How to Fire Bad Clients

Oct 12 2011 by Maria Malidaki | 24 Comments

How to Fire Bad Clients

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. The more common scenario of a relationship gone bad is when the hired person (the web professional, 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, I 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.

I always inform them right from the start that I don’t do Flash websites, as well as other things that I 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. (See 20 Questions to Know for Avoiding Website Project Disasters.)

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 contract is absolutely necessary. Draw up a document before the project starts that clearly defines the following:

  1. The project’s nature and scope
  2. Approximate timetable and expected deliverables
  3. Agreed-upon features
  4. Approximate total cost, according to the original plan and features
  5. Requests for new features and their cost
  6. 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.

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.

Happy Ending?

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.

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About the Author

Maria Malidaki loves creating and managing websites, focusing on clean and simple design primarily using semantic HTML/CSS. Planning to also work as a vet and researcher, she specializes in building the web presence of academic and scientific events. Keep in touch with her on Twitter @mthunderkit and at her professional website at thunderkit.net.

24 Comments

Raj Mehta

October 12th, 2011

Nice article Maria Malidaki :)

Michael

October 12th, 2011

Terrific article. Thank you for sharing this. Incidentally, the paragraph beginning with “But I would personally suggest avoiding” appears to be incomplete.

Paula

October 12th, 2011

Great article and very important information. When I was first starting out I ended with a very abusive client. She didn’t start out that way, but it slowly grew horrible over time. I honestly believe she has a mental illness.

I wish I had this article then! Finally I got enough courage to “fire” her. Because I did a website for them, I made sure that it was complete enough that they had a presence until they could find someone else to do the work. (Part of the problem was constant changes, additional features etc.) She was not happy but the relief I felt was wonderful.

A client I stayed with beyond what it was worth was for a charitable organization. I believed in the cause so I put up with a new contact person every other week, with new ideas. Eventually we got to a point where their in house person could build on what I had developed for them (.net application) and we parted ways.

Lessons learned!

CyanFox

October 12th, 2011

Loved your article! Haha! It reminded me of a few clients I personally had.

I especially agree with your last statement: “Above all, remain calm and maintain your professionalism and integrity (which take time to build, but can fall apart in seconds).”

While it did not come to a point where I considered “firing” some of my own clients, I am glad that I had found the courage to respectfully confront them regarding the uncomfortable project relationship. I even learned how to professionally turn them down.

Looking forward to more interesting (and practically relevant) articles!

chris

October 12th, 2011

great article. I am dealing with a very very difficult client as we speak. This post has given me a few pointers for when/if I have to drop the bomb on him. Thanks!

jason mark

October 12th, 2011

Love it!

We fire a client every few years, and it’s such a relief.

I’m not sure if I like the Oatmeal comic about a bad client though. While it’s true what they’ve outlined is *possibly* a case of an “absurd” client, but more often than not when I’ve had a client who behaved like this I shifted them to a more senior designer and ALL their problems went away.

This comic depicts a natural reaction that many non-designers have when presented with an inappropriate design for their project. If their “expert” designer delivers something that’s not right, it’s not the client’s job to identify what those problems are, they should be able to express it’s not right, and the designer should be able to solve that problem. If the designer can’t, the client ends up trying to tweak things, and using imprecise language to define the problem and bring in other people to help them solve the problem.

Jacob Gube

October 12th, 2011

Great tips and comments!

@CyanFox: There was a stray word there (my fault probably). It’s been corrected. Thanks!

SD

October 12th, 2011

I have dealt with couple of such clients in the past and have now experience in judging the client in the beginning itself…but your post is also very helpful…

wd

October 13th, 2011

thanks Maria! so true, and i agree with you
we cant keep the business with clients who have bad habit even they gave us lot’s of money and projects
however this will really help me as online freelancer

Sarah Bauer

October 13th, 2011

Clients that insist on multiple design changes, pronto, with little more description that “I just want something that pops”- those are what we call our “challenging” clients. Not worth firing over, just a bit more of a task in negotiation and improving communication skills ( on both sides). I started writing blog posts for our company that offer tips for clients coming in for their project meetings, prepping them for how to communicate their ideas and goals most effectively. We just have to take this as an opportunity to educate and improve.

Maverick

October 13th, 2011

wow, realy nice tips… even i have had such bad experiences… and i noticed both those people were old men :)

Maria Malidaki

October 13th, 2011

Thank you all for your comments and personal experiences!

@jason mark, indeed the fault in communication and collaboration can also fall on the designer’s side. Some designers might just not listen to their clients. Also, as you pointed out, different designers have different perspectives, and while one may feel a client is absurd, another might feel they are quite the match.

I think the Oatmeal’s comic presents the exaggerations from the client’s side, in a case where the design is indeed good and functional but the client doesn’t appreciate the professional status of the designer -at all-. Tough case, but it can happen (hopefully not to any of us!). :)

Maria Malidaki

October 14th, 2011

@Sarah Bauer, I agree, and like Jason Mark commented earlier, the fact that one person finds a client’s behavior absurd doesn’t mean that it applies to everyone. What might be exaggeration for one, might be a true challenge for another.

I personally prefer an active and involving client that wants to cooperate and listens to my opinion too. Trying to see through my client’s perspective is where the challenge lies for me as well, this is why I find a number of changes in a design to be expected.

