I spend a great deal of time with creative people, helping them to build their businesses and overcome the challenges of combining creativity and commerce. I truly do love what I do, but I do not always love the clients themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, 99% of my clients are adorable, and my job is a dream. However, that leftover 1% can have me wringing my hands, pulling my hair, and using words that would make a truck driver blush.
I am not alone in this, as most of my clients have at least one or two clients of their own that also fit the ‘difficult’ description. It’s a painful decision to make, especially since they give us money, but sometimes a client must be let go. Great in theory, but how do we sack problem clients?
STEP ONE: Ask yourself – how desperately do you need this client? Can you survive without their contribution to your income? If the answer is no, you’ll need to find another client or another source of income to bolster your business before you can take the step. In an unpleasant twist, it may also be that your dependence and desperation are part of the problem (as they are in any relationship). It’s too late to correct that at this stage (and possibly not your fault), but for future reference try not to let those emotions rule your decision making process.
STEP TWO: Make sure it’s not the project that’s the problem. A challenging project that invites creative conflict can sometimes lead to disagreements and argy-bargy. If you’re caught up in the artistic differences, and perhaps not seeing eye to eye, it can be tempting to walk away. Take a minute to evaluate what’s going on. If it is the client and not the job, it’s time to consider sacking.
STEP THREE: Have you exhausted every option to improve the relationship? My rule is to always take responsibility before laying blame. Is it them – or you? If, in all honesty, you truly can’t see yourself fixing the issues, it’s email time.
STEP FOUR: Write the email you WANT to send to the client and let out all your emotions about how you really feel – but DO NOT send it. This email is the draft, designed to get out all the harsh and unprofessional things you want to say. Sleep on it, and the next day have a read. Remove the unnecessary emotion, and write a more considered and sober account of how you would like the relationship to end. I recommend being direct, but not personal. Outline the reasons why you want to break up, if you think it appropriate, otherwise use the simple “it’s not you – it’s me” approach. Remember, you are not enslaved by your clients – you are providing a service or a product, and as long as you are not in breach of contract you are allowed to walk away.
STEP FIVE: Follow up. A considered email is fine, but make sure you also call the client, maybe have coffee, to discuss the break-up. It’s more professional, and there’s a better chance you’ll minimise any hard feelings and possible damage to your reputation.
STEP SIX: Don’t leave them in the lurch. Finish up the job as best you can, complete whatever deliverables you’re working on, package up their files and email or send them over once all outstanding invoices are paid. If appropriate, recommend another creative to help finish up the job. If invoices aren’t paid, and they should be, or there’s legal issues around the end of the relationship, make sure you get legal advice sooner rather than later.
It’s vital to sack bad clients because it helps you to mature in your creative business. It forces you to consider your deeper values, and interrogate your client choices. After all, you don’t have to work for everybody, and a good sacking can actually help you to identify who your ideal clients actually are. Saying goodbye to bad clients will leave room for lovely clients who will appreciate you and respect your work.
A final note – bring on board a system for evaluating clients before they become problematic. Nick Reese recommends a very simple questionnaire on your website, initial email or intake phone call. It’s great for all kinds of businesses, and I highly recommend his methods.