Fire at Will
Photo by James Harber. I-40 in North Carolina facing Oklahoma.
It’s happened again. You just hung up your cell phone, it’s 8pm on a weekend and this client has been calling you day and night since you took them on. Or maybe you just left a meeting where the client spent the entire time talking over you because they wanted to prove to the rest of their internal team that they know more about the web than the external folks (your team) who they hired.
For the veterans in the room, these situations are probably all too familiar (but hopefully a distant memory). For the new folks, you will reach a place in your relationship with some clients where you have to choose a path. That path is the decision to keep working with the client or let them go. In the web industry, we are tied to our clients for the duration of their business. A bad client is like a bad tattoo. It stays with you for life—unless you want to get expensive laser surgery and have the client burned from the surface your body leaving a scar.
Let’s refer to these paths as bridges. The “hire” bridge and the “fire” bridge. Now, when I say “hire”, I don’t mean choosing to hire them for the first time. You reach these bridges when you’re in some type of working relationship with the client. So the hire bridge == you are choosing to continue working with them.
The hire bridge looks a shiny rainbow playing your favorite song and a magic elf greets you with his right hand extended to walk you across the bridge. In his left hand is a giant ice cream cone and the money from the remaining invoices you will be able to send if you complete the project. It sounds enticing, but you look a little beyond the bridge and you see a dark forest full of glowing eyes and the shrieks of what sound like distant screams of all the web designers who have gone before you. May they rest in peace.
So you look the other way and you see the fire bridge. The bridge is the epitome of a dark place. It’s slimy, on fire, shrouded in fog and you can hear the cackling voices of the bridge trolls who lie beneath hoping you’ll fall as you cross. On the other side of the bridge, you see a group of shiny fairies dancing around a table full of your favorite foods and libations (or kool-aid for those under 21).
Now, maybe I’m over exaggerating a bit with the above scenario, but when I started Studio FJ at 20 years old and had my first office and employee, this was how I felt when I had to decide whether or not to fire a client. If you can’t tell from the metaphor above, you can keep the client, their money and suffer through the hassle of working with them or fire the client and deal with the possible loss of income, their anger, disappointment and/or berating that might ensue.
Before we choose a path, I’d like to talk about the decision-making process when you arrive at the bridges and then I’ll try to shed some light on how to cross the bridge regardless of the path you choose. You should know not to take a client’s actions personally. Often times when a client is aggressive or mean, it’s because they are feeling insecure because they are used to being the expert in the room. In scenarios where a client isn’t paying invoices or missing some type of deadline, you probably aren’t their first priority. They’ve got too much on their plate and shouldn’t have started a web project. So don’t beat yourself up about it. All you can do is your best and don’t take their actions to heart.
Now that I’m done with my Dr. Phil moment, here are some important things to consider when you arrive at the hire and fire bridges.
We have to start by looking at your contract. No one wants to be sued so we have to start here first. If you don’t have a clause about cancellation, you need to have one written for you. Some contracts state fire-at-will in writing which allow you to let a client go by notice of writing. Some contracts state that a client can only be let go if they violate some type of black and white principle such as not paying an invoice, not supply content, etc. If your contract states fire-at-will, then it’s a little easier to pull the cord than it is if your contract requires the client to violate something such as not paying for services. Let’s assume in this scenario that you don’t have a clause about cancellation or that you can fire-at-will with written notice.
Your Revenue Stream (AKA how much money you have coming in)
You have to take a look at your finances and see if you can afford to fire the client. I always tell people never do something for the money, but there are times where a client is large enough or the business is new enough that the gap left in the finances by firing a client will put you under. I’m not afraid to admit that there were times in my first year in business that I couldn’t afford to fire a client. This was because I wanted to be debt-free, so I didn’t have a line of credit or business loan, but regardless of the situation, you have to keep finances in mind. The last thing you want to do is fire a client and go out of business as a result.
This one is too often overlooked. If you’re the project manager on the job, the client might be making your life hell, but the rest of the staff could be royally stoked about the project. Just because your staff loves the project doesn’t mean you have to keep the client, but it’s something that owners and project managers need to consider. Happy employees mean a good work environment. A good work environment means good work. Good work equals clients. Client equal money. Money equals staying in business. So remember to ask the rest of your team how they feel before choosing your bridge.
Your Sleep/Stress Level
I hardly ever hear this come up in a decision-making process related to business, but I personally care about how much sleep I get at night. When you’re passionate about your work and dedicated to your job, it will effect other areas of your life—especially if you work for yourself. It’s not worth losing sleep over a project or asking your doctor for more blood pressure medication because your job is stressing you out. Life is too short and one bad gig makes work life suck even if you have several other clients who are great. There are many ways to deal with work-related stress adequately, but eliminating an unnecessary source of stress gets to the root of the issue.
I’m not talking about the size of your waistline. I’m talking about your internal instinct about the client. It a bit “woo woo” I guess, but I find in my own situations that listening to my heart regardless of what my emotions are telling me often times paints a clear picture of the path I need to take.
I would say the contract is the most important because it’s a legal matter, but after you figure out your legal standing the other topics are equally as important.
So let’s pretend you’ve made your decision. It’s time to talk tactics. Let’s devise a plan and not look back.
We will start with taking the hire bridge because it’s the shorter of the two to address. Here’s what you do if you take the hire bridge — work hard and hope for the best. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but if you decide to go this route, it’s all you can do. The dark forest of glowing eyes might actually be a nice shaded area filled with fireflies (or lightning bugs depending on what region you were born in). So the best you can do is grab the elf’s right hand, hold on tight and be positive even if you regret the decision. If it sucks, at least you got some money and ice cream.
Let’s say you decide to fire the client. You can do this one of two ways, 1) in writing or 2) in person/over the phone. It takes some major guts to do it in person or over the phone, but I think that’s the most respectable. If you talk to them in person or over the phone, try to strike a happy balance between explaining to them why they are being let go, without being too blunt. The worst thing you can do is be too vague or beat around the bush. I was vague with a recent client who was difficult and it only made things worse. Be honest and concise.
Let’s pretend the client misses all of their deadlines and has a late invoice. In that scenario, I would say something like this:
“We’ve decide that our companies are not the best match for each other. We operate on a strict project schedule because we are a small shop and the missed deadlines are throwing off our other projects. We are also concerned about the past-due invoice for XYZ service.”
It’s hard to say, but that pulls the bandage off quick and easy. Clients usually try to offer some sort of excuse and say they’ll do better in the future, but don’t let that fool you. If a client exhibits bad behavior, they will repeat it over and over. I can think of maybe 2 projects in my career where the client said they’d change their ways and actually shaped up. If you went through a thorough decision-making process and made an educated decision to cross the fire bridge, don’t turn back half way around or your risk the ropes burning through, the bridge falling and you being dragged into the dark forest by the trolls.
Depending on what your contract states, you will likely be required to submit some sort of cancellation notice in writing. You can do that in a follow-up email to a client stating that this email is confirmation of the canceling of the contract between XYZ company and your shop. If you do the entire cancellation in writing, include the same information that you would have addressed in person and then state that the email serves as a written cancelation of the contract, per the contract’s cancelation clause. If you have open invoices or hours left that need to be billed, make sure that you include that invoice in your cancellation email. Then breath a sigh of release, go home, have a beer (or kool-aid) and be encouraged that you made a good decision and your shop will be better off as a result.
I hope this article aids you along your road. I’m an optimist so I’d like to say that all projects will be rainbows and butterflies, but there are some bad eggs out there. Fortunately Studio FJ gets to work with a lot of Good Eggs.
Look for a future article about matching yourself with clients so you don’t have to choose a bridge and my article on common problems we cause and blame the client for.