We are used to reading advice on how to attract and keep clients, but sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned in a business relationship. Not much is written about how to fire bad clients. The more common scenario of a relationship gone bad is when the hired agency (the marketing professionals, in our case) is fired because they didn’t render the services as expected.
It’s more unusual to hear stories of the hired professional walking out on the client. We don’t hear about it because the client is supposed to be king, and we are supposed to keep them satisfied.
But what do you do when the king becomes a tyrant? You may decide that it would be best to fire them.
Under what circumstances should you stop working with a client? Can terminating your business relationship with someone be done gracefully? Most importantly, what can you do to avoid such unfortunate working situations?
In this article, I’ll talk about the sensitive issue of letting go of problematic clients.
How to Recognize Bad Clients (The Usual Suspects)
First off, let’s define what we mean by client. The client is the person you’re already working for, with whom you have some sort of agreement with to work on a project-by-project/contractual basis.
If you haven’t settled on the project’s main terms (such as timetable, communication methods, project outline, payment rate and methods), then the person you’re dealing with is just a potential client.
This, too, is a critical stage; you should try to learn as much as you can about them before they become your client so that you can properly decide whether they are the right person to work with, and whether you’ll avoid trouble later on.
The threshold for firing a client is different for every working professional. However, there are some fundamental things that must be present and maintained in any working collaboration and some things that shouldn’t be tolerated.
Below are a few client types that might sound familiar to you.
The Unreachable Client
A project cannot materialize if the client doesn’t communicate with you. If the client doesn’t return any of your calls or email within a reasonable amount of time (say, five work days — but this duration varies depending on your work style and client agreements), one of the following might have happened:
- Something unforeseen might have happened (for example, an illness)
- If you have delivered the project, the client might be avoiding payment
- The client might be experiencing financial difficulties and wants to discontinue the project, but either wants to avoid the penalty (in case one is stipulated in the contract) or doesn’t know how to tell you (this has happened to me, and it’s usually small businesses that have this issue)
The Procrastinating Client
Another issue is when the client doesn’t communicate with you often enough or according to the project’s timetable. This can prolong the project, sometimes way past the timeframe you set at the beginning. It could also start to eat into the time that you were expecting to devote to other work. Such situations can really mess up your schedule and work efficiency.
Clients who don’t communicate often enough might be experiencing the following:
- Not consider this project important enough to adhere to the timeframe you’ve agreed on
- Arranged this project at a bad time, when they’re distracted by other important work
- Slow in making decisions
- Does not appreciate the trouble they’re putting you in by slowing down the project
The Absurd Client
There is sometimes a fine line between keeping a client satisfied while maintaining your professional identity versus letting the client behave like a spoiled brat. (The Oatmeal offers an accurate comic depicting an absurd client).
An absurd client usually combines some of these behaviors:
- Rejects several demos without giving sufficient criticism or suggestions, leaving you to guess what they dislike (“I don’t know what’s wrong. I just don’t like it.”)
- Requests features that were not in the original agreement, and then refuses to pay for extra services rendered
- Makes unreasonable requests, usually with delivery time (“I would like four different versions of the website by tomorrow night, thank you!”)
- Is unable to make decisions, forcing you to make constant changes to the project. Even if you are being paid for these endless changes, focusing on and delivering a project that doesn’t have a stable foundation is impossible.
The Disrespectful Client
”My teenage kid could do this!” We’ve probably heard something like this before. Frequently, our job isn’t taken seriously, even though we’ve been hired and paid to do something the client is unable to do so by themselves.
In your career, you’ll come across people who don’t quite understand what you do. A disrespectful client does not treat you like a professional and does not understand that you want to collaborate and offer your knowledge to the project.
They will act bossy, insist that they know what’s best for their web presence, assign you tasks without consultation, and neglect to ask your opinion on key matters. Even worse, they might communicate with you disrespectfully.
The Disappearing Client
This one is plain and simple: the client refuses to pay you, whether for the deposit, an extra feature, the remaining balance or the whole thing. And they give no explanation for this delay or refusal. It’s one thing if the client says that they can’t pay you yet because of some unfortunate turn of events and reassures you that you will get your money in a set period of time. It’s quite another if you deliver the project and the client disappears from the face of the earth.
Some client will string you along, always postponing payment, using insufficient excuses, and generally avoiding communication, usually hoping that you’ll get tired of waiting and give up.
