Getting rid of a bad client
August 23, 2006 12:29 PM   Subscribe

How do I gracefully get rid of a client with whom I don't want to work any more?

I do a bit of consulting work for a client with whom I would like to terminate our business relationship. We've been working together for roughly three months, and the problems are severalfold:
  • He refuses to consider that the environment he's chosen is completely inappropriate for the job and necessitates a lot more coding than should be necessary (he's having me build a database -- in Excel);
  • The rate he's paying me is shockingly low. To be sure, this is all my fault, but he was one of my first clients and I lowballed the price just to get the work. I'm now in a position where I can be a bit choosy, and frankly, if he came to me as a new client right now offering to pay what he's paying me, there's no way I'd take the job. Increasing the rate mid-job (probably by a factor of 10-15 to get it in line with my normal rate these das) seems skeevy to me;
  • He's got quite a condescending attitude (e.g., "I don't think you're testing this before you send it to me" when he finds a bug); and
  • If I don't respond to his emails in what he deems a timely fashion, he starts laying on the 'tude (e.g., "I need to know if you're still going to support the code you wrote") -- and this is only a couple of hours after the initial email.
The project on which we're working was released about a month ago, and is stable. He recently came to me proposing some enhancements (at additional cost, of course), and I apparently had either forgotten how awful this job was, or was drinking heavily at the time, because I agreed to take on the first of the enhancements with the rest to be revisited after the first enhancement was complete. The first round of enhancements has been delivered and tested, and he's happy with it. I wouldn't be leaving him high and dry with a half-completed project, but I recognize that he will suffer a burden in having to find someone to pick up where I left off.

I never thought I'd be in a position where I could turn away work, so this isn't something I have the first clue about. If anyone out there can provide any tips on how (or even whether) to let this guy go firmly yet gracefully, I'd really appreciate it.

NB: I've read these three comments, which provide great guidance for taking on future jobs, but don't help much with how to terminate an existing relationship.
posted by Doofus Magoo to Work & Money (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you've made no ongoing commitment to him, it seems like it's something you should just do.

"Sorry, but our relationship isn't working out, and I no longer want to work with you." He'll protest, he may even promise to change, but stick to your guns and end the relationship.

I'm sure it will feel very liberating when you do.
posted by JakeWalker at 12:33 PM on August 23, 2006

I wouldn't go into detail with the guy about why you hate him as a client. The most professional and non-bridge-burning* thing to do would be to let him know your services are booked up, thank you for your business, hope to work with you again someday. Then always be a little too busy to take on his work again, should he contact you in the future.

*Even if you plan to never ever work for the guy again, you have no idea who he knows and talks to.
posted by jamaro at 12:39 PM on August 23, 2006

*shrug* When he wants to talk about the second round of enhancements, tell him you're busy. Very busy. Won't be able to get to it for a year, at least. Tell him your feelings won't be hurt if he finds someone else, since you're unable to help him.
posted by jellicle at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2006

at a job i had some time ago, we hired a very small firm (three guys in a basement) to design a database for us (we didn't ask them to use excel, by the way) and then the next year, had some changes made, and then the next year as well--even though our initial contract was for only the first two years. when they did the work the third year they said "we won't be able to work for you at this rate anymore." so, they did the work, gave us extensive documentation, and arranged six weeks of follow-up care if something was wrong. they also provided referrals.

it was all very professional.

i would suggest that once you're done with what you were supposed to do at the rate you had agreed to do it, there's nothing wrong with telling him a) i am unable to do any further work for you on this project and/or b) in the future my rate will be increased to X.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Definitely let him go - he isn't worth the hassle, stress, and possible loss of more, better work.

Have dealt with these customers before in a very different and small industry! The best line is certainly "I don't think I am meeting your needs." Bonus if you can refer them to someone else in the field who may be a better match to their personality (can be read: also difficult to deal with).

Like jamaro said, don't go into detail on why you hate him. It may be pertinent to have ready a way that another consultant could serve him better...
posted by whatzit at 12:44 PM on August 23, 2006

You could pretend to have mental problems. Let him know that you can't take the job because you've had to check yourself in for a couple of days because of a nervous breakdown. But you're probably going to be OK. Maybe.
He'll probably drop you like a hot potatoe.

