Someone I know on Facebook recently asked for advice on how to fire a client. This is how a couple of people replied:
- “Cite irrefutable facts and explain how it is bad for your business. It’s not personal, it’s about running a business.”
- “I really would like to give you exactly what you need and want but unfortunately the dynamic that we have encountered with each other is preventing me to offer you with my services.”
- “We realized that your needs exceed our capabilities. It’s us, not you.”
I scoffed at the responses because they reek of unprofessionalism.
Sure, we’ve all been in tough client situations before and wished the project would just end. But the grim reality that a lot of people providing services refuse to face is that they are the problem. Not the client.
We must seek responsibility in every aspect of a project when it comes to working with a client.
There’s no doubt that client work can be difficult. There is potential for all sorts of disasters. Contractual disagreements, miscommunications, scope creep, deviations in process, etc. The biggest problem here is that all too often, the finger gets pointed at the client.
- “The client just doesn’t get it.”
- “Now the client wants this instead.”
- “The client isn’t respecting the way I do things.”
Have you said these things before?
The mentality you need to adopt is that all of these scenarios are the result of you not setting the proper expectations. The client obviously doesn’t want the project to fail. What you might perceive as overstepping, a disrespect for your process, or a change of direction, is the client’s way of trying to help the project along. They’re not doing it maliciously — they just don’t understand. And they don’t understand because you didn’t do your due diligence.
The client is responsible for helping define project goals. The client isn’t responsible for helping the project along. That’s your job!
The rest is up to you.
Getting on the Same Page with Your Client
When you take on a client, you should already have a very clear understanding of what the success of the project looks like.
You should also have spent a thorough amount of time discussing project logistics in a way that is pertinent to your process. In-depth client discussions will continuously reinforce the expectations you set. This minimizes the possibility of misunderstandings.
Even if a client has agreed to follow your process, you still need to make sure that process is crystal clear. Explain it to your client in words they can understand. This is particularly important if they’re not accustomed to working with creative professionals. Ask them questions that warrant responses that reflect an understanding of your process. And when they ask you questions, make sure they understand the answers you provide.
Getting Back on Track when Mistakes are Made
Even when you put these actions into practice, slip-ups will happen. This is inevitable — you’re only human. But that doesn’t mean the project is shot.
When mistakes happen, there are 2 directions a project can take.
The first direction is one where the process deviates from its intended course. This is a dangerous road because now you’ve put yourself in a situation where even you don’t know the endgame. Likewise, the client will be confused. Or worse — they’ll be in a position where they’re playing roles in the project that they shouldn’t be. This will undoubtedly make your job even harder.
The second direction that you can take is admitting fault. Have a conversation with a client and be honest. Apologize and tell them that you’ve slipped up on your process by not properly communicating a certain aspect of the project. Then explain the new course of action you’re taking to get things back on track.
If you’ve taken on the right kind of client, they shouldn’t have any trouble understanding this. They’ll appreciate that fact that you came clean and they’ll even hold you in a higher regard professionally.
Seeking and taking responsibility positions a project for success. It also puts you (the professional), in a mindset where you’ll constantly be evaluating the potential outcomes of certain situations rather than just hoping for the best.
Strengthening this muscle will prevent the same mistakes from happening more than once because you’ve successfully put a system in place.
Everyone makes mistakes — even professionals. But it’s the professionals that grow from their mistakes.
What If They’re Just a Bad Client to Begin With?
Why did you take them on?
Something to keep in mind is that you don’t need to take on every client that wants to work with you. The unfortunate reality is that very few clients are going to be a good fit for you. It’s your job as a professional to filter out the wrong potential client so you can find the right ones.
Approach every potential project with reluctance.
Just because you’ve gone through an intial discovery phase does not mean you’re now bound to taking on this project. You might spend a lot of time getting a grasp on the project’s demands only to discover that this project is not a good fit for you. This can be a time-consuming exercise. And yes, it’s disappointing to see your time go to waste — but think of the frustrations you’ve saved yourself.
Going through this procedure is like exercising. Every time you do it, you’ll become stronger. Improving your ability to determine if a given project is a good fit is invaluable. And the more you do it, the more accustomed you’ll become to recognizing red flags.
This approach is not something you can simply perfect with your first project. But you will get better at it with each project you take on.
Use bumps in the road as opportunities to learn from your mistakes. Document them so you can revisit them in future projects to ensure you don’t fall into the same traps.
Most importantly, remember that when something goes wrong, you’re the weak link.