart health and nutrition business. Him and his business partner, a well-known car dealer in Indianapolis, asked me to take on this massive project. It became a quick lesson in how to deal with clients, especially when the project was too much for one person.

The gist of it involved taking a huge list of products in a CSV file (a kind of spreadsheet) from his wholesaler and importing them into an online store. They had a decent budget, the guy was driven, and I was ready to get started.

And so I did. Or tried.

There were all sorts of problems with this whole endeavor and only in retrospect can I see what they were.

First, the business plan was lousy. The whole effort was just taking commodity vitamins, protein powders, athletic equipment, and other fitness items from a wholesaler, marking it up a little bit, and then getting customers to buy it. Then they’d get shipped to the customer. Except, the products sold were all commodities and Wal-Mart and Amazon were absolutely destroying us in price. A simple product that was maybe $13.99 wholesale was being sold for $29.99 on our site, and about $17.99 on Amazon, if that. Most of the time the prices on Amazon and elsewhere were just the wholesale price. Plus, we were asking customers to pay $10 for shipping that might take a week.

There was no marketing strategy in place nor was there ever going to be one. The client’s hope was that “if you build it they will come”. Well, that may be true. Maybe. Truth is, only friends and family of his bought anything because the content of the site wasn’t that compelling.

Despite slogging through tons of requests, revisions, phone calls, and a poorly developed spreadsheet from the wholesaler that was full of bugs, typos, and errors, I was trying hard to offer ideas. Everything from a blog, to videos, to great exercise how-to’s to reducing the inventory from many thousands of products to a series of 25 or 50 that could really make an impact with customers or be bundled for extra value — anything that could differentiate him from mass market retailers and wholesalers and get people to buy into him and not just the products. Some of this advice was taken, but it was taken poorly. Videos were 30 second vertical shots from an iPhone at the gym, the blogs were just re-spun content articles designed to spam the heck out of Google with keywords, and more lousy get-rich-quick tricks.

I learned a lot before the client ultimately gave up. I felt bad, but I probably shouldn’t. I got paid most of my money and I felt like I earned every penny, but I also recognized I was in over my head.

Here are the top three things to look out for and do when you’re struggling to meet client demand:

  1. That was way too much work, much of which was outside my wheelhouse. Don’t be afraid to bring in a team of people who are better at some things than you to help. Today I’m lucky to be working with a great and growing team of people.
  2. The business model wasn’t really a business model. Make sure the client knows what they’re doing first. All the web design in the world wouldn’t have fixed that or made Amazon go away.
  3. I wasn’t nearly forceful enough in my suggestions of focusing on service, doing guerrilla marketing, and how to make happy customers. Be ready to help make an impact with your client.

This whole experience made me a lot better about saying “no” to clients and spotting the ones that were going to set us all up for failure.

About the author

Justin Harter

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