I do believe that changes should have a certain limit, and this is where the article, and I think the comic, refer to. It might as well be a communication issue between us and the client (and we might as well be the problem instead of them!), but it can also mean that the client gets absurd and indecisive, depending on who they involve in the decision making process, what their train of thought is, what feedback they give and how fast they change their mind.

The blog posts for clients that you mentioned are a wonderful idea to help communication between you and your clients! That’s pretty much the spirit I support, making sure that you’ve tried to connect with your client’s perspective as much as possible.

Firing a client should come after a long series of thoughts, and the first thing to consider is if and how we were part of the issue in the first place. :)

Rod Kirby

October 14th, 2011

The owner of Southwest Airlines said once, “The customer is NOT always right.” Sometimes we have to let clients go that hold us back. I loved the point about education. The best way we can attract the clients we want and correct the ones we have troubles with is to “show them the way.”

Excellent post, I’ll definitely be sharing this!

v

October 14th, 2011

This is a fantastic article Maria. I just fired a client last week that fit many of these attributes.

Morgan & Me Creative

October 15th, 2011

Loved this article, although we never really fired client before but over years we have more than our share of different types of horrific clients, ie. those who don’t pay a deposit yet expect the work to be done and rush you through it, gold plating clients who enjoy changing things and yet expect timeline to remain in their favor, clients who turn verbal and ultra defensive, threatening to sue you etc. This article is great because it shows you the ropes, characteristics of possible nightmare clients that you can avoid. *thumbs up

adam

October 17th, 2011

thanks for this article Maria, it always amazes me that clients don’t pay or respond to invoices, Australia’s a non paying ‘she’ll be right’ culture too which doesn’t help (well compared to our US & UK clients that pay quite promptly).

Anyways, maybe one thing that will help other small teams (we are 3) is that we have a ‘nominated’ accounts person that isn’t active in the project handle the invoicing, this way our designer / pm is pure project, the ole good cop bad cop which may sound silly, but comes in handy of things go south.

Maria Malidaki

October 18th, 2011

I’m glad you guys found the article interesting!

@adam good idea about hiring an accountant to deal with the payments part. It can save you time and effort in managing the financial part with your clients. A useful option for those who can include it at work!

Paulius

October 18th, 2011

This is great article, thank you for sharing this.

Bad clients is nothing new and the only way to protect your creativity is by contract. Its important to have very strong contract with as many details as posible.

I had actually once a bad client, it was large marketing agency. They had print department and had no web expertise. I was hired to design 3 web projects. For each project I did a separate contract, because each project was unique. Out of 3 only 1 was completed and two were started, but not not fully completed.

My client was demanding a lot of design re visions and was making a lot of design changes on things that was already approved. From project that was estimated to be 3 months turn into 6 month.

The story is very complicated and I don’t want to go into details here. All I can say that my client refused to pay me and my contract saved me. I end up hiring a lawyer for a day and he was able to convince my client that he has no other choice but to pay me.

Mark Nielsen

October 21st, 2011

I’ve had a few clients I’ve needed to part company with over the years. I don’t think I’ve ever got it quite right, and on the rare occasions it has happened, the split has felt a little ugly.

My most recent example was probably the smoothest. The difficulties I had with the client helped me to recognise that there are some types of clients and types of work that I am not as well geared up for. This caused me to think more about my “ideal client profile” – the type of work that I enjoy the most and which plays the most to my strengths. In the end, I explained to the client that I had made a strategic business decision to focus on work where I can deliver best value (local people I can have a face-to-face relationship with, websites that I host and which I can more easily upgrade and maintain, etc.) and that I wouldn’t be doing more work for him after the current project was over. I didn’t tell him about all the things he’d done to wind me up – mainly around poor communication and a lack of respect – partly because that wouldn’t have been productive, and also because it’s possible that the stress of the situation was making me see things less than clearly. I was also able to come to this decision close to the start of a new project I’d begun with him. Although I said I would see out the current project if he wanted me too, I said I wouldn’t mind if he found somebody else as that would mean he could use his budget to build a relationship with another agency. In the end, he chose the later and was able to walk away with a detailed project specification I’d developed with him, and most of his budget. So it was fairly win-win.

I guess the main things this incident reinforced for me are to communicate clearly, take decisive and early action, and use difficulties and pressure points to continuously develop my self-understanding and my ideal client profile.

josh

October 29th, 2011

Great article with some great advice, I just had to let a client go because of unreasonable expectations and demands. It was a hard decision but I think it was the best for both parties involved. Also, if you’ve have as much trouble getting content from your clients as much as I do, you might try forwarding them this article, its helped me out with a few of mine:

http://www.back40design.com/news/m.blog/22/website-content-bliss-and-mishaps

Ryan

October 31st, 2011

Perfect.

Most of us enter this industry because we want to do “our own thing.” Don’t trap yourself in a sucky job by dealing with bad clients. You’re the boss! Fire them if you need to!

Anny

November 14th, 2011

Wow! Maria, thanks for such an informative post! I’ll try to test my customers with these criteria )))

Carey Jordan

September 3rd, 2012

I know I’m late to this discussion but what about clients who are poor planners? At the moment I’m working on a project and (perhaps due to my own lack of probing) have found they don’t have their stuff together (it’s like they’re wingin’ it as we go along, mind you it’s for a event to raise money) compounded with a tight deadline. They are really nice people but I don’t see it getting better in the future—they’re a non-profit dog shelter, which makes it even hard to let them go :(

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