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Breaking Up With a Client From Hell: How to Fire Clientzilla

So You Have a Difficult Client. Now What?

Every blue moon, interior designers come across a client that makes them want to just scream.  You checked their answers to the client questionnaire twice, met with them, saw some potential, decided to dive right into the project, and yet, you misjudged – a few minor milestones into the project and your client turned into ‘Clientzilla’!

They start micromanaging your business, send tons of long winded emails asking for clarifications, make dozens of revisions to the plan (even after giving final approval and having things ordered), do not find it easy to stick to a concept, make threats and show aggression, and the worst part of it all is that they never see themselves at fault. Rather, they will tell you how to run your business. You are 100% sure you want to walk out of the project, yet you are not so sure on how to fire the client without sustaining a poor review or an expensive lawsuit, both of which can be painful for your interior design business. This article examines how to spot a difficult client, how to prevent a client from getting difficult, and if all else fails, how to fire them graciously.

Spot a Clientzilla

Before we talk about how to fire a client, let’s see how such situations can be prevented in advance. There are three words of advice that interior designers across the board assert from the experience of dealing with a difficult client: Trust Your Gut. Here are a few red flags to watch out for at your initial consultation that can help your gut make an informed decision about proceeding with the project.

1. Did the Client Look Unpleasant and Aggressive During the Initial Consultation?

This is basic. Did your client make you feel uncomfortable in any way at all? Some clients can come across as demeaning and aggressive in their demeanour. They might refuse to make eye contact, or look away, or seem uninterested while you are explaining your process. This is a huge red flag.

2. Did the Client Keep Asking for Discounts During the Initial Consult?

Yes, who wouldn’t love a discount, and sure, if you can afford to, work out some discounts by all means. But if the client constantly brings up the discount aspect, your gut should be telling you by now that this one is going to nickel and dime you at every step.

3. Did the Client Constantly Insist on an Impractical Deadline?

This is a red flag that is waving right under your nose. An unrealistic deadline can cause indescribable stress for you as a designer. This is your gut telling you to drop the client right away.

4. Did the Client Speak About How They Fired a Previous Designer?

This kind of stance is a passive aggressive one that implies that you could be next. While this might not sound very serious, because some designers and clients are truly a match made in hell, you should prod deeper into why they fired their previous designer. Their answers to your question should give your gut some clues. Listen closely for signs that they are clients that can never be satisfied, no matter what you do for them.

5. Is the Client a Know-it-all?

How often have you heard the words, “I know exactly how the design should be, I just need some help putting it together”? While sometimes, this is a boon for designers, because a client who knows exactly what they want makes for an easy project to pull together. But other times this can translate as, “I am going to rework everything you present to me, and teach you how you should design”. Let your gut decide.

6. Did the Clients, if They Came With a Partner, Seem to Be Disagreeing With Each Other Throughout the Consultation?

An unhealthy relationship is not your job to fix. If the decision-makers are trying to fix their relationship by working on their home design, see that you don’t end up being their therapist rather than their designer. This red flag is a warning that there are going to be two or more opinions and decisions at every step of the way, sending you, the designer, scurrying for countless ideas, none of which might get approved. The slow decisions will wear you out sooner than you know. At a minimum make sure your price structure protects you in this type of circumstance.

7. Did the Client Miss Your Appointment?

This aspect is simple but crucial. Did the client agree to a meeting but never make it? This red flag points towards how much your client values your time as a design professional. When they come back with their excuse for flaking out, make sure to tune into whether they feel like it was wrong of them or not. Sometimes, you’ll find that they provide an insincere apology with a superficial reason just to check off the box. If that happens, expect them to remain consistently disrespectful throughout the entire design process.

8. Did the Client Aggressively Question Your Contract Terms?

It is important that you go through the contract with the client before signing them. Observe closely for signs of annoyance at items on your contract. Keep in mind that your contract must be designed to protect you from potential rogue clients. So let the contract be your screening process for the clients. If they feel cornered into a contract that doesn’t allow them to overstep professional boundaries, then congrats! your contract has just protected you from signing on a client from hell.

Preventing Clients From Getting Difficult

Given that you have carefully observed all the above aspects at the initial consultation, there are some additional things that you can do to ensure that your processes and policies are communicated well, in order to gracefully manage client expectations. Remember that unless there is a signed contract in place, this person is still a potential client, not a client yet. Therefore, one of the basic things that you can do is to educate them about the nuances of your business processes.

Clients who come for designer services won’t be aware of how your process works. Make sure to explain all of the following to them:

  1. Set the scope of work by explaining to them what you will do for them, and more importantly what you will NOT do for them.
  2. Set the terms of communication and how often you are willing to communicate.
  3. Explain how your fees work, and what will be charged and what they can expect included in their fixed fees.
  4. Let them know how involved or not you would like them to be during the course of the project.
  5. Explain how things will work in case of termination of the project by either party. It is advisable to include a non-disparagement clause that prevents either party from speaking negatively about each other.
  6. Educate them about your design aesthetics. If you think that what they want does not suit your design aesthetics, then they aren’t the right clients for you.
  7. Let them know kindly but firmly about anything you think they absolutely need to know about your business and processes.

