As I put the phone down, I was still shaking quietly. It was one of the hardest phone calls I've had to make. I had just told the client that I was tired of him messing me around, that the way he worked was making it impossible for me to produce good work, and I was fed up of haggling over every nickel of every invoice. I'd previously raised all these issues with him, but nothing had changed. So I told him I no longer wanted to do work for him. For the first time, I'd just fired a client.
Every web designer who wishes to get paid for their efforts will almost inevitably need clients, and work for a fee on the client's website. Building a good working relationship between client and designer is essential for a good outcome and for job satisfaction. But what if things don't work out, and you find yourself hating working on a project? It's time to terminate your client relationship.
Firing a client might sound like committing professional suicide, and in harsh economic times, walking away from paid work might seem naive, but it can actually be a liberating experience, and allow you to move forward stronger than before. Walking away is actually the professional thing to do. But terminating a relationship with a client should only be a last resort. In this article I'll explore the steps to take to avoid taking this drastic step, and if it has be done, how to do it right.
The client from hell
We've all got stories of the client from hell; whether it's phone calls at 2am; constant changes to the brief; wanting to change something that has already been signed off; unrealistic deadlines; impossible requests; or even just always wanting the logo 'a bit bigger'; maybe they're set on using Comic Sans for all of the copy; or it may be things like keeping you waiting for 45 minutes for a meeting; huge delays in getting content over; payments always being late; or arguing over invoices. While one of these things by itself may be excusable, a combination of these should start to ring alarm bells that the client-designer relationship isn't working. Likewise, if you find yourself dreading phone calls from the client, your heart sinks when you see an e-mail in your inbox from them, or you start to find it hard to motivate yourself to do work for the client, then you know something is wrong.
There are lots of 'amusing' tales of ridiculous demands from clients, to be found at places such as clientsfromhell.net or clientcopia.com. Time and time again, these tell of clients misunderstanding basic design concepts, or not appreciating a designer's time and effort. In truth, I find these tales rather depressing. They are almost always the result of the client not respecting the designer, or the designer not doing enough to educate the client. In a failure to communicate between client and designer, both sides need to take responsibility.
It's your fault too
Clients often have little or no understanding of the technical aspects of web design, so a big part of a job is ensuring they understand why you have made the choices you made in your designs. If the client makes requests, it is your job to explain the options and implications of meeting those requests. Often clients are unable to articulate their concerns, because they lack the technical or design vocabulary to express what they want. It is a big part of your job as a designer to find the way for your client to provide feedback. The designer should always lead the client, responding to client comments but always seeking to guide the client to the best outcome. Beware of the client that tells you how things should work or look, this should set the alarm bells ringing. Likewise, being overly precious with your designs and not willing to take on board client feedback is a recipe for future problems.
Talk to your clients, not about them
I always make a point never to talk negatively about a client behind their back, and find it disrespectful of those that do. If you cannot respect your client, you should walk away.
It may sound odd, but clients may not be experienced as clients. They may never have commissioned a piece of creative work before, hence the "how much for a web site?" type of enquiries I'm sure we've all had. This is why it is essential that you define your working relationship as clearly as possible. Your client may not realise that 15 phone calls a day are unacceptable to you, or the implications that arise from changes to work that has been signed off. Likewise a client might panic if you do not contact them for 2 weeks. Setting clear timescales and fee structures helps navigate these particular icebergs. But if a client is doing things that you are not a happy with, don't bitch about them - talk to them. It may be an uncomfortable meeting or phone call, but it is essential if the working relationship is to survive. In many cases the client may not realise how disruptive their requests can be. Also, in the case of late payments, for instance, they may not be aware of it at all if they are not directly responsible for making payments.
Clients are rarely evil, but poor working relationships are toxic. They will suck the joy out of design, the thing you do which you are supposed to love, and it can poison all your other work too. Muddling through doing work you don't enjoy, working only for the money is hack work, and nothing great ever came out of hack work.
Last chance saloon
What if, despite your efforts to communicate your concerns to your client, you still find the working relationship failing? You feel the client does not respect you or your work. It's time to call it a day. But before you do, you need to tell your client they are drinking in the last chance saloon.
You need to let your client know the ways in which you feel the relationship is not working, and make it clear that unless this changes, then you wish to stop working on the project. Your client needs to know that you are unhappy, and what needs to change. You must be prepared to compromise, to find a solution which allows both parties to function properly.
Fire and forget
If nothing changes, then it is time to bid adieu to your client. Don't make it personal, keep it about the work, and keep it short. Whether you can still get paid for any outstanding work depends on the contract you have, so be careful with your timing. (You have a contract, right?) Make sure the break is a clean one, so if you are hosting a client's website, for instance, set a deadline for the termination of the contract.
The relief I felt once I had finally told my client that I did not want to work for him anymore was almost overwhelming. It felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And with that relief came a desire to do better work, and find better clients. The time not having to deal with that particular client freed up time too, to do some self-initiated work I wanted to do, which in turn lead to a great project with a new client.
There should be no regrets after firing a client. Move on and learn from the experience. Having a bad experience with a client will help you realise how to shape good relationships with future clients, and spot potential nightmare clients before working for them.
In fact, you may find it so cathartic you may wish to fire more clients. Take a look at how much time you spend working for each of your clients. Who are the time-suckers, the ones that eat up the most hours for the least revenue? Which clients do you enjoy working with, which ones do you try and avoid?
Avoiding bad clients
Saying no to new work for clients that aren't right is a hard thing for any freelance web designer, especially when you are starting out, but the alternative is ending up doing work you don't enjoy for people you don't respect. This is no way to work and build a career.
Client work has paid my way for over 15 years, I must be doing something right. I've only fired clients twice, though in retrospect I probably should have terminated some client relationships sooner. You don't need to be friends with your clients, though some may be, but there does need to be mutual respect, and a clear mode of communication that both parties are happy with.
Have you had to fire a client? What advice would you give someone struggling with poor client relations? Let us know in the comments.
Featured image/thumbnail, fired image via Shutterstock.