How to Avoid Bad Clients (Reducing the Risks)
You can do two things to minimize such conflicts with your clients. First, learn as much as you can about a potential client, and consult with them thoroughly beforehand.
Secondly, be very precise about the project’s terms.
Step 1: Education
To learn about a potential client, try to meet with them at least once before agreeing to work on their project. Give them the freedom to ask whatever they want about your work (projects, education, philosophy, style, technical matters), and still cover the areas that you believe are important but weren’t asked by them.
For example, we don’t work with Flash websites. Some of my potential clients have seen Flash websites but didn’t know that’s what they’re called or didn’t know that each website is built on different technologies, and so they didn’t ask about it.
We always inform them right from the start that we don’t do Flash websites, as well as other things that we do and don’t do, so that they know not to request it later on.
The initial meeting is also crucial to identifying how the person views your work and what priority they give to it. They should be interested in knowing about you and how you work, and they should give you the feeling that they trust you and value your opinion and assistance as a professional.
You also ought to ask your own questions of the client, to get a feel for their organization.
Ask about the client’s history, products, philosophy about the market, and current projects.
Be delicate in asking about their financial status; you could make a general inquiry about it when they ask about your pricing. For example, you could mention that you have flexible payment plans in case they are financially constrained; they will usually volunteer some information from this.
Also, don’t forget to ask whether they have worked with other designers or developers on a web project. If so, inquire as to why they are switching service providers, rather than giving this project to them. The reasons could be simple, perhaps they are looking for something more creative or technologically complex, or it could be complicated, such as payment issues, disagreement about pricing or dissatisfaction with the service.
If the client has been fired by a web professional in the past, you should try to learn the reasons why.
Step 2: Precision
After you have decided to work for a client, try to be as accurate as possible about the project’s timeline, services and deliverables you will provide, areas for possible expansion, communication and pricing. Both sides will have to adhere to a schedule in order to maximize efficiency and meet the delivery dates.
To reduce the risk of the client going AWOL, make sure to have more than two contact people for the project, and at least a few ways to contact them (email, phone, physical address, etc).
If the client is self-employed, don’t be embarrassed to ask for the email address and phone number of a close relative or friend. Explain that you need this in case something comes up and you can’t reach them as soon as you need to, or in case of an emergency.
You can reduce the risk of the client procrastinating by clarifying the importance of sticking to the timeframe you’ve set. Both sides should be realistic about the delivery dates. If your client is involved in another project at the same time — make sure to ask them what other things they have going on that might detract them from your project — expect the delivery times to be looser.
If you get the sense that the client is not very decisive, try to guide them in making decisions. If their indecisiveness is really slowing down the project, tell them that you have other projects coming up and that it’s critical that you finish this project on schedule.
Setting financial penalties for timetable changes might sound strict, but it’s a way to convince the client of the importance of following the schedule. Put these financial penalties in the contract before you start working; you cannot add them later, and you cannot oblige a customer to pay a fine unless it’s in the contract.
If you’re working for a small business that doesn’t seem financially stable, try to balance being both precise and flexible with the timetable. Don’t scare them off by making overly strict stipulations. If they will need time to get the money for this project and you can afford to do this, give them wider payment deadlines. Suggest, for example, that they pay the total sum over a few months, rather than in one- or two-time payments.
Having a client agreement or contract is absolutely necessary. Draw up a document before the project starts that clearly defines the following:
- The project’s nature and scope
- Approximate timetable and expected deliverables
- Agreed-upon features
- Approximate total cost, according to the original plan and features
- Requests for new features and their cost
- Terms in case you or the client cancels the project before final delivery
Be as precise and as realistic as possible with the figures. Instead of telling the client that you’re willing to try several designs to see what fits or that you’re willing to make no more than two designs, you could say that you will deliver, say, two demos, and in case neither works, you’re willing to do a third design. This way, you remain both flexible and specific, and the client knows that you’re willing to try ideas, but to a limit.
The same goes for the timetable. Help the client decide on designs, but not too hastily and not too slowly. Require that they spend a couple of days checking your demo before replying. This way, you avoid hasty enthusiasm or criticism, which could lead to a lot of unnecessary changes.
If the client takes too long to respond, offer to help them make their decision, saying that they can have an extra day or two to think it over but that you will need to move on to the next step according to the schedule.
Last but not least, a reminder about the contract. Having a document that legally proves that you and the client have agreed to a certain payment by a certain date is the only way to protect yourself against a client who is unwilling to meet their financial obligations.