Only works if he doesn't know any of your other clients, though.
posted by sour cream at 12:45 PM on August 23, 2006

Be polite and honest.
posted by cribcage at 12:47 PM on August 23, 2006

There are a couple ways to approach this that don't involve a flat-out kiss-off.

1. Do you know someone else who can do the work and may be hungrier than you? Tell, the client "look, I'm taking my business in a different direction, but Bob here can take over for me." This would be ideal, because you're not burning any bridges unnecesarily with the old client, and you're doing a favor for something else who may be able to scratch your back in the future.

2. Raise the rate you charge him to a level where you feel it's worth it to do the work he has. Yes, he'll balk, and you can explain "I've got customers that send me better work for better pay. It's simply not worth it for me to take this project for less." Business is business.
posted by adamrice at 12:50 PM on August 23, 2006

Busy, busy, busy. Not possible, sorry. So busy that you can't possibly provide an appropriate level of support for this project. Nope, not seeing a let-up in the deluge any time soon. Sorry. Thanks. Ta-ta.

I's not even a lie -- you are too put up with his shit. This is the classic and time-honored way to get out of this exact situation. This exact situation is a time-honored part of being a relatively new contractor/freelancer.
posted by desuetude at 1:21 PM on August 23, 2006

Yeah what Adam said: Raise your rates. Business is business.
posted by poppo at 1:22 PM on August 23, 2006

Best answer: You could always do the following:

"I think the needs you now want have outgrown excel. I can't really take this further using excel - while it may be able to solve the problem, it's a poor tool, and one that would need constant maintenance to deliver. I can't in good conscience continue this project doing excel."

He'll object of course. At which point, you say:

"Back at the beginning when you wanted to do this, I suggested SQL (or whatever database you like). Because you're my client, I acquiesed to doing the job in excel.
As my recommendation went, it would become easy to outgrow excel. And we have. Further work with excel is time/cost prohibitive. Also, it's near impossible to check for problems."

"I respect if you want to take the work to someone else, but I can't in good conscience continue using Excel. I think it's the wrong fit, and I want to see you happy - not calling me repetatively for changes.

If you like I'll be more than happy to send you a proposal for what it would cost to revamp this in SQL."

He'll say sure.

Then Price it as you would for a new client. Then at the bottom, put a 15% discount for some "prior client". Something to knock off your current pricing.

He'll respect you and find someone else.
posted by filmgeek at 1:45 PM on August 23, 2006 [9 favorites]

filmgeek, that's classy.
posted by Imperfect at 2:07 PM on August 23, 2006

Yes, you don't have to go into any detail about what is wrong with his methods or why you don't like working for him - just be too busy in future.

Do try and find him some more names to contact though. BUT be careful about this - choose someone who could make the right suggestions about what he should be doing, and who won't make you look bad in the process.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:07 PM on August 23, 2006

Echo on "raise your rates". Announce it right now, before the current project is up. State it like it's a fact, not a proposal or question. State it without rationales, excuses, or apologies. Just make sure the rate you quote him includes (yourtruevalue * 1.assholemarkup). Seriously.

I wouldn't recommend telling him anything harsh, or patently untrue. At least not yet. Because keep in mind that people tend to (oddly) show a lot more respect for work that costs them a lot than work than costs roughly bupkus. So your rate increase just might earn more deference for you opinions and time (and appreciation that he has the option of doing bug testing at his low hourly rate instead of your high professional one *cough*). Even if he still acts like a prick, just give him an extremely high quote that makes it more than worthwhile for you to put up with his antics and combine that with a "...a project of that size and scope will naturally require substantial personal attention. The next opening I have for it would be on [day hell freezes over]". That way he's pleased that he's so very important, while you've kept the immediate schedule open for more desireable projects. AND most importantly neither of you is passing the word around that you're "too busy" to take on new clients.

Every client has the word-of-mouth power to get you new business or prevent it. So for god's sake never say anything to one client that you'd wouldn't want said on your behalf to a potential client. That includes kiss-offs like "I'm too busy."

