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business advice
When is it OK to fire a client?
Mar 13, 2018
Sean Low

Dear Sean,

My client hired me to assist with her kitchen remodel. I provided her with a detailed creative brief and a preferred list of vendors. I offered to manage the project for her, but she declined. Well, she did not hire any of my vendors and has “edited” my brief to the point that it is unrecognizable. Its no surprise that she is not happy with how the project is going (it is months behind) and she would now like me to provide advice on what she should do. Oh, and the client is very demanding and condescending to me and my staff. I feel like I just want to walk away from her and be finished. Is this something I can do?

Signed,
Looking for the Exit

Dear Looking,

The short answer to your question is yes, you can fire your client. Any client that does not appreciate or respect the work you have completed on her behalf need not continue being your client. No matter how much you want to see a project through to the finish, if your client makes it impossible for you to do your best (even very good) work, there is no point to finishing other than ego.

The longer answer, though, is that you have to look at what you are doing to put yourself in this position. By this, I mean great clients are made, not born. If a client can disrupt your process, or worse, choose their own process, you really do not have a business, as what you do is literally in the hands of another. For instance, in your specific situation, the client has to know where your work ends. If you are simply an advisor giving suggestions, then the moment you delivered your brief, you were finished and the client should know that. On the other hand, if you are truly her designer, then “editing” your brief or choosing vendors you do not know or approve of is a non-starter. Once your client “edited” or chose other vendors, you were no longer her designer. However, it is entirely up to you to explain to her which camp you reside in.

When is it OK to fire a client?You can never satisfy a client who does not care about what is most dear to you.

And that is the thing: You will likely never have to fire a client if the client knows they will, in fact, be fired if they undertake behavior you (and only you) believe to be inappropriate to both a successful relationship and project. For this to be true, there can be no landmines, since landmines are hidden and meant to be a surprise. No, there has to be very specific “Do Not Enter” signs that you spell out for your client at least three times—first, during your sales process; second, during your contract negotiations; and third, when you come together as engaged designer and client. You may not like the iron fist, but without it, you and your design business will be dust in the wind. So dress up the iron fist with as much velvet as you like, just do not lose the iron.

One great suggestion that might help you avoid feeling like you have to fire your client is to know your one thing. Your “one thing” is what matters most to you as a designer, the very reason you choose to do the work you do. Far beyond pretty, the one thing is the desire for transformation as you interpret transformation. Now, what do clients have to do to honor your one thing? If you explain nothing else, explain this to your clients so that they can appreciate the essence of what you will do as their designer and respect your need for them to act accordingly. From this seed of respect, I have found that most designers can bring even the most challenging clients back into the fold.

And for those very few who refuse to respect the seed of the one thing, letting them go is likely the only solution and probably what both you and your client will agree needs to be done. You can never satisfy a client who does not care about what is most dear to you. There will be no “win,” and finishing is an exercise in futility, since you will never be celebrated for what you most care about. Best to just leave it at that and walk away.

Sean Low is the founder and president of the consulting firm The Business of Being Creative. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Find more of his EAL Business Advice columns HERE.

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