Difficult Client - Can/Should I Fire?
October 17, 2012 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I started a design project with a new client and the whole process has turned out to be very difficult due to communication problems. What can I do to resolve this situation?

I'm a one-man design studio and initiated a pretty small, straightforward project with a new client a few months ago. During the project, my two main problems have been:

1. It is difficult for the client to articulate feedback. I think I cleverly elicit feedback in a phone conversation and then I send a follow-up email saying, "OK, great, here are the changes based on our conversation! I'll do A, B and C based on these notes." I don't receive a response or correction from the client, so I proceed based on my notes. And then I send the revised and the client's response (often weeks later) is, "Oh, I thought I said we'd do X, Y and Z." (which was never discussed).

2. The client doesn't communicate in a timely manner. I set an original timeline in the contract at the outset that would allow for a speedy delivery of the project, but I'll often not hear from the client for weeks after sending revised materials. I'll send multiple emails and call and the response (if I get one) usually is, "I'll get that to you tonight!" But then, I don't hear from them again for another week. So far, the project has taken almost 4x as long as it normally does. Based on our progress, I'm concerned that the project will never end and I won't get paid, or I'll get paid very late. And I can't imagine going through this client-chase thing for another several months.

I've been putting in a ton of hours on other projects lately and I'm finding it difficult to carve out time in my schedule for running after the client and these multiple emails and calls have really ballooned the time I thought I'd be devoting to this, outside the scope of the project. I've tactfully voiced concerns about the timeline and the communication pattern to the client, very professionally, and that seems to improve response time a bit, but then it tapers off again to non-existence.

In my ideal world, I would like to send an email that states that our contract is terminated — and I would not charge for time worked — but I'm concerned 1) whether this is the "right" thing to do, as a professional designer and 2) that the client will sue me. This particular contract we signed doesn't include a kill clause, which I normally do now. And anyway, can the designer be the one to kill the project? Technically, I signed something that said I'd get a job done for someone and I'm concerned about not delivering on that.

I know there have been one million difficult clients, so this is nothing new, but this is definitely new for me, to this extent. How should I proceed?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you've got to the point where you're willing to write off the time spent, can you put the onus much more onto them to agree to changes, or supply the responses you need before you proceed any further. Send a periodic chase email "I still need your feedback on A,B,C before I can make progress. Without this feedback the project no further work can be done, and delivery will not be possible before " and then it's on them how urgently they want the work to proceed.
posted by crocomancer at 7:23 AM on October 17, 2012

Don't put in any more time, first off. That's called throwing good money after bad.

This client is jerking you around, consciously or not. They came to you before they were prepared, and now they're playing hard to get because they're hoping you'll go away and not send in a bill.

Send in a bill for hours to date. Summarize what you've done, explain that you will reopen the file after they've paid for what you've done so far – and forget about it. You say it wasn't a big job and you have plenty of other things to do.

This dossier may at some point be reopened and completed or you may never look at it again. But it's important not to waste any more time on it at the moment.
posted by zadcat at 7:24 AM on October 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

My company leadership behaves the way your client does and as a former freelancer I feel guilty for the time we've cost our vendor. The only thing that makes it a little better is we paid our vendor half up front. Considering the amount of time you have already invested, I don't think it would be too terrible to contact your client again to say "hey, of course I am happy to continue to work on your project, but as we are well beyond the originally agreed upon timeline, we need to discuss where on your priority list this project falls and how best to handle that since I have additional commitments to tend to. I can invoice you for work done to date and we can revisit the project when you are ready."

That hopefully would show your willingness to deliver as promised (even though they haven't respected your time) and present a reasonable way to get you paid. If they balk, they weren't that serious about the project in the first place, or would have been a client you wouldn't want to work with in future anyway. You'd be out the time and anticipated project income, but you're already out of that now. Good luck!
posted by OompaLoompa at 7:25 AM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

This would concern me the most: "Based on our progress, I'm concerned that the project will never end and I won't get paid, or I'll get paid very late." Don't bend over backwards for some deadbeat. Is there any way you can do some clandestine investigation to see if this is common with this guy? People that don't pay their bills usually leave a trail of pissed off folks.

