When I originally wrote this article I included my own context and conclusion. For those who wish to skip my editorial and just read the story as I (loosely) remember it feel free to skip this introduction and the conclusion text at the end of the article.
Sometimes the behavior of a "bad client" is our own fault.
Some clients are inexperienced with commissioning the type of work that we as web-focused engineers provide. The prospect of spending a large amount of their own money can result in a strong desire to see their own fingerprints on the process rather than trusting the experts they’ve hired. Whether to attempt to protect their investment or avoid any sense of exclusion by remaining silent, clients can give feedback just for the sake of giving feedback.
There are many cases when client feedback is invaluable — it’s a critical part of creating a good product. Clients are the only ones who know the inner workings of their own businesses, what their primary objectives are for a particular project, and many other key points that we must trust them to defend when what we provide runs counter to their interests. However, there are times when client feedback is driven by fear of exclusion and exists only so that a client can point to some artifact and reassure themselves and those around them that they have left a mark on the project.
In that latter case, consider The Parable of the Hairy Hand. It is a story told to me by a good friend many years ago — I do not know its true origin — and it has stuck with me throughout my career.
Long ago, in a remote kingdom, there lived a particularly ruthless king. One day as the king was feasting he decided that he desired a large portrait of himself to be hung in the great hall of his castle. Messengers were sent throughout the kingdom to seek out the most skilled painters and instruct them to leave their families and come seek to fulfill the king’s commission.
The painters would await their turn in the surrounding city and — as the days passed on — another and another would be called to the castle. Each painter, the absolute masters of their craft, would paint their portrait of the king and unveil it to him in the great hall. Without fail, each time, the king would study the work for a while — in silent displeasure — and then leave the room without a word.
One by one each painter would be executed for their failure to satisfy the king’s commission.
Eventually one of the oldest and wisest painters in the land was called upon. The wise painter was hardly the most skilled among the group — but his career far outstretched those around him. Knowing the fate of those who went before him he followed his escort to the castle.
The wise painter arrived and required much time to complete his portrait. He studied the king’s posture, his garments down to the stitch, his demeanor — more in depth than any who had come before him. The wise painter was methodical in the execution of his work. When the time came to present his work he stood before the king in the throne room and removed the veil.
There — on the canvas — stood a remarkable semblance of the king. His head tilted proudly towards the sky — his garments flowing and regal — and in the background a giant hairy hand reaching down from the sky to grab him.
The king studied the painting for a moment and then exclaimed, "I love it! But can we get rid of the hairy hand?"
If you find yourself dealing with a "bad client" it’s possible that what you’re actually up against is someone who is unfamiliar with your process and is feeling expectations to participate in order to prove their own value — either to you, their co-workers, or themselves.
Leaving intentional room for refinement in your own work can allow these types of stakeholders to participate in the process in a way that ultimately does push things forward and elevate the end result. What does that look like in practice? Maybe you’re presenting a few different options for a particular component treatment — throwing in an option you know the client will not like (whatever the reason) allows them to leave their mark by nixing one of the options completely — no mercy. This can alleviate any fear that their lack of participation somehow excludes them from the process and help prevent a fear-driven push for changes they would otherwise be perfectly happy with.
Over time your ultimate goal should be to build trust with your client, showing them that you will listen to their feedback and implement it when valid, resulting in less pressure on themselves to hold the reins and ensure "everything turns out ok" or request changes to assure themselves "I played my part". Sometimes clients feel a strong need to participate for participation’s sake and in those cases the best services we can provide is to intentionally provide room for them to do so. Include a hairy hand within the choices.