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Breaking Up With Your Clients The Mathematical Way

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If you’ve been in the web design game for a while, you’ve probably recognized a few immutable truths: 1) Clients can be exceedingly hard to come by, and 2) Many of the clients you do get are evil on a very basic level. While nearly all clients are a kind, patient, understanding bunch, the few that aren’t can be devastating to your stress level, and your business. If there’s an 80/20 rule for dealing with web design clients, it’s that 20% of your clients will suck 80% of your soul (and then some).

80/20 pie chart

Bad clients don’t just take up time, the sheer stress of dealing with unreasonable people can be darn near debilitating for some, which often means that the rest of your clients get the shaft. The natural solution here is to dump the bad client and start living your life again, but as the owner of a web design firm and a consultant for freelancers, I know first-hand just how difficult of a decision that can be.

If you’re like most designers, you’re torn: sure, bad clients are a huge time suck, but very often the most difficult customers tend to pay the most. You might simply need the money that bad clients provide. To complicate things further, although we designers are quite good at many things, conflict resolution generally isn’t one of them. Breaking up with a bad client can be emotionally difficult. You work with your customers for weeks or even months, and you can get to know them pretty well. You certainly don’t want to leave them in a lurch (or be remembered as the designer that didn’t fulfill their commitment).

So how in the heck are you supposed to weigh all of those emotional factors and make a solid business decision? It’s simple: you run the numbers. Luckily, there’s a bona fide, empirical way to turn what feels like an emotional decision into a simple math problem, and it only takes a few steps:

Step 1: The Upside

Positive graph

The first thing we need to do is figure out what you have to gain by hanging on to your client relationship. This might seem tough, but when we use an old trick from game theory (an advanced form of math that focuses on strategic decision making), it’s easy. Do me a favor and answer the following questions (record your responses, we’ll need them in a minute):

1. How much money will you gain from finishing the project?
(e.g. if you’re halfway through a $20k project, the answer to this question is “$10k”)

2. What is the percentage likelihood that the project will ever be completed?

When you’re working with some clients, it may be unclear if the project will ever finish (and unfinished projects are far less rare than you might think).
This is where the game theory comes in. I won’t bore you with extended math proofs here, but the short of it is that game theory’s “expected outcome” formula allows us to take uncertain outcomes (like your bad client’s project) and turn them into cold, hard cash. Here’s how it works:
Take your answers and multiply them together. For example:

$10k (the remaining value of the contract) x 0.50 (a 50% chance of finishing the project)
= $5,000

That $5,000 is the average cash value of your client going forward.

Step 2: The Downside

Negative graph

For each hour you spend working on your bad client’s project, you’re missing out on an hour that you could be spending on other things: like needlepoint, or fly-fishing, or (most importantly) finding more clients. In economics, this idea is called opportunity cost, and you likely learned about it extensively in your Econ 101 class.

So what are you really missing out on when you spend an hour with an existing client? Or, to put it another way, how much money is a free hour worth to you? Hint: this number is almost always higher than you’d expect.
Even if you’re an awful salesman, if you work hard enough and reach out to enough businesses, you should be able to net at least a $1,000 client for every 40 hours of active lead-getting (writing emails, performing cold-calls, etc.). Work that out into an hourly rate, and it comes to $25/hour.
What does this mean? At an absolute bare minimum, a free working hour should be worth $25 to you.

Time for some more questions:

1. On average, how many hours a day do you spend on this bad project?

2. If you had to guess, how many more working days would it take to finish the project?

3. Will you have to pay any additional costs out of pocket to finish the project?

Do you need to buy any software or extensions to finish things up? If so, estimate their cost and list it here.

Now let’s do some more simple math:

Average hours spent on project per day x Estimated days to completion x $25/hour (the amount you’d gain by not working on the project) + Any other costs you might have = What you stand to lose from this project
For example:

5 hours per day x 20 more days left in the project x $25/hour + $100 of additional added costs = A downside of $2,600

Step 3: Subtraction.

Profit!

This part is easy:
Upside – Downside = Total profit
For example:

$2,500 Upside – $2,300 Downside = $200 potential profit

The bottom line: If the potential profit here is anywhere close to zero, drop the client, and drop them fast. All of that math was lovely, but we didn’t even include all of the additional, intangibles detriment that go along with keeping a tough client, like:
1. Added stress
2. Decreased efficiency
3. Loss of other existing clients
And, of course:
4. General loss of self-esteem, well-being, and lifespan
On the other hand, if you still stand to make a reasonable profit from the client and can bear the consequences, consider hanging in there and completing the project.

Saying Goodbye

Goodbye!

If the numbers add up, and you’ve had enough, it’s finally time for the toughest part: actually breaking up with your client.
It like goes without saying, but before you do anything rash, make sure you’re legally able to sever your contract (if you have one).
You may need to consult your lawyer on this, but for the most part, as long as you return all of your client’s files, forfeit future payments and agree to cooperate with the next designer on the project, you’re likely free to quit.
Once you’re legally in the clear, here are some helpful tips for saying goodbye (note: you may be amazed by how similar client breakups can be to actual relationship break-ups):

Absorb the blame.

From a business standpoint, your main goal here should be getting out of the project while keeping your client feeling as happy as possible. A messy severance can cost you a lot of money: unhappy clients spread negative word of mouth, and losing even one future client can negate the value of breaking up in the first place. How do you sever a relationship without creating a lot of anger? It’s actually pretty simple:

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

It might be a bit clichéd when it comes to real relationships, but this method is surprisingly effective for business breakups. Tell your client the truth about the situation they’ve put you in, but take all of the blame. If your client took up massive amounts of your time with excessive demands, tell them that you simply can’t dedicate the time that their project deserves. If your client has infantilized or insulted the quality of your work, tell them that you really want them to be happy with the finished product, and you don’t want to hold them back.

