Letting go of a graphic design client is a lot like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend; it’s not exactly pleasant, and it might even be someone you actually like, but sometimes it just has to be done. Breaking off a professional relationship nicely is a delicate operation, and chances are you don’t have an HR department to rely on, so this responsibility falls directly on your shoulders.
If it’s time to say goodbye to your client, you can reduce stress and discomfort by taking steps to fire them the right way.
Know when to fire
The first step towards firing a design client is making the decision to go through with it, and that means having a good reason to do so. There are several ways to know when to fire a client. Sometimes it’s obvious, like if the client is abusive, you haven’t been paid, or another opportunity comes along that you want to pursue.
Other times, it may be a matter of a client not listening to your ideas, paying you less than what you’re worth, or eating up your time by being slow to communicate or finalize graphic designs. No one else can tell you when it’s time to fire a client, so remember to trust your own judgment.
Look at your contract first
Before you approach the client, protect your own interests by going over any contract provisions or agreements you’ve established in writing. This is to make sure your client doesn’t try to pull a fast one on you and claim you’re in breach of contract for leaving. Likewise, make sure that you won’t actually become in breach of contract by failing to deliver what you agreed to.
Sometimes, your working relationship can be so bad that you just have to bite the bullet and break off your contract, taking whatever penalties come with it. That decision is up to you, but it’s always a good idea to know what you’re losing out on before you come to your final decision.
Do it in person (if you can)
The best way to fire a client is in person, preferably in a face-to-face meeting. Find a time that works for your client and a venue that you feel comfortable with. If you think emotions might run high, it may be best to meet in a neutral zone (such as a public area) to ensure both parties keep their cool.
If you absolutely have to, you can fire your client through an e-mail, letter or phone call if you just don’t feel comfortable doing it in person. It’s not the best way to handle things and you won’t be able to conduct an exit interview, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Of course, if your relationship with your client has been strictly through phone or e-mail, then you should use whatever method your client will prefer.
Be honest, but play to the room
Your client will probably want to know why you’re leaving them. Honesty is typically the best policy, especially if the client was rude, abusive or toxic. The truth could be just what your difficult client needs to set them straight, but the best course of action is to play to the room. Chances are if your client was hard to handle, they might not appreciate your honest opinion about them.
If you’re looking for a drama-free exit, it might be best to keep things brief and sugarcoat as much as you can. No client is worth outright lying for, but some truths may be worth keeping to yourself for the sake of civility. You know your client best, so pick the strategy that works for the situation while still making your voice heard.
Listen to them
Some clients might beg you to stay, while others might use this as their chance to tell you off. No matter what they’re saying, you should give them the chance to make their voice heard, even if nothing they say could possibly change your mind.
That doesn’t mean you need to sit there and take more of their abuse. All it means is that you shouldn’t try to monopolize the conversation. Showing a willingness to hear them out can make all the difference in smoothing things over.
Set a deadline
Just because you’re a freelance designer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your client notice when you’re about to leave. If you can, give them some time to prepare for your departure. The standard two-week notice is usually fine, or you might agree to leave upon the completion of your current project.
Of course, there are those occasions when you just have to get out as soon as possible. Maybe you have new obligations that take precedence, or the client is so toxic that you fear giving them notice would only exacerbate their abuse. In the end, you have to do what works best for you.
Keep the door open
If circumstances are forcing you to leave a client that you like working with, always make sure to keep the door open just in case they have future opportunities for you. To ease the transition gracefully, you might even recommend other designers to take your place (unless, of course, you’re dealing with a toxic client to whom you wouldn’t want to recommend anyone).
It doesn’t hurt to check in on your former clients every now and then just to see how things are going. Keeping that line of communication open could lead to further work opportunities or possibly even recommendations to new potential clients.
Let it go
Leaving a good client behind can feel heartbreaking and leaving a bad client can be a stressful and dramatic experience. But when it’s done, it’s done. Find a way to let it go and walk away. It doesn’t matter if firing your client went swimmingly or if it opened up a Pandora’s Box of drama; once you’ve left them behind, you need to find a way to move on.
Use the time and energy you once devoted to your former client to look for new opportunities, push your career further or better serve your other clients. Take a deep breath—you made it through and your future is full of possibilities.
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Now we want to hear from you. If you’ve ever had to fire a client, now’s your chance to share your experience with other designers. How did the client react? Would you do anything differently if you had to do it again? Leave your answers, anecdotes and examples in the comments below.