Does this scenario sound familiar?
You’ve got a great project with an exciting new client. You’ve come to an agreement on scope. You get started. And, suddenly, everything falls apart. You can’t seem to find common ground to move forward. This project is becoming, well, a disaster.
How do you move on, while maintaining relatively good terms with the people involved and keeping your reputation intact? And when you do move on — what do you say?
When to say, “This isn’t working out.”
There are a variety of situations where you need to consider whether it’s time to part ways with a client. Let’s take a look at a few of the more common ones.
What you offer isn’t what the client needs
I was working with someone I liked a lot. We extended the work we were doing together because we clicked personally. But eventually we wandered into territory that I was grossly under-qualified for and had no interest in pursuing. I simply didn’t want to do that work any more, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue getting paid to do something I wasn’t good at. So I had to walk away and suggest that my client find someone else to help them. We were able to part ways on good terms.
The client is changing the agreement
I’ve seen this scenario end very well and very poorly.
One of my freelancing friends was hired to do a specific task for an agreed-upon hourly rate. When the client discovered that the project was taking longer than anticipated, he suggested a rate that was half as much. Wanting to please her client and finish the project — and feeling responsible for the extra time it was taking — she agreed. In the end, she had undercut herself, got frustrated, and took it out on her client. It was a mess and ended badly.
A different freelance friend had a similar scenario. He provided his service and the deliverables as agreed. Then the client asked for more deliverables. He calmly and honestly explained that he’d have to do more work for the additional pieces, so he’d have to charge more. That client understood and said she’d use what she had for now, and they could arrange something else if she still needed more.
The client is art-directing
A designer I know had come up with a few concepts for her client. The client wasn’t super pleased with any of them. They finally chose one and then gave my friend a list of edits they wanted made to it. She made some of the edits and advised against the others based on her expertise as a professional designer. They argued, and she relented.
Sometimes you suck it up and just let bad design get birthed into the world. You just don’t publicize it in any way. As long as the client’s goals are still being achieved, you’ve accomplished what they expected you to do.
But in this instance, the client’s goals weren’t being achieved, and my friend simply couldn’t put her name to the project.
You just can’t satisfy your client
I can tell you legally that you only have to complete as many concepts as you’ve outlined in your contract. I can tell you that I’d give at least one extra, maybe two, as an act of good faith.
But I think you’ll know after you’ve completed [X number of unsatisfactory concepts] that client satisfaction is just not gonna happen. Something has misfired in your communications, and you are clearly not on the same page. Either you start from scratch now and go back to the research phase, or you cut your losses. The path you choose depends on how the tone has been throughout the project: If your client clearly doesn’t respect what you’re bringing to the table, it might be time to walk away.
What to do when you’ve decided it’s time to move on
If you’ve examined your current client scenario and determined that you do in fact need to cut ties, make sure you’re covering each of these steps as you say goodbye:
1. Be respectful
Never insult them. Not even if they’ve insulted you. Remember: You are a professional; act like one.
2. Explain where you’re at in the project and offer options for proceeding
Be clear about where the project has stalled. For example: “The bid was $X, and you’ve paid a 50 percent deposit of that. We agreed on three concepts with up to two rounds of revisions. So far, I’ve completed five concepts and two rounds of revisions.”
You could offer two more concepts with stipulations for what communications you need from them, and they’d pay $Y more for those. This makes it clear that you’re not working any more for free.
If they aren’t interested in that option, here’s your line: “I’m very sorry that things haven’t worked out. I always hope that I can meet my client’s needs.”
3. Or just explain that you’re leaving, in the simplest terms
Don’t blame and don’t take all of the responsibility. Use “I” language. “It’s become clear to me that this situation isn’t working out. We don’t seem to be finding common language to move forward, and I don’t feel like I’m going to be able to help you find a workable solution. I think now is a good time for you to pursue a different designer, who may be able to better meet your needs.”
4. Talk about money
You have options here, too. You could tell them that you’re not charging for the second half of the payment, even though you put in more time than you’d bid for.
If they demand that you return their deposit, you can choose whether you’d like to relinquish a small part of it in good faith. But you should know that it probably won’t change their opinion of the way the project has gone.
If you’d rather not return any of the project’s deposit, here’s an alternative: Explain how many hours you’ve put in, clarify that it’s above and beyond what you bid for, and add a line about how you’ll let them determine what payment above the deposit amount they believe is fair.
This can be risky because you don’t know how they’ll react. But it’s also a statement. It definitely lets them know that you won’t be returning any of their deposit (which they shouldn’t ask for but sometimes do). It also reiterates that you’ve put real time and energy into this project.
How to avoid getting a client to this point
Obviously, it’s best to avoid having to fire a client. I’ve got three tips for setting yourself up for success in the first place.
1. Refine your communication
Communication is the single most valuable asset in any relationship, including client relationships. So be open, honest, and humble. Ask questions along the way to make sure you’re all on the same page. “Let me check my understanding” is a borrowed phrase that constantly comes in handy.
Consider that errors in communication might be your fault rather than immediately blaming your client. Were you as clear as possible? How can you improve clarity?
If you suck at communication, invest in a workshop or audit a college course or seek out some coaching. I’m not kidding. This is a life skill that you need to excel at.
2. Get the kinks in your onboarding process worked out
Your onboarding process will improve with time, but spend time and effort refining it — it’s worthwhile to have it in place and working.
3. Make sure your contract is clear
You’ve heard this a lot, but it bears repeating: Get a signed contract that clearly outlines your scope, the number of concepts you’ll provide, and the number of revisions your client can expect.
Your contract is the agreement you can come back to when you need to settle an argument (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s legally binding). But you need to bring it up tactfully, and you can’t keep playing the “contract card,” so reserve it for as long as possible.
With that in mind, you’ll be able to keep most of your clients happy and their projects moving forward smoothly. But when a project can’t be salvaged and there’s little respect for your expertise, remember that sometimes it’s worth it to just cut your losses.
This article was originally published on February 18, 2015. It was last updated on June 20, 2020.
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