The question, "When and why should I ever fire a customer?" was submitted to Creative Latitude through our Holy Grail section. All graphic designers at some point in their careers will face this dilemma, so I felt it deserved an in depth response.
The relationship between a graphic designer and a client is very similar to a marriage. It requires trust, loyalty and communication for a successful relationship. In business as in life, relationships do not always last and they can have the same emotional and financial impact as a divorce. In business it's important to evaluate the difference between a valid reason for severing the relationship and one based on emotions and frustration. Let's take a closer look at some of the common pitfalls in the designer/client relationship and how to navigate the best course.
Separating Emotion and Fact
Just like any marriage, sometimes you can't wait for the other person to get home and other times you wish they would get hit by a train so you wouldn't have to deal with them. Both of these emotional responses are based on the current situation and not on the relationship as a whole. Choosing to terminate a client because they are a little difficult at times or want to butcher a concept you absolutely love is not grounds to drop them and move on. You always need to keep the bottom line in mind especially if you are just starting out in the design.
I have realized that if I have a difficult client, many times it means I have failed to adjust myself or educate them properly about the business side and creative process of graphic design. Some clients see the fee structure as unfair and balk at making a deposit or paying for revisions. Others feel intimidated by design and they feel they have to make some change to exert their power. Explaining each step of the process, defining their role and providing clearly written contracts can eliminate many of the common problems. I was given a referral a few years ago with the preface that the client was "somewhat" hard to handle and could be a bully if given the chance. The client's associate called to say they were interviewing designers and he would like to schedule a time to meet. I expressed that I did not do interviews, my portfolio was available online and I would be happy to meet with them when they had a specific project to discuss. They called back an hour later and asked that I come in to talk about a project they needed.
To sum it up. The client was odd and difficult at best, but I explained the framework for developing and completing a project, had precise contracts that I went over in detail with an explanation of what constituted a revision and how they would be billed. In reality, he had worked with inexperienced designers in the past and didn't have a good framework and set of guidelines to work through the creative process. I did have to stand my ground initially several times and refer back to the contract, but he paid me well and the extra effort was worth it. Eventually, he did not pay me for several revisions to his website, so I pulled it down. I got a hail storm of letters from his lawyer threatening thousands of dollars in damages. Upon sending a copy of the signed contract and an offer to settle; the letters stopped. I later heard back from his secretary that his lawyer recommended the settlement and avoiding litigation. In the end the client moved on and has gone through two other designers since me. I lost a little money, but in the long run I was ahead financially and gained some valuable experience.
When to Pull the Trigger
Nonpayment is the most obvious reason for terminating a client, since it is an obvious breach of trust. You also have to rely on them to be honest with you about budgets, timeframes and will not use your design or print proposal as leverage to get a better price from other vendors. If you find a pattern of dishonesty developing it is time to seriously reevaluate your situation. There are other issues that have equal weight when deciding to terminate a client such as low profit margins, lack of input, chemistry and lack of passion on your part.
I have a friend who is the number one salesman at a car dealership. He once told me that his most satisfied clients are the ones he makes the most money on, and I believe the same holds true in the design community. Clients who understand the value of professional design are willing to make the initial investment, because they realize that ultimately their return will be far more. Clients who try to bargain or get you to reduce your fee after the project is approved will never be happy with you or anyone else. Of course, if an error was made on your part it is reasonable for them to inquire, but a pattern of whining and nitpicking on price is an invitation for a pink slip.
Clients who do not value your services may give you very little input during the process thinking that you will magically come up with a stunning concept. Or they may dominate the process, then blame you for a failed marketing effort. Don't expect them to praise you and your abnormally huge creative mind on any assignment. I had a client a few years ago who either gave me no input or disregarded my recommendations and dominated the design process. The most input I could get from them at the end of projects was, "it was OK" or "I have seen more creative ads." On our last project, she requested that her magazine ad have "cows" in it. Her IT business and its personality had nothing similar with the bovine persuasion, but she was enamored with an ad campaign for a fast food restaurant that used them. I strongly recommended against it and ultimately it was not successful. She called a few days after it was published asking for a reduction in my fee because I had taken her to the publisher's deadline. My response was that I made the deadline, but according to her, the undo stress of getting it approved at the deadline justified a reduced fee. We parted ways at the end of the phone call.
Chemistry is another area worth investigating. Even if you love the type of creative work, the frequency of projects and the compensation; it will never overcome the lack of "clicking" with a client. It will take far more effort to work with them and a mounting frustration will soon become evident. The best course is to communicate (after you complete the last project) that you are not a good fit, and while you appreciate the opportunity you have been given, they would be better served by another designer. Having another designer to refer with an offer to help in transferring their files over to him/her is an optimal way to bow out. Working this way will smooth the transition and may even get you a referral in the future. You may find it odd to think of getting a referral this way, but unfortunately it is common in business to cut and run when things do not go your way. Leaving the former way shows character on your part and a concern for their welfare. Trust me, you will leave a lasting and positive impression on them.
Finally, your personal integrity is a factor when dealing with a client. If they ask you to be dishonest, misrepresent yourself or falsely promote their product or service, I suggest moving on. Conducting business this way means they will eventually treat you with the same regard. Also consider that the main intent of graphic design is to influence the behavior of others. If you have strong political, moral or religious beliefs and a client asks you to promote something in direct opposition to them, then it is reasonable to terminate the relationship or decline the project. This rarely happens, since you will usually know the product or service up front, but business models do change. Keep in mind that there is no need to communicate your personal opinions in detail as they do not belong in business, that's why they're called "personal". You are not going to change someone's mind anyway. On the other hand, if you have particular views but feel no personal betrayal in working for "the other side", then by all means go for it.
If you offer graphic design services long enough you will eventually have to fire a client. It is not easy for established designers let alone a new one with very few clients, due to the potential financial impact. The first rule in making the decision is to base it on facts and not emotions, and be smart in how you do it. Make sure you have been paid for all outstanding work and try to make it as painless as possible for both parties. No matter the treatment you have received, be the better person and do not create a situation that will create or heighten any acrimony on the client's part. Have an exit strategy ready and provide them with the option and pricing for retrieving their files and a buyout option for layered files. You do not want to motivate them to pursue you legally or otherwise in the future. Keep in mind, the best way to avoid firing a client is to screen prospective ones thoroughly and decline work with people and products that do not fit you or your business objectives.
About the Author
Derald Schultz is the founder and principal of Mediarail Design, Inc. His company provides creative services for print and web media to clients across the country. Mediarail Design also provides prepress and printing services. He can be contacted at 678-985-9981 or via email.
Derald is also the contributing news and articles editor at Creative Latitude.
© 2005 Derald Schultz, Mediarail Design, Inc.