Get empathetic. Get sorry.

Make sure your clients know that you understand just what a difficult position you’re putting them in, and just how sorry you are for having to do it. Note: explicitly saying the word “sorry” doesn’t hurt.

Always, always use email.

Just like with real breakups, no matter how clear you might make your intentions, your client undoubtedly won’t see it coming. That’s why severing relationships by phone can be so gosh darned dangerous: when your clients feel the shock, they’ll immediately get angry, and the phone offers little reaction time with which to rearrange that anger into acceptable pleasantries.
Email, on the other hand, allows your client to enrage themselves in the comfort of their own inbox, and leaves lots of time for them to make a measured response. The result: less stress, and less time wasted on both ends.

Cooperate.

Make it extremely evident that you’ll be happy to help their next designer understand the project, and offer any favorable severance terms that you can muster. Also – importantly — make sure to mention that you have no plan to run off with their project idea or project files.
It might feel odd or maybe even a little overkill, but this strategy is wildly effective largely because it eliminates client frustration. If you’ve completely accepted the blame for a project’s failure, apologized for it, and offered favorable severance terms, your client is left with little to complain about (and from a pragmatic point of view, that’s really all we care about).

Phew… That Wasn’t So Bad, Was It?

The process of losing a nasty client might feel emotional, but the real key to deciding whether or not to keep a client is to keep things strictly about your business. Remember, as much as you have a duty to benefit your customer’s business, they have a duty not to ruin yours.


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Written by Casey Ark

Casey Ark is the CEO of Plato Web Design, a custom web design agency. His writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Newsday, The Tampa Bay Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he is a columnist for The Patriot News.

17 Comments

  1. Myra Kirbi says:

    This blog was like specifically addressed to me! I have been putting up with a bad but high paying client. My life is a hell would be an understatement, I sacrifice my weekends and other holidays and work immensely hard for him, but no appreciation for the good work and get all the brickbats for smallest of mistakes.

    Your math makes perfect sense and the steps of gradual disengagement are also great!

  2. Galena says:

    Someone posted this to a virtual assistant group I’m in and it was serendipitous because I just blogged about the same topic: http://www.vaphonebook.com/how-to-fire-clients/. That’s too much math for me though, I just go ahead and do it! :)

  3. Jeff Seaver says:

    I have to say, this is great.

    And I totally agree, this is a REALLY hard thing to do. In several decades, I can count on one hand the number of clients I’ve worked up the gumption to flat-out “fire” in mid-process. Luckily, two were so over-the-top crazy (can you say “restraining order”?) that it made the matter non-optional.

    Couple of things – this math didn’t (unless I missed it) calculate the fallout and potential downside of bad word of mouth, bad online reviews, blog posts or even bad press from leaving a client in the lurch.

    Kind of like we never plan on being stalked after a breakup with someone who “seemed like a regular person,” until…

    Also – I don’t agree with the email part, unless you’re a professional with below average phone skills, any time the emotional content of a communication is above a “3” on a scale of 10, I believe email is the wrong medium for it.

    Too much room for misunderstandings. If you have no tolerance for upset clients, you may have to look at whether you should handle any account-related contact, or someone better suited on your team should be handling it.

  4. Safidy RAZANAKOTO says:

    Great post for beginning this years .

  5. Tien Nguyen says:

    Oh. I remember my clients, they are fun :)

  6. Cathy Mayhue says:

    Though you have brilliantly put up a mathematical equation to explain why we should not put up with bad clients despite the huge amount of money we might be earning but it is pretty obvious, the kind of nightmare you go through, affects our day to day performance and we can not enjoy the money that we earn.

  7. Responsive website design says:

    Really very nice post. I know client handling is difficult, but one thing is that never promise to client anything that is impossible to you. Second one thing is that try to invite them in social functions of company and always keep a well communication line with client so that if you have some delay in delivery they can understand the reason.

  8. 21coders says:

    Thanks for the break up advice Stacy, Loved the idea of email over phone!!

  9. SeanDFeeney says:

    This post really resonates with me. Not a topic I see written about much.

    Be careful with over reliance of email for this kind of communication. While it is a good idea to send this via email, for legal reasons, fending off the initial shock/reaction issues, etc. Don’t forget, in communication, most of what we say is interpreted through tone and how we say it. Email is great for getting ideas down, but very bad at capturing emotion, tone, sincerity, etc.

    I would make a slight recommendation that after sending the email, you would be best served following up with a phone call or face to face meeting to discuss the departure. Depending on which source you use, upwards of 93% of our communication is non-verbal. Putting this into an email means that about 7% of effective communication is all you have for damage control.

    Many of you are freelancers, but in a past life, I am sure you wouldn’t hand in your two weeks via email. It is bad form and could further damage your reputation. Breaking up is hard to do, but there are steps you can take to minimize the risk. Parting ways professionally and maturely is something we need to strive for.

  10. Teelah says:

    This is such a good reason to break up with a client, if the client:

    1. Adds stress
    2. Decreased efficiency
    3. Loss of other existing clients
    And, of course:
    4. General loss of self-esteem, well-being, and lifespan

    None of these are worth having as clients. Thanks for the fun read! No one wants to lose business but when it effects your well being or your office moral.

  11. Thanks for writing Some interesting information,thanks!

  12. I like this article very much, thanks for sharing!

  13. radikaze says:

    thanks for sharing.
    http://www.medyamur.com

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