As far as the phone conversations go, you could summarize at the end of the phone conversation and then email exactly what your phone conversation and tell him you will start work when he signs off via email.

I don't think you would be wrong at all for dropping this client, but I think you will probably have A LOT more situations at least somewhat similar to this so I would try to salvage it and figure out some processes to deal with it (assuming they pay and will agree to some sort of deadline).
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 7:31 AM on October 17, 2012

I think it would be out of line to dump them cold. Satisfying, and honestly justified, but not in your best interests in the long term, unless yours isn't an industry where this client could possibly give you a bad reputation. Instead of sending an email that "states that your contract is terminated", maybe tell them about an impending dumping, and give them some options: you can allot only 4 more hours to their project, so what is it that they most want you to do before you end the contract on Nov 30? Or if they would prefer to terminate immediately then blahblahblah, or if it's really important to them we can discuss continuing the project but only under these circumstances (blahblahblah).

By the way, congratulations on using this as a learning experience to improve your new "standard" contract.
posted by aimedwander at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2012

The client sounds like a very disorganized person who manages his life very poorly and doesn't care what impact it has on other people. He probably does the same thing with everyone (so don't take it personally). Give him a final warning - he might be the kind of person who only takes care of business when a gun is pointed at his head (so to speak). If he still fails to come through, then be done with him.
posted by Dansaman at 7:56 AM on October 17, 2012

"The customer never knows what he wants until he sees what he gets" is one of my key axioms.

I do different design work than you, but I lay out a proposal that has definite deliverables, insist on a deposit-with-order before starting work, and do a get-acquainted project first to see if the customer is someone (or company) I can work with or if that is to be the only project. I also have a billing-on-milestone approach, so that I don't wait until the end to get paid. Partition the project into phases, and get a deposit with order on each phase and bill the remainder on completion of that phase and you'll not only make better estimates, you'll limit your exposure to unpaid effort.

Sometimes, you have to fire your customers. When you are losing money on a project (and that includes major time sinks that you did not quote), it makes no sense to keep working. Set limits and consequences, advise your client, and prepare to stop the project where it is. File it away, neatly. Offer to hand it over to the new idiot when your invoice is paid. Do not deliver source code if you can avoid it until the very end. (I realize that's not always possible with web programming, but in my world, it is. And it has saved my ass many times.)

Think of this way... could you have found another, better client with the extra time you wasted on this one?

A novice's mistake is to take any job that comes in the door. Be selective. Choose only clients you can work with and help be successful. Work really hard for them, and throw in some unexpected rewards for them, but do not chase deadbeat customers. If you do, you are demonstrating the matching image of their flakiness, but it's you that are flakey. Deadbeat customers are a dime a dozen.
posted by FauxScot at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Here are my strategies around the problems you're having:

1) Don't invoice at the end of the project, invoice on a regular basis during the project. (I do monthly, but if you're working with someone who seems borderline bi-weekly may be better.) That way if a job stalls out in the middle, which does sometimes happen even with the best clients, you're not stuck eating the cost of the whole job.

2) Instead of "OK, great, here are the changes based on our conversation! I'll do A, B and C based on these notes." you want "OK, great, here are the changes based on our conversation! Next steps should probably be A, B, and C; please confirm you agree." If they don't respond, follow up after a couple of days with a polite reminder, "hey I'm holding on this work until you confirm it's what you want". If they don't respond to that, backburner them.

3) Especially with the "oh I thought we agreed this imaginary thing in my head" people, you want a record in email of everything. If you have a phone meeting follow up immediately with a "just to confirm, here's my understanding of what we agreed" email.

