You’re Fired! – Surviving a Bad Client or Freelancer Relationship

You're Fired! - Surviving a Bad Client or Freelancer Relationship

Let’s face facts. Not all client or freelancer relationships are good ones. What starts out as a positive venture can suddenly alter in an instant the minute money changes hands. What most freelancers do not always grasp is that they are in a position to “fire” their clients just as much as their clients are in a position to “fire” them.

You're Fired! - Surviving a Bad Client or Freelancer Relationship
Image credit: nakedgremlin

Unlike a 9-5 job at a corporation, the title of Boss now fits both the client and the freelancer. The relation of where the power lies now needs to be treated like a delicate balancing act, and you are going to need a safety net should one of you come crashing down.

Surviving a Bad Client/Freelancer Relationship

In this article, I will cover how to know when it’s time to fire a client, how to do so with tact, and how to survive with your reputation in good standing. But first, let’s start with…

The Red Flags

Before a bad relationship reaches it’s boiling point, there are warning signs telling you that you and your client are headed for a major meltdown. I call these warning signs “Red Flags” because if at any point you encounter one, the ideal reaction is to stop! If at any time you ignore the Red Flags and continue to plow through the project then you are setting you and your client up for certain disaster.

Red Flag
Image credit: mevrouwmikmak

So what are the warning signs?

One big sign is that there is a sudden communication breakdown. Either you are no longer understanding what your client is asking for, or your client is no longer understanding what it is you are trying to tell them. Deterioration of communication is the number one reason why relationships fall apart, the trick is to catch it while it’s happening.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I frustrated when I talk to my client?
  • Does my client seem frustrated with me?
  • Does there seem to be an elevation in the amount of phone calls, emails, or meetings taking place between me and my client?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then be aware that you are facing your first Red Flag.

Another warning sign is your mood.

  • Do you become grumpy or irritated when you think of the work that you will need to do to get the project finished?
  • Do you feel the urge to avoid talking to your client because it makes you feel uneasy?
  • Are you and your friends or family having mini fights over silly things that normally wouldn’t bother you?

Answer ‘yes’ to any of these and congratulations, you just found your second Red Flag.

Red Flag number three comes from your own body. Believe it or not, our bodies try to talk to our brains on a regular basis. When something isn’t right in our world the body has a funny way of responding. Psychical pain can be a major Red Flag. Headaches, back aches, blurred vision, restless sleep, stiff joints, and changes in weight can all be induced by stress. Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you. No amount of money is worth putting your health at risk. If you encounter a Red Flag like this, ignoring it can put you out of commission and that is the worst place a freelancer can be.

The Assessment

Ok, so you’re starting to encounter some Red Flags – what do you do now? Now it’s time to take an assessment. The assessment is a logical examination of how the project went from happy to unhappy and see if you can pinpoint just where it all went wrong. Sit down with pen and paper and create a time-line of events from the very first moment of communication to where you are now. See if you can visually track the progress or lack there of. Don’t trust your emotions at this point.

Image credit: Maggie’s World

It takes two to tango and chances are you are partially responsible for the meltdown, but you may not have been able to see that due to your over exerted emotions. Getting things out of your head and down on paper will help you to weed out the problem and help you define the solution.

Also, now is the time to ask questions like:

  • Am I being perfectly clear when I attempt to communicate with my client?
  • Have I exceeded my skills in completing the project?
  • Am I being logical and rational with my requests of the client?
  • Have I done all that I can to understand why I or my client is unhappy?
  • Have I done all that I can to make my client happy and the problem is still persisting?

If you are answering ‘yes’ to some, most, or all, of these questions, then now might be the time for you to put an end to the relationship.

The Escape Clause

It’s my firm belief that every project should come with a contract, and every contract should come with an Escape Clause. The Escape Clause is about one or two paragraphs long and will list the terms of what will happen to you, your work, the client’s information, and the client’s money should an unforeseen event take place.

Image credit: c.landrie

This paragraph not only covers an unsatisfying relationship, but also if one of you is no longer able to fulfill your end of the bargain due to poor health, family emergency, equipment breakdown, company emergency, environmental act, sudden lack of interest in the project, or even if the client’s funding falls through.

You wouldn’t want to be in a burning building without an evacuation plan, and this is your freelance evacuation plan. By having the Escape Clause clearly stated in your contract at the beginning of the project, then both you and your client are protected should something go wrong. Also, if you do feel that things are starting to head in the wrong direction, then make sure to remind them that the Escape Clause is there, and there for their protection as much as it is for yours.

