Over the years, I’ve learned ways to spot a bad client from a distance. Most of it comes down to trusting my gut and recognizing red flags, so I can avoid taking on that client from the beginning.
Even if I am working with a difficult client, I will try to see that project through, do my very best and make a note to not work with them again in the future.
But no matter your intuition or experience, there will inevitably be times when you misjudge, or the client relationship goes sour for one reason or another, and it becomes more productive to end the relationship than continue. Thankfully, that has happened only once or twice over the course of my career. Those one or two times I had to make the tough decision to cut ties with the client. And it’s not easy.
Here’s what I’ve learned to do in those moments, when the healthiest solution is to end a client relationship. Naturally, every situation is unique and this might not fully apply to yours, but it’s helpful to keep in mind.
Have an honest conversation first
Give your client a chance to make things right, if it’s possible. Perhaps they weren’t aware of the problems or they didn’t understand how much it affects you. Give them the benefit of the doubt and be transparent about the situation as early as you can.
This doesn’t have to be a pointing-fingers, emotional confrontation. Simply be honest, respectful and most importantly: offer solutions. If after your conversation things don’t change, you are more validated in your decision and they shouldn’t be surprised about it.
See them through to a reasonable hand-off point
Leaving a client high and dry in the middle of a project makes you as bad as they presumably are. They will be left with loose ends, many of which they don’t even know about. And they’ll bring those loose ends to another designer who will then struggle even more than you did, and that’s just bad karma.
Providing the situation isn't extreme, do your best to leave them in a good place before bailing on them. Unless, of course, the client has refused to pay you according to the terms you agreed on, in which case you are fully entitled to halt all work.
Try to find the client a new designer
Connecting a client to a new designer and briefing that designer is your parting gift to your client and yourself. It will remove a lot of panic from the situation for them and likely make the breakup go a bit more smoothly.
But be careful about this. You don’t want to curse someone else with a bad client. If you are going to pass off a client to someone else, be completely honest with them first about your struggles. If that person knows what they’re getting into, it’s fine. They may have the right skills, experience or perspective to bring the project to the finish line. Every project is about personal relationships and it's absolutely OK if we're not all fully compatible.
Get everything in writing
Even if the relationship is ending on a positive note, you need to watch your back. I can promise you will hear from the client months from now about something you did or didn’t do, some file they are missing or some contract clause you missed. Or they will just have endless questions for you about meetings long past which you may not remember and won’t want to deal with.
Draw up a friendly termination agreement that outlines what you did and did not deliver from the scope of work, what the agreed final payment is, that you are not responsible for their project or files after hand-off, and the like. If the relationship is ending on a bad note, you must consider running this contract by a lawyer. Bitter clients can come back to bite you.
On that note, be thoughtful about what you say to your client in writing – at any point in the project. Stick to your scope and don’t over-promise at any point in the project, because you can be sure an angry client will be digging up old emails to prove their point.
Be kind and patient
No matter how heated the client may become, stay patient and level-headed. Speak in a calm voice on the phone and show respect in emails. Like any break-up, your client may feel abandoned and hurt, and reflecting their tone won’t help anything. If the conversation gets heated, do your best to bring it back to a reasonable place. Be professional and your client will be more likely to do the same.
Again, this advice is only for the extreme, and hopefully rare, situations. For the most part, I’ve had the pleasure of working with smart, friendly clients. And even with the trickier ones, I remember I’ve signed a contract and I promised this client my very best. It’s only when the client or the project won’t allow you to give your best, when the relationship becomes toxic and unproductive, that this should even be considered. Here’s hoping these tips help if it does.