Okay, so you have carefully ticked off all the points above and yet you are left with a client that is giving you sleepless nights on a weekend and anxiety attacks when you see their number appear on your phone. “What went wrong?” you wonder. Well, sometimes, you could have done everything right, but still, the client turned out to be a terrible match. It happens, so don’t beat yourself up about it. You have tried everything but you are not sure whether to stick it out and bear with the ClientZilla until the project ends, or, to choose your sanity over all else and to gracefully bow out.

Keep in mind that a designer-client relationship is like any other relationship. You are entering their private spaces, getting to know their likes and dislikes, personal stories, things they cherish and things that they absolutely detest. Apart from the professional aspect of it, your clients are very much an intimate affair. Therefore, if you see that the relationship is getting strained or is abusive, and in spite of everything you have done, you see that it is beyond repair, the wisest choice would be to amicably part ways.

The Break-Up

You must be absolutely sure that you want out. Once you are, take a close look at your contract and assess your termination clause to see how this client/project fits into it. You must have a strong contract to have your back unless you want to end up in court, because like a bad relationship, client break-ups could get real messy. Secondly, have all paperwork ready, all the bills, dues, and any kind of document that shows that you have held up your part of the deal with dignity. Third, think of other designers in the area or someone who would be a better fit for this project. Of course, if the client was abusive then do not recommend anyone else, as you don’t want to pass on an abusive client to a colleague.

Here are some ways to handle a client firing, and this is the awkward part.

1. ‘Honesty Is the Best Policy’

‘Honesty is the best policy’ can be your best path as long as the delivery of the bad news of a breakup focuses on not being able to work with their demanded changes to your process as opposed to difficulties with their personality. Let them know that you find it difficult to work in the circumstances dictated by them – you are uncomfortable that the business processes that you have set up over the years are being disrupted and your team isn’t equipped to adapt to this new way of working. Apologize for the mismatch in working styles. They don’t need to be told that the mismatch is attributed to their personality quirks that don’t allow them to follow process – they know their issues and appreciate it when others gracefully navigate past them without touching their wounds, as any direct mention of their personality issues may result in the triggering of defenses beyond their control. If it helps, have sympathy for them – you are able to step out of the relationship with that dysfunctional aspect of them but they have to live with it day and night. People who create trouble for others create even more trouble for themselves. They are self-torturing machines. They deserve our sympathy and they don’t need us to teach them any lessons.

If they attempt to salvage the relationship, hear them out, and then calmly let them know that you have shortlisted a few other designers who might be a better fit for them and that you wish them the best of luck for their project and that you are sure it would be beautiful. Express willingness to make their transition smooth even when every bone in your body screams ‘run fast from this person.’ There won’t be any expectation on you to over-extend to accommodate this commitment. All you are offering is the decency of sharing designs and documents, and assisting in off-boarding the client.

2. ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me’

Usually, it is advised to be honest with your client, but if you think your client could overreact, gently let them know that you will not be able to continue with the project due to reasons which do not include them. You could cite a ‘personal’ reason, or say that since this project has taken so long, your calendar is fully booked for other upcoming projects and you cannot accommodate their project anymore. Let them know that in these changed circumstances you would not be able to provide them with the best value any longer. Let them know the clear date as of when you are no longer part of the project, and what they can expect from you from now until then. Make sure you provide some recommendations of other designers who would have the time to provide them with their design services.

3. Spoonful of Sugar

Sometimes it takes a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. A breakup can be bitter and hard to digest, and coating it with sugar can make it all that more palatable. While only your creativity limits what sugar you can offer to ease the breakup, the place to look is ‘what can I offer to them that they will feel like they left in a winning position?’ If you offer to waive your final hours and provide them with a free transition to the designer of their choosing, they’ll feel much more satisfied than if you just cut the relationship. The optics are to give a little when they no longer have control of you – which means when they aren’t paying you. If it isn’t transition help, maybe it is a free product or something. This sugar will let them know that you mean no harm, will make them feel unblamed, and will let them have what they secretly have always wanted from you, ‘more’! Mix ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ with a spoonful of sugar, and you’ll likely find yourself quickly decompressing without the worry of getting hit with bad reviews and nasty emails. Yes, you can skillfully and inexpensively buy your way out of your problems!

If your client threatens to sue or write a bad review, don’t worry about it, because the non-disparagement clause in your contract should protect you from that. And, there are laws protecting you from threats of a bad review – ask your lawyer. Even if you don’t have a non-disparagement clause included in your contract, there is always the opportunity to respond to the review. People reading a review typically will also read the response to see what your side of the story was. Rather than react to a poor review in an equally aggressive fashion, responding in a professional manner will give you the upper hand, making you look knowledgeable and professional. But don’t shy away from telling your side of the story – your future clients will definitely appreciate that. The single best mitigation against bad reviews is getting plenty of good ones, so make sure to work on building up your reviews long before you have a client relationship go south.

Conclusion

As with all breakups, firing a client is never an easy task. What you can do is to avoid getting into such a situation, by vetting your client well and trusting your gut. But if you do get into a sticky situation, then stay calm and skillfully work your way out. Do not let your client control the situation because it will impact your creativity, sanity, and finances. When you part ways, make sure that you do so graciously and have a concrete plan on how to tie up all the loose ends. 

We really want to hear your client from hell stories. Tell us your heroic stories of sidestepping the worst of them. And, tell us about when you did get stuck with a Clientzilla and how you handled it. Comment below with your stories and advice.

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