When It Comes Time to Burn That Bridge

When It Comes Time to Burn That Bridge

I was such a bridge-burner in my younger days, people thought I carried a canister of gasoline with me at all times. I had a short temper and didn’t suffer fools well. I still don’t but some epiphany many years ago, probably having kids, turned me into Gandhi… who sometimes punches someone, so I guess not really but I sure did calm down a lot.

Still, although I am endlessly patient, there comes a time when something has to comes to a halt. Walking away can feel freeing and self-affirming but when the other party fights it, then comes the time for accelerants and matches!

When Is It Time to Cut and Run?

Isn’t That a Terrorist Crime?

Chained Hands
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

For those who think “bridge-burning” means I have a restraining order, keeping me at least 500 yards from major traffic water crossings, that’s completely different and I can now cross seven major bridges again. It’s actually a term meaning that you are severely severing ties to someone FOREVER!

The “bridge” in business is where you meet the client halfway, more often than not. Flexibility in working on a project is important until that flexibility is strained to the breaking point. That is the point where one of the two parties involved has spilled gasoline all over the place. The next question is; who will create the spark?

Where There’s Smoke…

Where there's smoke...
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

I had a client argue excessive changes as not really changes. He said, “the project is just evolving!”

“Okay!” I replied. “The invoiced fee will have to reflect that.”

With that, the flames showed in his eyes. We had agreed on a flat fee and the creative brief laid out all milestones and changes allowed at which points on the project timeline. He was merely adding peripherals, such as posters and other print material. As I explained, that was all additions to the scope of work. He refused to discuss allowing any more additions to the budget. I let that email sit for the rest of the day.

I looked at my deposit and realized that if I finished the current scope of work, I would lose money in the end. At the point of realization, I was still ahead of the game. It was time to make the demand or walk away.

I contacted the client and told him I would be happy to continue with the original scope of the project but the extra work would have a separate invoiced fee. He refused and promised he would “make it up to (me) on the next project.” I refused.

The client demanded his deposit back, called my work “sh!t” and told me I’d hear from his lawyer if I didn’t finish the entire project. There was something said about my never being able to get work again in this universe, taking a job serving fries to pay the legal suit and my going to a warm place below something or the other. All I could say was, “I will still be happy to finish the project as it was contracted, with payment upon delivery or I’ll expect to hear from your lawyer.”

I never heard back from him, nor did I hear from his lawyer. I suspect his attorney told him he was out of luck and shouldn’t have accepted a contract from a filthy creative-type.

In this case, it was the client that burned the bridge. There have been plenty of times I have lit the fire when the initial negotiations with a client just won’t produce an agreement.

The Top 5 Firestarters

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Here’s a list of some of the weirdest requests from clients that made me hit the blow torch:

  1. “We don’t need a contract! If you don’t trust me, you might as well walk out right now and miss out on some really great projects… for BIG MONEY!” Yes, someone actually said that, as do so many clients, you’d swear there’s a book out there on how to get free design work.
  2. “I have a few little fixes. It won’t take you much time.” After figuring out that not much time equalled a total redesign, the client refused to listen to “any argument or plea for more money!” He claimed I was “lucky it was a paying project in the first place” as he could “find an art student to do it.”
  3. After being told that the budget for stock images (that the client said looked like stock images) wouldn’t cover “illustrator generated art,” the client said that I was holding out on him and that he knew I could do them easily and for the same $1 each stock photo was going to cost him. There seemed to be several roadblocks in the negotiation of an art cost between $1 and $500.
  4. Three weeks after the client had accepted and paid for the project: “I’ve decided that we need (lists things I told him to include but he had turned down) and I need it by Monday (it was Friday).” I told him how much it would cost to make the changes and he flew into a rage, claiming he had paid me already and I should “guarantee (my) work with changes for at least a year.”
  5. In negotiating a string of articles for a startup (in another part of the world), every time I would quote a price, the response would state a half to two-thirds of what I had quoted, as if they agreed to my price, followed by two or three sentences like, “okay, so let’s do this!, “we will pay depending on the quality of the work, so let’s get this moving!” and “so it is agreed… “ (nothing has been agreed. I haven’t given you my counter offer yet!).

Oddly enough, while these requests and demands may seem outrageous, because they are, but in every case it was my merely saying “no!” that burned the bridge for that client and myself.

Never Burn That Bridge!

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Personally, now, I don’t like burning bridges. Hell, I even have several old girlfriends as Facebook friends. There are regular clients I had to leave for one reason or another and I made sure I left them with an open door if I were to return. There have been times I do return. It’s a great feeling knowing there are those open doors and kind comments should one’s name come up.

In a perfect, professional world, business dealings should end with a smile and feeling of satisfaction. I guess that’s long gone with barn raisings and Coca-Cola with real cocaine in it.

These are the days of entitlement, shirking duties and blaming all others for the problems of the world. In the case of creatives, it’s the horrid practice of charging money for… artsy things. It’s odd no one blinks an eye at the great paintings in history selling for tens of millions of dollars but when booking design, anything over $50 brings cries of outrage. That’s why the great painters died paupers!

A friend of mine, speaking of making deals with clients, said, “it’s okay to cut a deal, as long as you don’t cut your own throat.”

That always stuck with me and when it comes time to negotiate or to try to fix a disagreement, I always keep an eye towards where the cutting blade is. As the red flags come up, deal with them immediately or they will only grow. Put out the little fires as they start. It’s better to keep the job and educate the client… if they can be.

In a scope creep project a friend of mine had, she was forced to break down the hours that would be needed with all of the client’s proposed changes and when it came out to her working for $3.00 an hour, the client dropped the changes.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that often but when you can set a client back on the right path, the bridge remains for future work with easier working conditions. That’s one of the keys of being professional.

Can You Legally Burn That Bridge?

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

  1. Sure, if you have a contract that allows you to walk away and keep your deposit and any milestone payments to that point. Not having a contract will leave a lot of gray areas if you are taken to court. There are some legal angles you have to remember before severing the relationship (and yes, a client asking for huge scope creep will believe YOU didn’t fulfill your end of the project).
  2. No contract only helps if no money has changed hands and no “verbal” agreement was made (although that’s a weak thing to defend or prosecute in court).
  3. If you have something in writing that breaks down the work for the fee quoted, that is a legal reason to stop working on a project in which demands were made for doing the extra work for free.
  4. No milestone payments were made and the client refused to pay or quoted a 30 day or more work stoppage. If you’re accommodating, you can choose to pick up the project after 30 days.
  5. The client being “bat-sh!t crazy” is not enough unless you compile a group of “bat-sh!t crazy” emails or messages (learn to save screen grabs of texts and archive emails!).
  6. The client fires you.


Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Design is a confusing thing to non-creatives. They don’t know the process, how long it takes, why bother going to art school (and having to pay back that tuition), or how much a computer and software costs to buy and update. You have to teach them. You must take them by the hand and gently lead them through the process, keeping all steps transparent and all changes down to a minimum so you can make a profit. There are clients that will understand and appreciate your professional business acumen. Then, there are clients who want you to shut up and dance, monkey! Here are some matches and bananas!


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