Our nonprofit organization hired KTD Creative to design a handbook. We had never produced anything like it. The team was patient in the face of our extending deadlines and stayed in great touch with us for all of the revisions.
Giving a Client the Big Kiss Off
We have all had client relationships that were, or are, the equivalent of a bad marriage. What first seems like bliss can nosedive into an abysmal mess. Sometimes neither side is “wrong” — but for a variety of reasons known and unknown, the chemistry, goodwill, and other positives found in good client relationships are just not present. Neither party is fulfilled. Question is, when do you move on and how do you justify it to yourself and your accountant? What are the criteria you use and how does this make sense from a business perspective?
I am a firm believer in taking yearly stock of clients and being strategic in who to take on, and who to let go. The “letting go” part can be tough, but take heart; as Mother Superior says to Maria in “The Sound of Music,” “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” You do not have to be Christian to appreciate the sentiment. Having put this into practice I agree whole-heartedly.
It might appear to be counter-intuitive to kiss off a client during the Great Recession but having done so, I have seen my bottom line and my general quality of life increase tremendously. Based on this experience, I thought I might share.
It takes a tremendous leap of faith and tons of courage to have your own business. I once heard Rachel Maddow define ambition as courage and I think she is right in a sense. It is the desire and motivation to stretch for your dreams and make personal and financial sacrifices when you would rather be vacationing on a beach with drink in hand.
When you start a business, you are in most cases grateful for any client you get. You do your absolute best to retain them and develop more new client relationships to foster the growth of your business. After all, the cost of new business development is more costly when compared to the efforts of retention once you land a client.
When I think of the costs of new business development I take into account time spent writing content for the company website, paying the developer to develop it, the time that went into designing it, time keeping it current with updates to copy and portfolio items, going to meetings with potential clients, attending networking events, transportation costs, meal costs if meetings are done over lunch, gas, parking, costs for the company brochure in both labor and printing, and admin time to write the new proposal and contract. Not to mention keeping up the business wardrobe. The list goes on and on. Sure— 99% of what I just mentioned are business deductions but you must have the capital and credit to cover these costs upfront.
The costs are staggering and it is an investment. The point is once, only you have done all this groundwork can you hope that once the client gives you the work so that you may recoup the investment.
A funny thing can happen though with clients— some are not worth it— and you have to carefully consider if you should keep them.
Personally, I will let a client go when they deplete all the energy I have to put towards other clients or develop new ones because they are so disorganized and dysfunctional. This depletion of energy is not limited to the workspace— it impacts my ability to give to others in my personal life. When a client negatively impacts my quality of life, that’s a no-no.
For example, for a number of years my firm worked with a large organization. By anyone’s definition this was blue chip client — prestigious, internationally known, and credible.
We worked with over 10-departments and maybe a total of 25 staff members throughout the years. The staff, while perfectly nice, could generally never adhere to a process or a schedule that was in the very contract agreements we had. I should mention this specific client provided my firm with about 25% of our work in any given year.
Project creep was ever present and looking back over a half decade’s worth of work with this particular client, not only did the work suffer, but the profit margin was miniscule. From a design standpoint alone, the shifting sands of the schedule rarely allowed for strong creative work. This was disappointing.
In terms of what I mean by “dysfunction” specifically, in one instance after signing the contract and receiving the purchase order, we had to meet with a new staff member in a department to be vetted again for the specific project we had already been hired to produce. After all, we had a purchase order stating so.
At that meeting with the new staff member I politely explained to her that my firm— even though we had a purchase order for the work— would be unable to fulfill the contractual obligation since they were now vetting additional design firms.
In a sense they had voided the contract themselves by renewing the vetting project. This breach of trust after the purchase order was given to my firm, and staff resources set up to start the work, flew in the face of the agreement. Goodwill evaporated on the spot. If goodwill is nonexistent, any project is doomed.
The frustration felt for this client spilled over into other client relationships. How could it not? While I am a professional, I am certainly not a robot. It takes a toll when you are constantly managing a run-a-way train. Your clients feel it, your staff suffers from it, and your family-members and health are adversely impacted.
Freeing my firm from this client was one of the absolute best business decisions I have ever made in nearly 8 years of business.
No more last minute rearranging of nights and weekends to accommodate this client’s erratic schedule. No investigative reporting over a Christmas holiday to figure out who had to approve a three-month-old invoice, finally all simply to get paid for an 80-page annual report. In sum: not a small amount to go unpaid for such a long time. In the end, it took roughly 10-hours of my time to track down various staff, get them on the phone, resend the paperwork, and get the wire transfer made. I blame this client for what amounted to one of the worse Christmas holidays I have known, as I spent it mostly in bed due to exhaustion.
When I decided that my firm would not work with this one client anymore my accountant cheered, I popped champagne and am almost certain my TMJ decreased.
I know that our other clients felt the benefit of the decision because one of them practically told me so. One client commented on not only my seemingly new level of happiness, but my appearance. To be honest nothing in my appearance at the time had changed— it was my positive energy that she felt. The energy one gives off is powerful. What you put out you get back. I was happy after giving the “kiss off” to this albatross around my neck.
Since then— I have been putting out a lot more positive energy, the clients are more diverse than ever, and the work proves more exciting as it keeps coming in the doors.
I have decided to ask a few designers in town about a time when they have given a client the “kiss off” and what motivated them to do so.
From Carol— Yes I have given a client “the kiss off” … these times were memorable: A client from a prestigious PR firm in DC and with whom I had done tons of lucrative work, asked me to design print materials for a group that wanted to persuade people that Acid Rain did not exist. I said No. I have always had a policy of “do no harm design”.
An advocacy non-profit whose mission I deeply believed in finally drove me to fire them. They were just too chaotic . . .a million changes after “final” copy even so far as changes on press. They had a committee that had to reach consensus and it made it impossible for me to create effective design.
From Katie--- “They don't adhere to deadlines, they are slow to pay, they change the terms.
From Rob-- “I fired a client for essentially, failure to pay. She and her sons ran a small restaurant that I did ad work for and the checks they wrote me frequently bounced. When I would stop by to collect, she would always try and bribe me with free food (in her mind I guess that equaled out). I quickly grew tired of this, the food wasn't that good, and decided it better to cut my losses and move on.”
And now for the amazing illustration by Donal Ely: