Am I being unreasonable for wanting to dump this client?
July 26, 2008 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Am I being unreasonable for wanting to dump this client?

I work for a small graphic design firm with mostly local small business clients. We've worked with the particular client in this story as long as I've been an employee (15 years), but a few years ago they stopped using us for print design without explanation beyond "we wanted to give our print work to Firm B, but you at Firm Anonymous can still do our web site." I suspect it wasn't so much that she didn't like our design, but she wanted to save money.

Last week, this client called me to say she was having Firm C redesign her web site, and she wanted me to work with them to get it done. I was blindsided, so I pretty much just agreed, figuring I would find out what was going on when I hear from the contact from Firm C and talk it over with my boss later. I did mention to her that perhaps Firm C might not be amenable with working with a competitor, and she said, "They'll do what I say because I'm paying the bills."

My impression was that Firm C would handle coding and development (not my strong point, since we mostly do rudimentary brochureware type web sites), and that I'd be doing design work, making sure everything they did looked consistent with his other marketing materials and coordinating to add the features she wanted. However, I got an email yesterday from an art director from Firm C saying that they have designs for the home page and a sub page and they'll soon be sending me Photoshop files from which I could develop and code the site. Heh.

After discussing the situation with my boss, I emailed the client and told her the working arrangement she's suggesting is not really how we operate and that we only code the sites we ourselves design since we really aren't in the business of complex web development and programming, especially not for outside designs. I also politely suggested that if she wanted another design firm to do her web site, she should have Firm C do everything. I said that we would be invoicing for any unpaid work this year and will be happy to turn over any files Firm C might need after that's been squared away. I didn't hear back.

On the one hand, I'm thinking I might be acting like a primadonna by refusing to do paying work and helping out a longtime client. We are busier than ever now and can afford to pick and choose who we want to work with even as competing firms go out of business, but will that last indefinitely?

On the other, this company represents less than 0.5% of our annual sales, we send them about one invoice a year and last time we did she paid over 100 days late. She's also one of those clients who doesn't get back to you promptly... she'll deliver a set of revisions to a project, I'll do them within a week and email her comps on a test site link and then I won't hear from her for three months until she delivers another set of revisions or a new project. I have one project that's been ongoing, and never approved nor taken live, for over two years. (Yes, we've billed it.)

So, the question is, am I being completely unreasonable and unprofessional for turning down work under these circumstances?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You are not being unreasonable or unprofessional. I would have taken it a step further and told her to kiss my ass (this might be seen as both unreasonable and unprofessional in most circles but I work primarily for comedians. YMMV.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 3:49 PM on July 26, 2008

Nope. You're being entirely reasonable.

"They'll do what I say because I'm paying the bills."
we send them about one invoice a year and last time we did she paid over 100 days late
She's not paying the bills, and that's the problem.

Doing smething that's possible, but a major nuisance, is something you would consider for a client who paid on time, for whom you did a lot of work, and from whom you expect a lot of work in the future. Also, the more of a nuisance it is, the more you should charge for it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:52 PM on July 26, 2008

No. There are perfectly legit, customer-oriented reasons to decline this sort of division of labor. Plus it sounds as if the client is phasing you out anyhow.
posted by adamrice at 3:52 PM on July 26, 2008

It is exactly at this point in a business relationship that a professional bows out and tells the client that it was good while it lasted, see ya. There is no love lost and as long as you make file available you've covered yourself as acting professionally (assuming they own those files. You'd have to negotiate if they don't). Move on and don't over think this.
posted by qwip at 3:53 PM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why don't you sit down with the client and say something like:

- we've worked together for 15 years
- you're sending business to other companies now
- what's going on? are you dissatisfied with our work?

You may find that the client:

- can't afford your rates anymore, due to changing fortunes at their company
- didn't like some of your work at some point, but didn't bring it up
- etc.

There may be things you can address, but the main thing is to show interest in the client and ask what's going on. You may find that the relationship isn't workable, or you may find that there's some misunderstanding that you can address.

Showing the client you are interested and willing to listen is what I'd recommend.
posted by zippy at 3:53 PM on July 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

I emailed the client and told her the working arrangement she's suggesting is not really how we operate

That's smart. I have been running my business for three years, and when I finally realized that I could say, "that's not how I operate," it was liberating as hell.

No, you're not being unreasonable at all. You're free to decide how you want to do business, and it sounds like you have made that clear. Screw her.
posted by jayder at 4:03 PM on July 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Sometimes, it's easier to dump the client so you can focus on your other clients. It might simply be easier to focus on the client and get rid of the negative energy coming from working with this client. It might also be an issue of profitability.