The Backup Plan

If you or your client decides that it’s time to invoke the Escape Clause, then it’s a good idea to have a Back Up Plan. The Back Up Plan is a list of trusted colleagues that you know, that you could refer your client to in order to get their project finished. Knowing who your colleagues are, what their personalities are like, and what skill strengths they possess will help you match your client with a more suitable freelancer.

Image credit: jurvetson

By having this list on stand-by, your client will recognize that you really do have their best interests at heart and it will act as a sign of good customer service. It’s hard to bad mouth someone when they are being kind to you, so make sure to ask if your client would like some assistance in getting connected with their new freelancer.

By personally making the introductions as you pass the project on, then both the client and the new freelancer will appreciate the respect you have shown them. Also, it’s a good idea to follow up with the client a few weeks after the introduction to just touch base, see if the match worked, and see if the client is now seeing the results they had been hoping for.

The other half of the Back Up Plan is how to cover the loss of income. Once the project is stopped so are the payments and this can turn your world upside down as we freelancers are often falling victim to counting our chickens before they are hatched. One way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to make sure to not spend future payments until they are securely nesting in your bank account, purse, wallet, or even your hand.

By sticking to a strict budget until the project is complete, then you can rest a little easier knowing that you haven’t lived beyond your means. Also, include a “no refunds” policy within your contract. This way, clients will not be able to come after you for the money they have paid you which you in turn paid to your own bill collectors.

Then it’s time to find your next job. At this point, it’s good to crawl out of your freelance cave make yourself visible to the world again. Talk to your colleagues on your Back Up Plan list and let them know that you are available should they need any help with their own clients or projects. Brush up your networking skills and hit the social media sites. Shoot an email to previous clients to see how they are doing and offer them a discount on their next project if they can gain you some referrals. And best case scenario, contact those clients that you had to put on hold until your schedule freed up.

You’re Fired!

Firing a client is never an enjoyable event. But by keeping track of your red flags, making logical assessments, having an escape clause in your contract, and a back up plan in place – then you can breathe a little easier knowing that you are not going to get burned in the process.

Have you ever fired a client before? How do you handle a good relationship with your client? Please share with us.

Firgs has been an independent designer for over ten years, specializing in Photoshop art. Her favorite areas of design includes photo-manipulation, illustration, and creating web graphics. Currently, she is working as a freelance graphic artist in Chicago, IL.


    • Ben,
    • August 12, 2010
    / Reply

    This article couldn’t come any timelier. I’m just about to fire my client because of communication breakdown.

  1. / Reply

    I survived firing a client a few months ago. They were getting increasingly demanding, wanted more work than was listed in the contract (without paying for it), and was becoming insulting. I had to say bye bye to that one and I felt so relieved when I did.

    • Lorelai,
    • August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    I have a client that started “planning” for a simple website (about $1,000) back in late 2008. He finally got around to starting the project in May 2009. I completed all the work I could do by August 2009, at which point I was told the remaining content was “not quite ready yet”. Weeks, then months go by with nothing by excuses as to why the content is not ready.

    So in January 2010, I sent an invoice for the work completed to date (about $250 after the deposit was factored in). Again, excuse after excuse when it came to paying the bill. I finally received payment August 2010 (one year since any actual work was last done on the project).

    So now the client wants to “finish up” the project. I am not sure if I should:

    A) Say “no thanks”, give him the files, and have him find someone else to finish it.

    B) Finish the site and only put it up once final payment has been received

    C) Ask for full payment up front before doing any additional work on the site.

    Option A is ideal … I don’t need the money and don’t want the hassle. However, that will require me to get involved in a confrontation with the client. Option B is the “polite” option, but why should I be polite to someone who essentially ignored me for a full year? Option C covers my butt, but will also probably result in a confrontation with the client.

    Unfortunately, this project was started in the days before I used a contract, so there is no written rules that I can follow.

    Any suggestions?

    1. / Reply

      Do you have a contract to fall back on, if you stated that the client will need to pay within 30 days, you could refuse to do anymore work.
      Alternatively suggest option c, and then if the client refuses, just tell them to find someone else.

      1. / Reply

        Hi Lorelai!

        It is never too late to initiate a contract. If you decide to keep going with this client then do not move forward without one. Just explain to your client that your business practices have changed since 2008 and that you will now require a contracted agreement before any new work can begin.

        How do decide if you should do it? I think you already know. Listen to your gut and don’t let guilt talk you out of what your gut is telling you to do.

        How to let go? Be polite, be upfront, be formal. Result to business terminology if needed. Learn the art of “I vs You” language – – this is something that I can’t stress enough. By taking ownership of the problem and the solution using “I” language, it has a way of releasing the blame from you both.

