When to fire a design client


There’s a lot of negative karma floating around in the design community about how terrible design clients are, what a pain they are to deal with, and how annoying their requests are. As a firm advocate of treating clients with respect instead of contempt, this article is not an attempt to
complain about client relationships or whine about the things they do that bug me. With that being said, if you have been working in the design industry long, there comes a time when some clients simply need to be let go. This article will discuss the when, why, how, and other questions you might have about cutting a design client loose.

Firing a client = crazy talk?

Making the decision to let a client go is one of the toughest decisions you’ll make as a designer. Not only do you run the risk of burning bridges and upsetting people, but you also lose any future income you might have received from the client’s projects. It’s for these reasons that you should be extremely careful when cutting a client loose. It should be a well-thought-out decision based on logical reasoning and not heat-of-the-moment passion. You should have a good reason for firing your client and should politely explain these reasons to them upon termination. Lastly, you should be willing to negotiate with your client so that you all end on good terms. Remember, nothing is worse for you or your design company than bad word-of-mouth marketing.

When is it okay to fire a client?

Sometimes, no matter how much you fight it. No matter how much you try to work it out or find a more positive solution, you simply have to inform your design client that you can no longer continue working with them. Below, you will find a few scenarios that, in my opinion, justify a high level of consideration, on your part, of firing your client.

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When you first meet with and establish a contract with your design client, you should make sure you define your means of communication. It is not uncommon in a design contract for you to include a clause that encourages frequent and meaningful communication. The contract my business uses, for example, contains an area where the client can provide their email address and telephone number. This same section outlines regulations about how often the client and designer should communicate, what the preferred means of communication is, and what the consequences are for lack of communication by either party.

If your client has been avoiding your calls or emails for months (notice I did not say days here) perhaps it’s time to consider cutting them loose. Kindly explain to them that when they are able to find more time to communicate with you and work with you to get the job done, you will be happy to work out a new agreement with them.

While you may love to design simply for the sake of design, you are most likely in business to make a profit. Whether you are a design firm making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, or a part-time freelancing design student, if you aren’t making enough money to support your business, it won’t last long. When a client stops paying you for the work you are completing, it’s time to seriously consider letting them go.

Some clients try to get around paying by claiming that they will pay you when the get the money, when the task is fully completed, after the next revision, etc. Be sure to set up a clear contract that explains how payments will work, how often they should occur, and consequences of not paying. This will help your client stay on track. In the event, however, that they simply won’t pay you for the work you are doing, you may need to cut them loose.

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It’s likely you do more than just design. If you freelance, you most likely have to spend time with your finances, finding new clients, marketing material, and more. Designers who work at an agency have to take time out for company meetings, coworker problems/delays, and other work-related tasks. If you have a client who is making it extremely difficult for you to accomplish necessary tasks such as billing, marketing, or taking a lunch break, you may want to consider cutting them loose.

You have to weigh your options. Could the time you spend catering to this client’s every whim be better used in marketing your company, finding new clients, filing some paperwork, or even just staying sane? If so, perhaps it’s time to fire them.

Similar to the point made above, it’s important that your clients understand your design business does not revolve around them. Kindly try to explain to them that you have other clients who also have deadlines. Be sure to plan wisely, establish milestones, and stay on task so none of your clients feel neglected. But if there is one particular client who just can’t seem to share you with all the rest, it might be time to drop them.

If your design business is anything like mine, you have some clients that pay you what you believe you are worth, or more. You also have some clients who, whether they are a not-for-profit, a friend or family member, or a really old client who has grandfathered pricing, pay less for the services you provide.

If a client who pays less is taking time away from clients who pay more, you need to reconsider your relationship with them. This may not be a reason to cut them loose, but you probably want to renegotiate your terms of service and make sure you get paid what you are worth. If they continue to take up a lot of your time and refuse to pay you what you are worth, maybe it’s time to say goodbye.

This one, to me, is a given. I like to think that I am a fairly easy-going, easy-to-work-with kind of person. I’m never intentionally rude or disrespectful, and I expect the same from my clients. If a client ever attacks me personally, makes profane phone calls, or sends rude and attacking emails, I usually terminate the relationship pretty quickly.

A word of warning: Don’t confuse constructive criticism with rudeness. Just because a client doesn’t love your work or wants to make a few changes, doesn’t mean he is being rude. But when it turns into personal attacks or angry phone calls, it may be time to let them go their way.

What do you think? Share with us.

Have you ever fired a client? What merits firing a client in your opinion? Add to the discussion and let us know what you think.

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  1. A key component before taking on a client is to make sure of their expectations and whether you are able to manage expectations and to provide an scope of service agreement setting out all the terms and conditions.

    If a client becomes rude and person, then the trust is broken and better to terminate the relationship

  2. Goes both ways. As a business, we’ve had terrible experiences with ad agencies and graphic designers.

    Seems there is some snobbery in the ad agency world that only wants the big, monthly paying clients. One wanted us to fork over a $5K deposit just to drive down to discuss our needs which could have been accomplished by phone or other means. Like extortionists, they unabashedly questioned how much our company was willing to spend up front and monthly.

