I want to help you navigate a ticklish situation that all creatives and consultants face at some point: you need to fire bad clients while preserving your reputation.
Before we dive into tactics and strategy, let me make one thing clear: by “bad” I mean “ill-fitting,” not “immoral.”
Most bad clients aren’t bad people. Like the guy who cuts you off on the interstate, they’re oblivious, not venomous.
You can wish a client well while deliberately widening the distance between yourself and that person, for the sake of your happiness, sanity, and prosperity.
In this post, I’ll share three causes of bad client blindness and three ways to fire bad clients. Cutting loose the bottom 10% of your clients and practicing “affectionate detachment” will enable you to do better work and make more money.
3 Causes of Bad Client Blindness
Birds of a feather flock together. So when you have a discovery session over coffee and learn that your client, like you, is married with young children and loves craft beer, you naturally assume you’ll work well together.
You’re working from the same grid as this person. You share the same faith, values, ethics, or hobbies.
Then, a few initial successes fuel your optimism. You manage to design a fantastic logo, or you really nail the value proposition in the new web content. Only a true cynic would call that glowing email testimonial a false positive.
And if we do notice any weirdness, we blame it on extenuating circumstances: “She was just stressed because of the tight deadline. I should cut her some slack. The next project will be better.”
Winning new clients can be time-consuming and difficult, so we can’t help but get excited about new contracts and money in the bank. We really, really, really want to believe that this new client can work out long term.
The more optimistic and generous a person you are, the more susceptible you are to bad client blindness. You want to see the best in people. You want to extend grace and give them second and third chances. “Everyone makes mistakes,” you think. “And we have so much in common. We can figure out how to make this work.”
After all, wouldn’t you want the client to give you the benefit of the doubt?
1. Money makes people stupid.
All that to say, you’re not a bozo for staying in an ill-fitting business relationship. You’re human, and you have the trifecta working against you: affinities between you and the client, false positives, and your optimism and sense of fairness.
Time isn’t always on your side. Surface-level affinities weaken our discernment, and red flags and pathologies often take a while to emerge. The first, second, or third project goes off without a hitch.
Then, out of nowhere, this guy blows up or bows up on you. Good sours into a bad.
You’ve known Charles for years. What happened?! Like you, he signed the master service agreement, which clearly specified that changes would be billed at $185/hour. He requested changes, and you billed him two extra hours. He had always seemed reasonable. Surely he could see that your work was worth paying an extra $370. Why would he destroy a strong working relationship for a relatively small sum of money?
Bad clients are costly, in terms of time, money, and frustration. They put money ahead of respect and fairness. They ignore boundaries. They take more than they give.
My mentor Bruce has a catchphrase that helps to explain why otherwise smart people act the fool in business: “Money makes people stupid.”
You know it’s true. As soon as money comes into play, people turn from swans into ugly ducklings.
2. A good fit can become a bad fit.
Even clients who start out as a good fit can become less than desirable for a variety of reasons.
Maybe communication, not money, is the problem. I’m thinking of a general manager who, after I would ask for a decision to be made about a marketing initiative, would go dark for weeks, and then fire off an email saying, “I needed this yesterday.” (Yeah? I wish we had finished yesterday too. But we can’t beat deadlines if you ignore my emails and phone calls.)
Or maybe the dude’s values, ethics, or weak grasp of boundaries and propriety are the strike-anywhere match to your gasoline. I once lost my temper with the chair of a committee for a luxury resort who had an unshakeable belief in his own marketing expertise (thanks to his background in grocery stores), who swore by direct mail, and who prided himself on “telling it like it is.” (Like it is? It is, like, your arrogance, condescension, and bullying blow up the very outcomes you’re trying to achieve.)
3. Sometimes personalities clash.
Consider the email that my friend Darius sent me:
I worked with this guy deleted () like 2 years ago on a project and found it to be grating to say the least, and that’s putting it kindly. I feel like just being around this guy makes me uneasy in every way imaginable, and part of this is because I feel like he only ever speaks in marketing cliches.
Anyways, we crossed paths here within the last month and he will not stop hounding me to either work with him deleted (), etc…
At this point, I’ve been ignoring his texts and phone calls but he seems persistent.
Is there a professional/kind way of telling someone “Please stop contacting me. I never want to speak or work with you. We have completely incompatible personalities. Never contact me again.”?