If you don’t have a contract, there is no certainty you will ever get the payment if the client refuses to pay. Also, keep every important email and document that you have exchanged with the client until the project ends.
How to Fire Bad Clients
Ready, Set, Fired!
If, despite your efforts and warnings, you find that you no longer want to work with the client, consider discontinuing your service. Firing the client is a delicate situation, especially if they still owe you partial or full payment or if you don’t have a signed contract. Try steps below.
Be Calm: Don’t Act Rashly Out of Frustration
Take a few hours or a day off work, relax, and consider the situation. Carefully go over every single line of the contract before approaching the client.
If you don’t have a contract, then gather any documents that describe the project’s main terms and that refer to deadlines, deliverables and payment. Make sure you have completely lived up to your responsibilities throughout the collaboration, and don’t demand penalties unless you are certain and can prove that they have violated what was agreed on from the beginning.
Find the Appropriate Time
Timing is everything. Set an appointment with the client on a day when you won’t be stressed by other tasks. The conversation should be serious yet calm, professional and not aggressive.
Inform the client that you would like to discuss the status of your collaboration. Bring the contract and/or the other documents you have gathered (emails, receipts and such).
Let Them Explain
Even if you’re certain that you don’t want to work with this client any longer, do give them a chance to explain their point of view. They might not have been able to pay you because they’re short on money or are overloaded with their own customer issues; perhaps they would like to postpone the project and just didn’t know how to tell you.
Discuss Your Reasons
No matter how delicately you say it, be forthcoming about why you want to discontinue working with them. If the reason is your different views on the project — for example, they want a loud animated website, and you want something more minimalist — suggest a designer who would better suit their style? (after having discussed it with that designer).
Of course, you shouldn’t refer them to a colleague if they have been disrespectful or refuse to pay; you shouldn’t offload that burden onto other web professionals.
Take Care of Loose Ends
Sort out the remaining obligations of both parties. If the client has already paid for certain parts of the project, make sure you have delivered them. Be clear about their financial obligations, and let them know you’ll give them a receipt once you have been paid. A prearranged cancellation policy can save both parties time, effort and misunderstanding.
Possible Issues Resulting from Firing of Clients
Unfortunately, not every client will be cooperative. More than one meeting might be necessary. Some clients might get too emotional. Some might be slow to conclude the process.
The worst scenario is when the client refuses to pay what they owe. Robert Bowen offers an extensive article on Smashing Magazine on “Dealing With Clients Who Refuse to Pay,” some of whose points are touched on here.
If you do have a contract, you can take legal action to secure payment. But before you get to that point, or if you don’t have a contract, you could try some other tricks to put pressure on them.
If you haven’t yet delivered the project, you could refuse to launch until you’re paid. Your client will have to choose between, on the one hand, paying and getting the deliverables and, on the other, refusing to pay and finding someone else to take over. Either way will be a waste of money for them if they have already made partial payment.
If you have already delivered the project and don’t have control over the website, you could try using CSS Killswitch (but many find this sort of tactic to be unethical). Or, if you have access to the control panel, you could put the website in maintenance mode.
You could also go about this much less politely, which you might be tempted to do if you don’t have a contract and the client’s rudeness is pushing you over the edge. You could start publicly rebuking the client on social networks.
I even witnessed a colleague take it one step further. Their client wasn’t computer-savvy, so the designer locked them out of the control panel and then rebuked them on the client’s own home page, ranting about how they were never paid for the project and what a nightmare they were.
But I would personally suggest avoiding this type of behavior, no matter how mean they have been to you. You will be tarnishing your own image, and you will come off as being unable to handle difficult situations.
The same goes for after you have finished with the client: don’t gossip about them. If you want to steer a colleague away from the client, refer to your experience objectively and honestly, and then let them decide for themselves. If someone asks about your work with the client, be concise and explain that you didn’t manage to finish the project due to different perspectives.
You can increase the likelihood of a happy ending by properly communicating with the client, planning ahead (to avoid disasters such as cancellations) and focusing on the little details. Try to protect yourself without suffocating the client with excessive or overly strict terms.
If things go wrong, clearly explain to the client the trouble they are causing you, and try to discuss the matter before deciding to terminate the relationship.
Above all, remain calm and maintain your professionalism and integrity (which take time to build, but can fall apart in seconds).
Have you ever had to fire a client? If so, how did you resolve the situation in a way that was fair to you? Have you ever continued a collaboration that you felt just wasn’t worth it? If so, what kept you from firing the person? Share in the comments.