    The two graphic designers we’ve tried to work with have disregarded our requests and acted independently on our behalf without authorization then delivered what they think we should have. They have imposed unwarranted delays by failing to respond then give a snappy response along with a poor product that was clearly rushed. Failing to deliver a duplicate of a design we submitted, they they want to charge us additional hourly fees for mistakes they made.
    Outrageous! We’re done with “creative folks” with inflated egos. We’re continuing to develop our graphics in-house as before which anyone with a computer an an ounce of creativity can do.

  3. How about clients who will not listen to your professional advice and somehow become your creative director. Is it fair to let go a client who basically has a precise idea of exactly what they want (in this case, a logo) and want you to make it happen no matter what–even if you present them with examples and educated information as to why their idea sucks. If the client is literally nip-picking every tiny aspect of the design and telling exactly what to do (move this here, add this there, place this one inch down, make this thicker), is it fair to tell them you can no longer help them?

    1. Not only is that a perfectly valid reason to (diplomatically) fire a client, I’m actually about to do so. What they’re wanting is a production artist, which is a valid service to want. But it’s a designer’s role to craft a strong piece that’s in support of the client’s business goals, not execute the aesthetic whims of non-designers.

  4. Thanks, Preston. This particular client had been given an agreement several years ago, but since then has managed to scare himself silly regarding the recession. I even lowered my rates slightly and made it a marketing ploy to help assuage him and others who were reining in their spending during the worst of it. Now he’s doing better, has rebuilt his staff, and things look positive for him, largely because of the foundation I helped him build with his brand. But, he’s has developed an attitude that it’s shark eat shark. The staff, who is largely untrained about marketing, graphics and print, simply follow his lead and they make poor decisions on his behalf, out of naivete. I think you are right, time for me to keep moving. I have an agenda to build my business, honestly and proudly.

  5. I am at this tage with a client who has for about two years now, called me periodically with requests, gotten me on the path to have spent time on their project, then pulled the project. Each time they explain that they have a real need for my services, and the project is urgently needed. In the latest thing, they did not look closely at the estimate before launching into the work, then when the job was ready to release, couldn’t commit to the print price. Not only that, they forgot to consider the creative and printing as separate phases, so were unwilling to pay for anything except a new printing price. It turned into a debate on the phone, owner to owner. We agreed to proceed with a little better print price, which I had to go back out and find. And I had to reduce my creative rate, thus wasting about four hours of work. I think the relationship is tarnished. This client has seemingly ceased to appreciate the experienced project management we provide in favor of cheap solutions, which they are not above stealing the creative interim proofs we do together to achieve a final result. In the debate, he actually downplayed my creative time and compared it to an easy job they do for their clients. I have given them three chances to redeem themselves and this is where we are now. I do think they’ll pay, but I will be surprised if they call me again. And this time, I’m ready to let them go.

    1. @Cheryl Dapsauski,
      It sounds to me like your time could be better spent with a client who cares about your time and talents. Also, be sure to create a nice contract so that prices, terms, and final deliverables can’t be negotiated. You deserve to be paid what they agreed to. Good luck!

  6. Great article, Preston. I have to admit, I have a client who fits three of your categories! I’ve decided at this point to not cut them loose; instead, I’m using this as a teaching tool for them to better understand how I do business and schedule my workload.

    Recently my husband did fire a client because they demanded lots of changes on their site for very little/no money, and they determined how much he got paid! It was for a non-profit, but non-profits aren’t necessarily running broke, and most people don’t realize that.

    1. @Lisa Raymond,
      That’s a great point, Lisa. A lot of organizations (not just non-profits) try to weasel their way out of paying full price. As mentioned above, I have found that a contract will solve that problem.

      I’m curious, how exactly did your husband fire them?

      1. @Preston D Lee,
        Simple: he raised his prices to his norm, indicating the length of time and effort involved to make the requested changes were no longer consistent with the previously agreed-upon changes for price. Basically they demanded more of his time — including him working for them during non-freelance hours — for the same or less pay. The changes they requested were never consistent and given to his client/contact from a “committee” which never met together to discuss the changes. Very frustrating. They’ve since hired some “really cheap kid” to do the work; he’s already broken the PHP code and couldn’t figure out how to fix it! My husband did but at his normal rate, and they paid.

  7. yeah, sometimes client made us frustrating with their new requirement..
    they always keep asking us to add more and more while they don’t pay anything yet..

    1. @ndrew,
      I think this is why a contract is important. I’ve noticed that 90% of client troubles that designers face could be preempted with a good contract.

    1. @GUS the Gamer,
      I agree. I find it ironic that many freelancers leave their office job just to get away from a boss and then they end up creating bosses for themselves anyway.

  8. Nice article Preston. I have very recently been put in this position and unfortunately have had to make a tough decision on cutting loose.

    Like you too, I too am a very easy going, professional and fair person to work with. Through strict time management, I like other freelancers schedule work in so you can structure/manage the workload and deadlines. The client never respected the fact that I do actually run a design business and need to address other clients, admin etc.

    In addition to constantly moving the goal posts, additional work with no flexibility on deadlines and constant sharp, abrupt and sometimes rude phone calls and email generally holding me to ransom just topped it all off.

    It’s tough enough as it is being a freelancer and like you said above, sometimes it really is not worth it being stressed over as overall it can and does affect your productivity on other clients and jobs you have.

    1. @Anil Amrit,
      Some great thoughts, Anil. Thanks for sharing your insight. I wish you the best of luck with your design business! What tips can you add to the list to avoid stress due to clients?

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