I ask you because I figure surely you’ve met someone like this before. And you just seem pretty business savvy.
Thanks for any help.
A Quick Word on Griping
Before we move on to the three exit strategies I recommended to Darius, I want to admit that it’s tempting to turn a run-in with a bad client into a diatribe on how idiotic, unrealistic, and worthy of ridicule some people are.
But gripe sessions are like fast food. They taste good at the time, but you feel bad afterward. Griping lacks any true nourishment, and it most certainly doesn’t fix the problem. The fact is, we agree to work for these people, so we play a part in our own discontentment.
Our goal as creative professionals is not to vilify the people who pay our bills, but to protect positive outcomes.
Professional integrity dictates that we extricate ourselves from relationships and projects where we cannot or will not contribute to our clients’ prosperity with both excellence and enthusiasm. We also owe it to ourselves to pursue clients and projects that meet our creative, financial, and emotional needs.
Know what you need.
If I were to sum up bad clients in one phrase, it would be this: They put their needs ahead of your own.
We all bring needs to the table. Clients need design, writing, photography, or code. (Actually, they want those things but may need something else entirely, but we’ll save that for another post.) Creatives need money, creative freedom, clear communication, and time.
Buying and selling creative services represents an exchange of value around those needs. We’re at a swap meet. I value your stuff more than mine. You value mine more. We swap. We both walk away happy.
That’s good business. And when the needs and goods are less tangible than an 80s-era Christmas sweater, then we use money to facilitate the exchange of value.
If for whatever reason you’re not able to give your best to a project, take a pass and create a vacancy that a hungrier or otherwise more motivated creative can fill.
The ironic thing about doing projects for the money is that the money usually wasn’t worth it in the end.
Three Ways to Gently Fire Bad Clients
Here are three strategies for parting ways with bad clients while preserving your reputation:
- Be expensive. Triple your standard hour or project rate, and send your client what he will likely view as an outrageous quote. By rocketing out of his price range, you can get a No from him and effectively end the relationship. This approach can have unforeseen benefits. Some people prefer the expensive because they believe that the premium option represents higher quality. So even if a bad client complains about your rates to someone else, he may inadvertently send you referrals. Price is perceived value, and “expensive” makes for excellent positioning.
- Be busy. Blame your lack of capacity or bandwidth. This is by far the easiest route because no one can argue that you have time when you say you don’t. In the off chance that the person says, “I can wait,” you simply send Mr. Bad Client the 3x quote mentioned above and state that you require a non-refundable deposit of 50%. Mission accomplished.
- Be honest. Say the project doesn’t interest you. (You don’t have to explain that the reason is his grating personality or his tendency to call you at 10 pm). Go on to explain that you’ve had to become much more selective with your freelance projects out of respect to your current workload and need to maintain work-life balance. You can add that you’re not at your best as a designer unless you’re really enthusiastic. That’s why you recommend that he find another designer who can bring the desired level of enthusiasm. This is a variation of one of the more sincere and palatable break-up lines: “You deserve someone who will really cherish you.” You can add some sugar to the medicine by spending 5-10 minutes on Upwork, finding 3 other freelancers who seem competent, and emailing your ex-client their profile links.
Helping to hire your replacement is a good strategy for protecting your reputation. But be careful about throwing the grenade of a bad client at a friend or colleague. If your ex-boyfriend was a total psycho, would you set your roommate up with him? No, better to refer Mr. Bad Client to strangers.
Keep in mind that you always have the freedom to say, “No, thank you,” and leave it at that. People are sometimes surprised when a freelancer or solopreneur says no to money, but the fact is, many projects aren’t worth the headache.
Some personality types still won’t take a hint, and will try to threaten, bully, or beg their way back into your queue. If Mr. Bad Client pushes back on any of the above, you can respond, “Please respect the boundaries I have made clear,” and effectively cut off the conversation.
Stand your ground.
No social contract obligates you to respond to emails and text messages. But you always want to be tactful and kind even while you’re asking Mr. Bad Client to not email you again.
Tweak his ego, and he’ll be more than happy to badmouth you.
Finally, in closing, remember: Your goal as a creative professional is not to do your clients’ bidding but to protect positive outcomes. If you must fire clients, try to leave on a good note, and if possible, hire your replacement.
The world is small, and you’ll never regret exercising grace and gentleness when you fire bad clients. Gentleness is power under control.
There you have it, folks.
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