Don't think about it again. It happens. Firms fire clients all the time.
posted by toaster at 4:07 PM on July 26, 2008

Unfortunately, the customer is not always right. You handled the situation properly. Don't give it a second thought.
posted by spilon at 4:21 PM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is a D-level client, pure and simple. If they're being difficult, shady and have a bad payment history you'd be a fool in keeping them. Do the right thing: shake hands and explain that in your current situation and work-load that you can't continue providing the high level of production they need, and wish them luck in their future relationships. Oh and offer to help if you can, but everyone knows that won't happen. As others have said it's liberating to cut loose a headache client. Only after you do that and see the time and headaches you've said will you realize the wise move. My dad, though being in a different industry and career gave me this advice that fits: the most powerful thing you can say in English is "no." Get away while you can before it gets worse.
posted by fijiwriter at 4:21 PM on July 26, 2008

She's .5% of your business. What percentage is she of your client headaches? What percentage is she of your billing headaches?

Drop her without a second thought.
posted by 26.2 at 5:12 PM on July 26, 2008

If someone new called and made the same request ("we'd like you to code a Photoshop design another design firm did"), would you say the same thing? If so, you're just being straightforward about the kind of work you do and don't do. Because the request you're turning down came from someone annoying doesn't mean that your turning it down was an unreasonable reaction to your sense of annoyance.
posted by salvia at 5:13 PM on July 26, 2008

You did fine. Your business isn't there just to pick up the scraps of work this client throws your way.
posted by rhizome at 5:15 PM on July 26, 2008

No, this is the very definition of a client that needs firing.

All indicators are that they are going broke, are too embarrassed to admit it, and are turning into the typical nightmare cheapskate client. (Doesn't pay on time, doesn't respect your ability or time, lots of overhead.)

It sounds like they weren't worth the time/money when they were under the radar, they just had momentum. Now that they are revealing themselves it's a perfect chance to trip away that dead wood and move on.

If you can't convince your boss to drop them like a hot rock then you should at least change your billing with this one client so that you only bill in advance. ("It's our policy since you were over 100 days late that we must be payed for all future work in advance. Sorry, nothing we can do.") I would bet this would be enough to get them to walk away from you.

If this was rephrased as a "Should I break up with him/her" question, the answer you be "hell yes! Who wants a SO who treats you with so little respect? Move on to greener clients pastures."

Your time is valuable (in design it is almost all you're selling) and dealing with an an annoying client will take time and energy away from working with good ones.
posted by Ookseer at 5:36 PM on July 26, 2008

I want to second what zippy said. While there seem like good reasons not to fight to keep this particular client, you should certainly worry about why any 15-year client wanted to leave in the first place. In a competitive service business, your entire profit margin depends upon veteran customers, given the costs and uncertainties of selling new business.
posted by MattD at 5:54 PM on July 26, 2008

n'thing getting rid of this client. not worth the headaches. never feel bad about respectfully walking away from business when the client just isn't worth it.

you didn't mention anything about potential growth, contacts you might get, plans certain employees might have. if there is anything like that you should mention it to us as it could mean potential business in the future. if there is a chance to land a deal based on the crappy not-worth-the-effort-work you are doing now that might mean 20 or even 50% of your general annual billings, all bets are off. you seem to have little insight into their operation and that's not good. you should have long ago made efforts to inquire how they are doing, what direction they are going in. their late payments would have been a great excuse for such a face-to-face meeting. you have to have them from time to time if at all possible. it makes the whole other contact more personable and in the end more forthcoming. these client meetings are not just a cost and effort but should be seen as value-adding when done in moderation. for this client I would have suggested one meeting every six months.

that being said, as it stands I'd drop the client.
posted by krautland at 5:56 PM on July 26, 2008

I emailed the client and told her the working arrangement she's suggesting is not really how we operate and that we only code the sites we ourselves design since we really aren't in the business of complex web development and programming, especially not for outside designs. I also politely suggested that if she wanted another design firm to do her web site, she should have Firm C do everything. I said that we would be invoicing for any unpaid work this year and will be happy to turn over any files Firm C might need after that's been squared away.

This is kind of the crux right here. What you're being asked to contract to do isn't something that your company does. You let her know this in an appropriate way and started the process of winding up your business relationship with the client. Since you're not trying to come up with an alternative that lets you keep her as a client, you've been totally appropriate, especially given that she owes you money for work already done.

My guess is that she is more dependent on you than you realize - the web site you maintain for her probably works most of the time, I'm guessing, which you probably take for granted and she almost certainly doesn't - and she will now try to backpedal and keep you in the mix somehow. You have to decide what you want to do about that, especially when you consider trying to apply your standards of uptime and non-brokenness to a site designed by a competitor and left to you to implement. Personally I'd flee from this arrangement but I am not in your line of work.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:06 PM on July 26, 2008

My impression was that Firm C would handle coding and development...

If there is no paper trail to confirm this understanding, your company should strongly consider gritting its corporate teeth and finishing the project before dumping the customer. From the customer's perspective, the expectation that Firm Anonymous will contribute to this project has been set. Dumping the customer now would be quitting midway through an agreed-upon project, which may destroy far more than 0.5% of Firm Anonymous' reputation.

