Red Flags: Fire When Ready

Not every client relationship is a good fit, and it's just good business to separate.

I made a right, hard decision and released a client. Meaning, I fired them. I haven’t fired many clients; this is only my fourth in 18 years of practice. I don’t fire without much deliberation. Not every relationship is the right fit, and occasionally it’s just good business to separate. The reasons I fire a client are less over “creative differences” than expectations and respect. I released this particular client due to their regularly overstepping clearly-stated boundaries.

Some red flags that indicate a relationship is not going well:

The client shows disrespect for you or your work. I’ve experienced this in several ways, including the client telling me outright that I’m not a good designer, complaining about previous designers they’ve worked with and simply uttering belittling innuendos here and there.

There is friction between the client and his/her/their associates. In working with a community organization a few years back, I was caught between factions. Each group confided in me and conspired against the other. In attempting to appease both sides, I was spending a lot of energy and extra time. I decided not to attempt to fix their problems, finished out the current project and walked away. When the organization asked me to submit a proposal for another project, I set the creative fees fairly high. My thinking was that, if they accepted the contract, the money would be worth the trouble. They didn’t accept it of course, and I didn’t have to deal with the backbiting and chaos again.

The client requests the working files.  This is usually an indication that they’re pulling things in house or looking for another designer but have not expressly informed you of their intentions. Generally, unless you’ve included them in your contracted scope of work, the client is not entitled to the working files. This requires some finesse on your part. It’s best to leave the relationship on good terms. Your reaction to the request should be professional and firm.

There is a pattern of slow pay. For me that’s 3 occurrences. Most incidences of slow pay are not intentional and are due to specific causes. But a pattern – a repeated lack of timeliness – is cause for concern. When a client does not pay on time according to the agreed-upon terms, your ability to serve them and your other clients is compromised.

The client holds you entirely responsible for accuracy of content, even though it’s their information and they’ve proofed and signed off on it. It’s a “you were the last one with it, so you’re responsible for it” scenario. Many designers carry E&O (errors and omissions) insurance to cover the costs of reprinting poorly-proofed designs.

 The client seems to have difficulty making a decision, asking for more and more ideas without commitment to anything. It’s as it they simply like to try things on but don’t want to be “stuck” with just one thing. This becomes a time-sucker as you create more and more concepts to appease their indecision.

I am blessed to have a great group of clients, many of whom I’ve worked with for years. Keeping that group great requires deleting the few who aren’t.