Clients come in many varieties. Some are thoughtful, professional, cooperative and ALWAYS pay on time. Then there are the other ones. When a client goes beyond "difficult," to being such a burden on your resources that your other clients suffer, then you may have no choice but to cut the cord. There are many legitimate reasons to end a client relationship, including non-payment, poor communication, client procrastination, and plain old-fashioned disrespectful behavior. Sometimes these situations can be solved with a little conversation, sometimes they can't. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that you have already decided that you no longer want to work with your client. In that case, here is my action plan to gracefully bow out of a client relationship at any stage of the project.
Read The Contract
Before you attempt to discuss the impending doom with your client, read the contract (you made your client sign one, right?) to see exactly what each party's obligation is. Ideally, you will have already lived up to all of your obligations, but if not, figure out exactly what deliverables you may still owe your client. Similarly, figure out any compensation that they still may owe to you. Being armed with the facts is the best way to get what is owed to you, so be sure not to leave any loose ends.
Find a Suitable Replacement
If you are parting ways with your client due to personal chemistry, or if you just feel another designer could put up with this client better than you could, then it is usually a good idea to have a few lined up that you can recommend to your client. This helps ease yourself out of the situation, while appearing to genuinely care about the future of the project. You probably already have others in mind that you could pass this client along to, but if you don't, a little bit of research should turn up plenty of designers whose specialties line up with the needs of the project. Of course, if you are firing your client due to non-payment, disrespectful behavior on your client's part, or if the problem is so severe that you could not in good conscience subject another designer to it, then you should skip this step. The last thing you want to do is create a similar problem for a fellow designer.
Set up a Meeting
While you may be tempted to just fire your client in an email or over the phone, the most professional way to do so is always face to face. You should set up a meeting with your client, and simply say that the purpose of the meeting will be to discuss the status of the project. Use your best judgement about where to hold the meeting. You might suggest their office, or if you think it might get ugly, you can hold it at a neutral location, such as a Starbucks. People are much less likely to cause a scene in a public setting.
Pull the Trigger
It's the day of the meeting. Bring your contract, and any other evidence of money that is owed to you, as well as evidence that your client has not lived up to their end of the contract. Above all else, remain calm and let your head, rather than your emotions dictate the proceedings. When explaining your reasons to your client, there are two ways to drop the bomb:
Option 1: Honest & direct
Whenever possible, being honest is in the best interest of everybody involved. It allows you to speak your peace, and tell your client exactly what your reasons are. They may protest, but if their behavior is to blame for impeding the process, then they should know that. What they choose to do with that knowledge is their own business, not yours. After delivering the blow, always allow your client the chance to explain their side, even if you have already made up your mind. It is only professional to allow them their chance to speak. After you have listened to their side, and if you still want out, just politely keep things moving.
Option 2 : Sugar-coat it
While I always recommend being truthful with your client, there are times when you may not feel like it would be worth the drama it might cause. In these cases, you can always give a general, all-purpose excuse, such as that you are booked solid, and cannot continue with the project.
Once you have made it clear that you are no longer willing or able to work with them, this is where you would provide your newly-ex-client with information on other designers if you choose to do so. Explain to them that you feel these designers might be better suited for this particular project. You will then want to discuss any open obligations that have not been fulfilled yet. Has your client paid for anything specifically that you have not yet delivered? Does your client owe you any money for work completed thus far? Be sure that before the meeting is over, you both have a clear-cut understanding of what needs to be delivered to each party, and by what date. These may be touchy issues, particularly if you are asking for money, so be prepared to show exactly why you are owed what you claim. In some instances, it may be worth it to you to just walk away and not demand any additional payment from your client, even if you feel you are owed it.
Firing a client is never a happy process, which is why I always recommend weeding out potentially problematic clients before taking them on in the first place. There are all kinds of red flags that pop up early in the process, most of which you can see in the initial consultation. Always trust your instincts, and you will very rarely have to go through this unpleasant process. But if and when you find yourself wanting to fire a client, always do so in a graceful manner that reflects the professionalism that you have worked so hard to build. If you don't owe it to your client, you owe it to yourself and your business.
Have you ever had to fire a client? How did you handle it? Do you wish you had done anything differently? Leave your comments in the section below.
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