        In the future though, send invoices within a one week time frame of completing work. This way everything is still fresh and your client’s mind hasn’t wandered off on to other things.

        I hope that helps some. If you have any more questions, please let me know! :)


    • Margie,
    • August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Perfect timing for this article. I think the worst sort of client breakup is when it’s been a long-standing and generally excellent relationship. But something changes, and it all goes horribly pear-shaped after that.

    I’m glad you mentioned the physical and emotional side effects. I’m handling the breakup in a professional way and I know it’s for the best. But it was still surprising to me how much it’s affected my mood and my ability to concentrate on other things. It’s good to know that this isn’t unusual and that I’m not alone.

    1. / Reply

      You are most defiantly not alone Margie! Stress is really sneaky. Most of the times we’re so used to it that we don’t even know we’re having it. Paying attention to your moods and what you body is telling you is a HUGE deal and one we should never ignore.

      Glad to hear that you are working toward a solution to your problem. :)

      Let me know if there is anything I can help you with along the way.

  2. / Reply

    Interesting read, I also check out clientsfromhell once in a while, some of those posts make you think “Are they serious??”

    1. / Reply

      I love love LOVE – every designer, developer, or freelancer needs to bookmark that site! Thanks for bringing it up! :D

      1. / Reply

        As much as I love Clients From Hell, I got into it after it had been running a full speed for several months. I made the mistake of reading like 20 pages in a row in one sitting. By the end I was nearly in tears and a little depressed. That site is going to create freelancers with Rambo-Vietnam flashbacks.

        I’m not sure how much damage a lone web developer can cause in a Washington state forest…

    • Greeny,
    • August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Where was this last week ? Just got fired after spending a whole year on a monsterous website that I was to be “partners” in & got dumped now that it’s working !

    1. / Reply

      Greeny was there a contract involved? That sounds like it might border on the definition of being unlawful.

  3. / Reply

    there are more things to say about this thing, but the fact is they are true and real.

  4. / Reply

    Those were very true, I sympathized to those designers who were on the edge of their patience in terms of their “bad” client.

    • cb1,
    • February 2, 2011
    / Reply

    Not happy – but am about to part ways with a client. They have hired a “marketing” company (I use that term loosely) – and the marketing company and I really want nothing to do with one another. There is something a little off about the whole situation – not to mention dealing with the arrogance – and I can answer affirmative to all checks below “your mood.”

    I don’t think the client anticipates this – and the relationship will turn sour which is sad because I wish them all the luck in the world. I just can’t work under this marketing firm.

    If there is a negative – I am not so sure they won’t start trying to pick off other clients of mine (I am a small shop with large clients). So professionally – it’s a bit of a catch 22.

  5. / Reply

    I am not a developer..I am a wedding planner but just googled this article and it was perfect. The communication breakdown section was right on target. My client was a total douche, I know..I know..but he was! Our communication was a mine field of disaster begging to happen; he was trying to do my job for me with absolutely no idea of how to plan this event (basically a simple rehearsal dinner!) and then started with threats, stating all of my communication was being monitored by licensed professionals in my field (?). After 2 months of dealing with him, trying to do the best job I could possibly do, and way too many phone calls to my friends with conversations about this person…and one last condescending, error filled missle of threats from him, I decided it was time to sever this relationship. I realized that he was getting off on making me feel inferior to him, so I simply sent a letter saying that we needed to part ways; wished him a happy wedding and am sending his deposit back. I don’t even care about the money at this point. I just want him GONE. Question though…he does not live in my area so I was not worried about him verbally hurting my business reputation..but can he make a mess for me on social networks??

    • Karen Ponder,
    • June 8, 2012
    / Reply

    I’m not sure if anyone is still listening since the last post was in 2011 and it is now June 2012. I found this through reverse research, (my favorite trick) If I want to find someone to invest in me, I go search as though I were the rich guy looking for a way to invest. It simplifies my search and gives me a good sense of empathy for the other side.
    I work for a company that has been stuck with a developer for over two years with no results. Today we finally started up our new site. At this point we are trying to figure out if we can run it without him. I don’t want to bash anyone. The site is really great, but at this point the data is two years old!
    How do you find good developers? I would love to hire someone local with great skills. I’m sure that right now within 100 miles of me there are many.
    So for now we are simply glad the site is “done”. We will see anyway once it actually begins to function.
    (24 to 48 hours)
    It’s 2 in the morning and I can’t sleep-I just keep researching.
    How do I fire a lousy developer. I really just want someone to take care of their end of things so that I can do my job. I need to be able to trust that the person on the other end cares as much about my success as I do. I bet my developer isn’t loosing any sleep tonight.

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