When I have to fire a client, I always blame my tight schedule rather than blaming them. "As you know we've run X months past what we initially allotted to this project, I have other work booked that I will have to devote more time to so I'm afraid I'll need to wrap this up within the next Y days" sort of thing. If it's clearly impossible to 'wrap it up' change that to 'prepare the work done so far for handoff to another designer' -- if possible it's worth keeping the names of a few other freelancers you can recommend for this sort of situation (and vice versa). If your contract with this guy doesn't have a kill switch this can get a bit trickier, of course.
posted by ook at 9:09 AM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I just realized on rereading that you're already doing the confirmation email thing, which is great; I apologize for repeating that. So if they come back with "oh I thought we agreed on this thing we never talked about," be more assertive about pointing to that email record. "I'm sorry, we agreed on X Y and Z, per the attached email; I have no record of any discussion re Imaginary Thing." (Where you go from there depends on whether Imaginary Thing is a good idea or not...)
posted by ook at 9:16 AM on October 17, 2012

What is this - "and I would not charge for time worked"? Yes you will! And you will charge for the time you spent writing this question, reading the answers, and every minute you've lost sleep over if/when you're getting paid.

You owe it to yourself to not only get out of this, but get out of it w/full payment asap.

Point out that because the project has taken 4 times the amount it was supposed to, payment has been accordingly delayed, and you just can't afford to continue to work without payment at this juncture. Don't be afraid to ask to get paid! Keep in mind that they're not afraid to ignore your emails, lie about what the game plan is even though you took the time to document it, and not actually change anything that they agreed to change. If the client counters that the contract says you won't get paid until the project ends, tell them you need a written document detailing what would constitute a finished project, and you'll hold off working until you get it. Say this all amicably but firmly.

In the future:
1) Invoice every two weeks.
2) Do not begin work without a scope document, even if it means you have to make it yourself.
posted by january at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

@ook: The problem with this is that it does not give the client a chance to learn. They may very well have good intentions and not realize the extent to which they are impeding the collaboration.

IME, the best chance of getting improvement is to quietly explain that you have to start billing for those things which are causing overhead that is significantly above and beyond the normal communication overhead, and explain to the client what they could do to avoid having those charges in the future. IMPORTANT: don't *threaten* to do this -- that never works. Actually put it on the next invoice, carefully itemized, and explain why it's there

If the client can't or won't improve, and the increased billing is not enough to make up for the time and/or loss of enjoyment doing the work, then fire them. But give them a chance to get better at working with you first. Sometimes they will absolutely surprise you at how much they improve.

ANOTHER NOTE: don't exaggerate the extra billing. This works better if the extra charges are quite modest and reasonable. Your goal is not to get more money out of the client, but to improve the working relationship
posted by lastobelus at 9:43 PM on October 17, 2012

Also I agree with always billing projects in at least two increments, and usually more. Just be aware this actually ends up putting more pressure on you to demonstrate productivity, not less.
posted by lastobelus at 9:49 PM on October 17, 2012

Another thing I just thought of, from my design freelancing days (I do software these days, but still a freelancer): when you are having difficulty getting buy-in, use a design brochure.

This is a concept I learned from a book by Paul Rand. It is a document in the form of a sales brochure, with the following structure:

1. Goal statement.
2. Problem(s) you identified, the solution of which will result in achieving the goal excellently.
3. Ideas you tried (in the form of rough sketches)
4. Which idea you chose and why (because of how it solves the problems in 2).
5. A couple iterations on the design (sketches)
6. The final design.

This increases buy-in of designs by about a thousand percent. It sounds like a lot of work but typically we would actually do it in half hour or less AFTER we were finished a design project -- using a template, and artifacts (sometimes made-up ones) from the design process.

Design brochure's also DRAMATICALLY increase the perceived monetary value of your work in clients' eyes, and are very useful (get permission first) in getting new work by demonstrating your "process"
posted by lastobelus at 10:01 PM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

@ook: The problem with this is that it does not give the client a chance to learn. They may very well have good intentions and not realize the extent to which they are impeding the collaboration.

I don't understand what this means. The point of consistently documenting what-was-agreed-upon, and making sure you have signoff on it before doing the work, is to get the client used to the idea that they can't expect what-was-made-up-in-their-head to magically make its way into yours. (And, also, to double-check that your understanding of what was agreed upon matches theirs before you sink time into it: it's not always the client who's doing the misunderstanding!)
posted by ook at 8:43 AM on October 18, 2012

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