If you absolutely must fire a client outright (hey, some things truly aren't appropriate for your business), try to couple it with a referral away. You can either sic him on a hated competitor, or call around to a few of your more desperate colleagues/newbies to find someone who'd be happy to take him on despite forewarning of the pitfalls.

P.S. All quoted rates should always be accompanied by an expiration date. They either buy now (thus reserving your time) at the current rate, or buy later (they don't have a claim on your schedule until the check clears) at whatever the going rate happens to be then. Your expenses and experience/value go up every year, and you need to protect yourself from ever getting locked into doing this year's work at last year's cost.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:13 PM on August 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

About raising your rates... He may agree to a higher rate, but more money rarely makes a client more tolerable in the long run.

Why not go for the simple "Thanks for the work. Can't take on any new work right now. Take care." response? Avoid the temptation of offering a lot of details as to why you are "busy".
posted by jca at 2:41 PM on August 23, 2006

Ditto nakedcodemonkey, you just have to raise your rate to what you'd charge a new client. You've got more experience and more importantly more work coming in willing to pay that rate. If it really is a 10-15X increase he'll be gone like a rocket. More importantly he'll word of mouth clients to you that are willing to pay that rate and scare away the guys who are looking to pay your last year rate.

In the unlikely case he agrees to your new rate then you can "too busy" him away.
posted by Mitheral at 2:48 PM on August 23, 2006

I think filmgeek has a truly grown-up and all-around good way of dealing with this. If I were a client and he'd approached me that way, I would have nothing but respect for him. I think that's your way to go.
posted by Not in my backyard at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2006

Funny, I just addressed the issue of firing a client on my consultant blog. However, I'll restate it here.

Could you possibly do anything to fix the relationship? Maybe you need to rewrite your contracts to cover the problems you're having. Do you have a project scope, project deliverables list and a project acceptance outline?

Can you raise your rates for future work? I've more than tripled my rates in the past 3 years and, just in the past six months, raised them $30 an hour. From what you've said, it sounds like you're in the middle of a project, so you should probably honour the rate you gave.

Do you have a testing methodology for which the client has signed off?

As for response times, maybe you just need to make them clear. Does he think you are an employee? (I've had clients who thought this. Some people think you are a contract employee, not a consultant. Perhaps clarify this.)

You may be able to turn the situation around.
posted by acoutu at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2006

I'll pile on here as well. "Mr. Bumpkin, Due to current workload, I am currently unable to take on any new work. It is possible (insert shitty competitor here) is able to accommodate this project. Thank you for the interest in my services."

I would stay far away from anything accusatory as you will undoubtedly by providing follow up services--of which you should raise rates to market level. They'll bitch, and then pay it once they review the alternatives.
posted by vaportrail at 3:11 PM on August 23, 2006

I said tripled in 3 years, but I meant 10!
posted by acoutu at 3:24 PM on August 23, 2006

Make a YouTube video and send him a link to it.
posted by buzzman at 6:42 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: Gosh, thanks for the great responses everyone! While I can definitely appreciate the sentiment of quoting him a new rate that includes an "asshole markup," I didn't want to run the risk of word spreading that my hourly rate is obscene (since the markup in his case would probably be triple or quadruple my current rate). I took the "easy" way out and just explained that I was swamped with work and would be unable to take on anything else, but that I would continue to support the existing code in accordance with the original specifications, in the event any bugs arise.

Thanks again for everyone's help; y'all (and the AskMe search I did before posting) gave me some great insight on how I should (and should not) be doing things.

(sour cream, my wife's still laughing at your response)
posted by Doofus Magoo at 6:50 PM on August 23, 2006

-sour cream- i really laughed so hard at your response that my eye started to twitch. i think i'll use that next time i need to quit something.

i think you decided wisely doofus. polite and swamped is always the best route.
posted by eatdonuts at 8:56 PM on August 23, 2006

There's some decent practical advice (have final invoices prepared and ready to send, same with source code) at the end of this blog entry by Christopher Hawkins.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:17 PM on August 26, 2006

« Older Good watchbands in DC?   |   Black Metal Visuals Please Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.