Also, I'm not in your industry, but in similar situations my approach has been to non-judgementally price the customer out of hiring Firm Anonymous for future work. Don't say "we don't work that way" or "you're a deadbeat". Instead, explain that demand is high, rates have gone up for the kind of work the customer is looking for, and a significant retainer will be required to keep the customer on the schedule. This changes the situation to the customer rejecting your company rather than the other way around, leading to a happier former customer.
posted by backupjesus at 7:10 PM on July 26, 2008

Nah, backupjesus, it's not the middle of the project. The project hasn't even begun. The OP was just given the proposal, not a contract, and now has heard from Firm C. At this point, since Firm C has sent pickled herring instead of treacle tart, the OP has every right to bail if he doesn't like it.
posted by Netzapper at 11:22 PM on July 26, 2008

You did exactly right.

If you want to leave less wiggle room, in the future you might change "That's not really how we operate" to something firmer like "We cannot provide those particular services. But a firm like _____ or one that specializes in _______ can do that for you."

The latter sounds less like a decision (though it is one, and quite appropriately so -- choosing to accept work that you are unlikely to be able to do well is not healthy for the business), more definitely a "no". A longtime client is likely to expect special treatment/decisions; whereas you want her to accept it's beyond negotiation or favoritism.

We cannot do that. Someone else can. Go away. Have a nice day.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:38 AM on July 27, 2008

Netzapper, it's hard to say without knowing the specifics, but the customer likely thought the project had begun. After all, the OP agreed to do the project.

I think the DTMFA crowd is missing how the OP apparently mismanaged the customer's expectations. If the customer was telling this story, it would probably be something like:

"I called Firm Anonymous, which I've worked with for over 15 years, and OP agreed to handle the coding and development of Project X. After kicking off Project X, I got an e-mail out of the blue from OP saying that Firm Anonymous would not do the agreed-upon work because it's 'not really how we operate.' At this point, I feel like Firm Anonymous is shaking me down -- they know full well that finding another company to handling the coding and development will cost me time and/or money -- and I'm outraged that they would treat a long-term customer so shabbily."

I agree that the OP's company has every right to dump the customer, but it should expect some blowback if dumps the customer in this way. The customer's story is one that would resonate with many of the small-business customers Firm Anonymous depends on.
posted by backupjesus at 6:33 AM on July 27, 2008

Sounds like you're on the right path, but thirding the suggestion to have a post-mortem/exit interview. This could certainly be positioned as a heart-to-heart, like one last chance before severing the relationship.

backupjesus has a great point, too, that the other side of the story may come down to mismanaged expectations or miscommunication.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 10:07 AM on July 27, 2008

If you don't do site coding, you don't do site coding. You wouldn't agree to fix Firm C's car, so you shouldn't agree to code their design if that's not what you do. What it comes down to is that this client has already dropped you. There's no sense bending over backwards to please someone who has already decided to stop doing business with you.
posted by cnc at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2008

Is there any kind of formal documentation of the work, your responsibilities, the payment terms, etc.? That type of "scope of work" agreement should have helped raise and clarify many of these issues, up front, and would definitely give you guidance on how to back out, when things come to this.

Going forward, I'd really, _really_ recommend not starting any client work without at least some kind of simple, formal e-mail back and forth, where the client explicitly accepts the terms you've used to recap their request before you commit to doing anything. Even for small jobs, verbally accepting work over the course of a phone call can easily lead to this kind of ambiguity.

(Not trying to be self-righteous, just speaking from experience.)
posted by LairBob at 7:11 PM on July 27, 2008

I'd handle it similarly, but with guidance towards someone you do trust for coding work, etc. "We're set up for integrating design and coding. Although we're always glad to work with you, we feel that neither you nor our company would get the best arrangement from this. Local firms/freelancers such as X, Y and Z specialize in simply coding and can get you the results you're looking for with greater efficiency than a shop like ours in which design is so integral to our working process." or something similar.

With clients like this, make it about what they're missing, rather than what you want. The lack of efficiency with integrated design and coding, etc. means that you will have to charge X. X can be the cost of freelancing out the code yourself plus a 15% project management cost. I learned early in my career that it's never "no" but it's always, "yes, and here's how much it will cost". It's a good way of maintaining sanity and perceived value at the same time.
posted by Gucky at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2008

Gucky has a similar approach to how I handle work that is undesirable.

If you are approached for work that for whatever reason doesn't have you eager to start (client history of being difficult to deal with, work that is repetitious, or you know this would never be anything that you could list in a portfolio), charge the client enough money so that you don't feel like you're being ripped off.

If the client is willing to pay your double your normal rate, would you be interested in the work? Find what that point is, list out your cost, and let the client decide if it's worth it.
posted by jmevius at 9:37 AM on July 30, 2008

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