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The Blank Slate: When is it Time to Fire a Client?

The Blank Slate: When is it Time to Fire a Client?

I’ve been working as a designer for a long time, and I’ve rarely had to let a client go. But there have been times when it was necessary. It can be a difficult task, first coming to the decision, and then communicating that decision to the client. But of course, there are always ways around confrontation.  After all, designers are also creative thinkers, right? So this brings me to the question…

When is it Time to Fire a Client?

I would like to know what brought you to the decision to let a client go, and did you let them down easy, or give it to them straight. Or maybe you found another way to get rid of what fast became a thorn in your side.

Share your experiences below, and let the community know how you handle this type of situation.

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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years.

11 Comments

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  1. Oh yes, very recently and what a pleasure it was… This is not normally something that would give me pleasure but I feel I do a good job communicating concisely with clients to fulfil their needs in both design and general ‘care’. When the other party thinks it’s fine to miss deadlines by weeks, not return emails or calls, and generally make a mockery of the ‘service’ we as designers provide, it’s time to cut the ties.

    As I’d never done or felt the need to do something like this before I did a bit of research and came up with 3 main points to include in the ‘You’re fired!’ email.

    1. Offer an explanation of what went wrong – Be as gentle and as polite as possible, so as not to offend… after all, you don’t need them bad mouthing you after all this is over.

    2. Offer the name of another designer who can help them out and see them through the remainder of the project. This shows them that you’re not prepared to leave them in the lurch and genuinely care (even though you may genuinely not!)

    3. Clarify all payments made and owed in an itemised bill. This makes sure they are clear on all outstanding fees, you don’t want them doing there sums 4 weeks down the line thinking you owe them for something you haven’t done – Be as transparent as possible where money is concerned.

    One final note I would say is – Don’t be scared to sack a client. If you’re unhappy working for them and they’re treating you with disrespect and neglecting your talents, move on to someone who will appreciate you for your hard work… There are better clients out there and they’ll probably pay more too!

    • Totally agree. There’s no telling how much potential work I missed with my recent client, on top of what I took a loss on with dealing with them.

    • Wow, an article waiting to happen right here!

    • Alex Kafer

      I wish I could say that to my client. Except, we would probably go bankrupt.
      Best Buy is not the nicest to have a client with!

  2. Great advice Neil! Thanks for sharing this.

  3. My client asked me if I was on Skype so we could screenshare. I spent over an hour with him inching things to the left, slightly changing around the colors while I played his Indesign puppet. Frustrating.

  4. Worst client experience of my life.
    I just sent “final” files to a client today that I’ve been working with for over 3 months.
    When we first met, I thought she would be the best ever. She was driven and seemed certain of what she wanted.

    It started out verbally that I would be doing 12 illustrations from a photo shoot that she would have done for each scene and I would work straight from those, create a logo, and do layout on her children’s book.

    But the full scope of the job wasn’t described in the contract I signed(this is the key part, for those who are skimming for the important elements to glean from). It just said that they should be finished to her satisfaction. Also, verbally I told her that I try to keep to two revisions per sketch and no revisions after final approval. I’ve never needed to be stickler with people, so I didn’t think she’d take advantage of it. She agreed with me at our meeting, but changed her tune after the contract was signed.

    All of the verbal things went unnoticed on her end, and all that mattered was her getting whatever she wanted with as many changes to completed artwork and revisions as it took to get it to be “what she was paying for”.

    Before long, I just wanted to get to the end of the project to get my severely underpaid money and out of the contract. And of course, as a creative, I felt some sense of ownership over the illustrations, which by now had changed to not even having photos to go from. So she wanted a realistic drawing of the characters, but made-up poses, yet still in an illustrated style. This was one of our first arguments in that she couldn’t understand how that was unfair of her to change the scope of the project. When I told her i was going to submit a Change Order to the contract because of the change in scope, she quickly changed tones and became easy to deal with for long enough to get me into the next level of coloring the illustrations.

    We actually got to the point of yelling about it many times, and I’m a very easy-going guy. It was horrible. I have to say that one of the big things that kept me hanging on was the hope of having good children’s illustrations for my portfolio. But we continued to argue, and I tried to fire her many times. Every time, she’d become promising, even offering to pay me more in the end after I finished the files.

    Today, she picked up a disc with half-colored photoshop files because she insulted my work when it looked bland after she requested that I take away the expressive linework that was on the final drawing she had already approved. So she made a change to the final drawings, then insulted the way it looked after I worked all day trying to get it done for her. I admit that I snapped at her and told her that she was ridiculous. I should have fired her more diplomatically long before and cut my losses at less, but I held on the hopes that I could finish it soon and be done and get paid the final installment. If I had done so long ago, I would have lost MUCH less time.

    Basically, if you are going to sign a contact, have your own stipulations covered and signed off on also. I’ve never had as much trouble with anyone wanting my illustrations micromanaged to look differently that my existing style, but I messed up when I didn’t have the contract specify what style they were to be completed in. The contract was only for her to be able to leave the working relationship with everything and me with nothing. And that’s not a “poor me” story, it’s just the way some people operate. Please watch yourself contractually. I left this agreement with hundreds of hours of work put in, and probably a quarter of what I would have normally charged. I took a huge loss, just to quit dealing with her.

  5. I’ll boil it down to archetypes:

    1. The Crazy Client.
    This is the one with ridiculous deadlines, outlandish concepts, questionable behaviour and a small budget. Which brings me to…

    2. The Cheapskate. Cristal ideas, moonshine budget. But they want to make loads of money off this project. But they’ll never pay you what you quote. But if by some miracle they do, they morph into…

    3. The Nickel and Dimer. Accounting for your work schedule is one thing, but this client wants to justify every penny. And if there are extras they don’t expect to pay for them. But no one is as bad as…

    4. The Failed Artiste. They went to art school too you know? Or they thought about it. Or they liked that painting of the dogs playing poker. Whatever. They will tell you what’s wrong with every concept even though they can’t execute one themselves. Be prepared for whole-scale design butchery.

    I’ve fired clients that exhibit any or all of these traits. I like my sanity more than I like money. Like Jason said above, CYA with a tight contract so that you can extricate yourself if necessary.

  6. Crownworth

    Guys, thanks for this post. I learn’t a lot. I won’t mind sample copies of such contract letters for a designer. Mail to crownworth@yahoo.com

  7. Ksenia

    I am so sorry! I recently worked with someone who was micromanaging, too, which was extremely frustrating, but at least they were courteous and honest. Anyway, I feel for you!

    • This “free sharing” of ifnromaiton seems too good to be true. Like communism.

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