Toxic Clients and How to Manage a Client Relationship Gone Wrong (Part 1)

In a perfect world, Clients and Designers would get along perfectly and no disagreements, arguments or lawsuits would ever arise. As we all know, we do not live in a perfect world and sometimes, Clients and Designers clash - of course, this is certainly not usually because 'the client is wrong' and often these disagreements are nothing more than misunderstandings that are quickly and easily solved (look out for our forthcoming article on 'How to Build a Relationship With Your Designer').

However, in this article we are talking about what the design industry refers to 'Toxic' clients. Not a very nice terminology but not without reason. We often talk about how to attract clients, how to keep clients happy and so on but it's less common to hear about how to or when to FIRE your clients when the relationship becomes sour or the client is causing your business problems for other reasons.


Is it ok to FIRE a client?
I'm sure we've all heard of cases where the Client fires the Designer (maybe the chemistry was lacking or the designer did not understand the Clients needs well enough) - but is the reverse acceptable? As a business, surely any business is good business?
From our experience, certainly in the design business, some of the key factors that lead to a good design are trust, communication and a good relationship between the Client and the Designer. If you were the Client and you felt one or more of these factors were missing from your Designer, you would probably consider firing them - why would you pay for a service which you don't believe will lead to a good design? Likewise, as the Designer, if you feel that your Client does not trust you to deliver a design which they will be happy with and that no matter how hard you try to communicate with your Client, you don't seem to be getting through to them or understanding their needs clearly, then for the sake of the project (for the benefit of both parties), it would be advisable to try to end the relationship professionally and peacefully.


Warning Signs That You Have a 'Toxic' Client
What exactly is a toxic client? We all know that some clients are difficult to get along with or can be overly demanding but there are many factors that contribute to a 'toxic' client situation:
  • Disrespectful behaviour: A Designer-Client relationship should be built on trust and work like a partnership. If a client attacks the designer personally, makes rude phone calls or sends constant attacking emails. 
  • Questions your skills and expertise or your fees: If you are providing a professional service, you should be paid. If your client is constantly questioning your fees or delaying payments (or even refusing to pay), or, if the client constantly questions your decisions and doesn't seem to trust your level of expertise.
  • Undermines the project: Believe it or not, we have been in client situations where it seems that the client is determined to 'sabotage' their own project. The Client and Designer should have a mutual goal of creating something together - they should be working together and helping each other to understand the project goals and to find solutions. When a client becomes an obstacle rather than a resource, there is a problem.
  • Makes Unreasonable Demands: We know Clients expect perfection and that's what we try to deliver. However, if a Client rejects your ideas without explanation leaving you to 'guess' what they like/dislike, requests additional services or drawings that were not included in the contract and then refuses to pay or makes unreasonable requests on delivery times or the design itself, such as 'I want the 3x3m bedroom to have a double bed, a desk, a fitted wardrobe and I want the design by tonight'... (by which we mean impossible).
  • Difficult to get hold of or procrastinates: The key to a successful project is communication from both parties and, as such, a client who takes days or even weeks to return your phone calls or emails is not being helpful towards the success of the project. Likewise, clients who take days or weeks to make any kind of decisions or change their mind constantly, without reason or without adhering to advice, causing the project to delay more.
A combination of two or more of the above factors can quickly disintegrate into a project full of constant changes, delays, misunderstandings, which eventually can lead to personal arguments, non-payment and even a lawsuit.


When and How to 'Break up' With Your Client
Making the decision to let a client go is a difficult one, not only because of the damage it can do to your business reputation if the 'break up' doesn't go well and the loss of any income from future projects from that client or by way of recommendation but because noticing the signs that a project is not going anywhere and reacting at the right time, in the right way is something we don't all see instinctively.

Here are some of the key signs or situations when it might be time to end the relationship:
  • When the Client Drains You Emotionally: Clients who are mean, disrespectful or full of negative energy can drain you, or your staff, emotionally and affect the quality of work produced. If the client is impossible to please and makes rude remarks like 'I could have done this myself, why am I paying you to do it', the morale and confidence of you and your staff may start to diminish. A Client that tears down a Designer's self-esteem causing them to second guess their work and even their pricing is harming your business.
  • When the Client is Going to Harm Your Reputation: These are often the Clients who are never satisfied or just don't know what they want and are unable to communicate this to you. Even when the work you produce is good, if a Client is never satisfied and the project seems to be see-sawing back and forth in the design stage, it might be time to politely end the relationship before the situation turns sour and your reputation is affected.
  • When the Client Thinks You Only Work For Them: Your Clients need to understand that you have other Clients, too, and sometimes it's not possible to arrange a meeting or produce a drawing at a moments notice. If a Client is labelling everything as 'URGENT' and phoning you at all kinds of absurd times of the day expecting everything to be done 'now', they may soon start to affect your other projects. Try to politely explain that your other Clients have deadlines too but if the behaviour continues, you should be careful as the project or relationship with your Client can easily sour if the Client feels neglected.
  • When the Client Stops Generating Revenue: In some cases, the revenue generated by a Client is clear: work 10 hours, get paid for 10 hours. However, when a Client drains you emotionally or causes you to second-guess your decisions, you might find yourself spending additional time doing things like complaining about them, checking your paperwork and minutes, defending invoices etc, when this is time that you could be spending working on another project that is generating revenue.

When the time comes to end the relationship, we should be careful not to react emotionally or in the heat of the moment - there should be clear and logical reasons for ending the relationship and you should be able to clearly explain to the client the reasons for termination. Finally, you should be willing to negotiate with your client and try to end on good terms to avoid bad word-of-mouth marketing.

Unfortunately, if you have a toxic client situation and it has gone far enough to become personal, a good 'break up' is unlikely.

Read back tomorrow on our suggestions on how to 'reduce the risk' in a toxic client situation, or to try and avoid getting involved with toxic clients in the first place!