Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Handling Client-Designer Breakups

Breakups can happen to the best relationships, from celebrities to client-designer parings. When the end comes, it’s critical to keep your head up, be professional and come away from the split a more savvy business-person.

Even some of the best relationships come to an end. Brad and Jennifer, Tom and Nicole, Nick and Jessica. Clients dump ad agencies all the time for the next hottest design house, and clients switch freelancers even after years of loyal service. In the world of business, relationships can be transient.

Breakups happen to the best client-designer matches. Client runs out of money, client finds someone cheaper, client switches businesses and just no longer needs a design guru. It’s inconvenient and ego-deflating, and but there are ways a freelance designer can come out of the situation more business savvy.

Be Professional

You might get dumped over a lunch meeting, a phone call or an e-mail. You might not get anything — just silence, no matter how many times you call or e-mail. Your first reaction is perfectly natural. You’re thinking “What the hell?” But throughout the separation process — and especially in the beginning — it is critical to remain professional.

Client-designer relationships are naturally personal because they involve collaborating over art, and both parties have invested time and talent into the project. Emotions can run high, especially after a long period working together. Add to that money changing hands, and the situation can be ripe for arguments.

Don’t freak out. Don’t curse. If you’re on the phone or meeting the client in person, be polite and level-headed. If you’re responding to an e-mail, write your response, but wait 24 hours, read it again, and then send it when you’ve had time to think the situation over. You don’t want to say or write anything you’ll regret, because it will only widen whatever gap has formed.

Try To Find Out Why The Split Occurred

There’s always a reason, and it’s usually a good one. Some possibilities:

  • The client is no longer satisfied with your work.
  • The client ran out of money.
  • The client is cancelling the project or getting out of the business.
  • The client found someone cheaper.
  • The client flat out doesn’t like you. You may be a great designer, but if personalities clash, not even Milton Glaser could design his way through that roadblock.
  • The client’s spouse doesn’t like your work, and has convinced his/her wife/husband to find someone else.
  • The client’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s mailman’s 14-year-old son has convinced the client he could do a better job. (I’m sure you’re all intimately familiar with that situation.)

Talk through the situation with the client — find out what went wrong, if there’s anything you can do to save the relationship, if the client needs anything from you for his transition to go smoothly. If you discover why the separation is happening, you have a chance of sewing the mend.

For instance, perhaps the client doesn’t think your work is right for his project. Why? Because you use too much purple. Perhaps the client doesn’t like you. Why? Because you don’t respond to his e-mails fast enough. Perhaps the client found someone cheaper. Then explain your value — you are already familiar with his work, you have a relevant skill set, etc.

Don’t Burn Your Bridges

As a designer, you are a trusted employee of the client’s enterprise. You are a keeper of trade secrets, source files and FTP passwords. Don’t do anything stupid with this information.

Sometime ago, a project I was working on with a newish client was cancelled because upper management deemed it a waste of money. The client apologized for wasting my time, and asked for all the work I had done, just in case the project ever got started again.

I could have been a jackass and never sent him the files, or broke them, or changed everything around, or added “you suck” in the HTML’s comments. But I sent him the files. Even if the Titanic is more salvageable than the working relationship, exit with a positive foot.

Even after the breakup, write the ex-client an e-mail or letter thanking him for their service, and that you hope you can work together in the future. It may sound trite, but if that’s the last time the client ever hears from you, they will have a positive impression.

In contrast, some months ago I had to fire a printer because their work was not meeting my company’s expectations. When we took the account manager out to lunch, he was understanding, apologetic and professional. Since that day, he has been anything but. He has harassed me, constantly bad-mouthed the printer we switched to, and virtually begged for us to send him work. Needless to say, he will never hear from me again, which is a shame, because we worked together for years and I would have gladly sent him referrals had he not been such an unprofessional shmoe after the breakup.

Even a client who does not like you might respect your talent and pass your name along. Someone who can’t afford you now might be able to afford you later. The client who found someone cheaper might quickly discover that shoddy work is just not worth the savings, and ask you to come back aboard. The point is you never know the future, so don’t burn your bridges now.

Learn and Move On

If the client tells you why the relationship has come to an end (and sometimes they won’t), listen. Often, the problem is you. Maybe you need to respond to e-mails faster, or pay closer attention to the design requirements of the project and not use so much purple. These are valuable criticisms that you can rectify immediately with your other clients.

Just as often, the problem is not you, and in that case, there’s little to be done. Don’t arbitrarily lower your rates to save the working relationship, or make promises you can’t keep, like turning around three design comps in a day for all future projects. These only lower your professional image, and it will not earn any kind of respect.

Sometimes, the end is, in fact, the end. Learn and move on. For a professional designer, nothing is quite as deflating as having a long-time client defect, but don’t mull endlessly over what you could have done. Focus on what you can do with other clients.

Bottom line: be ready for anything and never put all your eggs in one basket. Keep your client stable diverse, and when one client leaves, make sure you monitor for any improvements you can make with your active roster so the same problem doesn’t occur twice.

, , ,

commentary + criticism

Natalie Jost

wrote the following on Tuesday February 14, 2006

That’s great advice, not just for business, but for life. Man, where was that advice when I was nineteen and breaking up with guys all the time? I think a little dose of maturity might have helped back then too. :)

Seriously, though, I actually had a guy freak out when it came time for the invoice. He somehow forgot the price we had agreed on. I told him I would hang onto the artwork and wished him the best with the other designer he wanted to go with. The next day he came back and paid me for the work I did, saying, ‘I don’t think your competition has any idea what creativity means.’ (For the record, this competitor was not a professional designer, just one who had designed their own blog and thought they could do others too). I doubt I’d hold up against a REAL competitor, but I’m glad he felt comfortable coming back to me.

       ”..we worked together for years and I would have gladly sent him
      referrals had he not been such an unprofessional shmoe after the

That’s absolutely true. I worked in Purchasing for a couple of years and had to break up with some great people just because my CEO played golf with some other CEO and he promised business to him. I couldn’t exactly tell my guy that, but I told them I’d keep their card (I still have them all today though I might never need them). I did give a few referrals, some big ones too, all because the people I worked with (for the most part) were very cool about the breakup. They would call once in awhile just to see how things were going with the new vendor and let me know they were there for a last minute backup job if needed.

Even after I left that job and went to work for a new place, I still kept in touch with some of them every 6 mos or so. I wouldn’t think it would be any different as a designer. Give a courtesy call every so often just to let them know you’re still there…


wrote the following on Tuesday February 14, 2006

Good advice. Will remember it, but hopefully never need it. (not a big chance I guess)

franki durbin

wrote the following on Thursday February 16, 2006

Professionalism is key. In my experience, it is often that they found someone cheaper …or that mailman’s 14-year old son. ;) And they often end up coming back months later. Professionalism is key to keeping that door open. Good post. Great blog.