Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch

Fire the client

December 3, 1999

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Those of you who have already made the jump into freelance or project-based work have discovered the pros and cons of working for yourself. While there can be a certain lack of security involved with managing your own business there can also be a large feeling of freedom. Freedom to choose your projects. Freedom to organize your day the way you want. Freedom to pick your clients. Unfortunately, we can sometimes still put ourselves in the position of working for someone who is less than ideal. Sometimes we do it because of the money. Sometimes we do it because we think we need the work. Sometimes we might not realize why we are doing it. Regardless of the cause, though, it is important to learn how to identify these clients and how to extricate yourself from a bad relationship without making it worse.

Who are they?

Your rates are too high! Can I get a discount on this? I'll cut the check in 30 days. I know this wasn't in the spec, but can you do it without it costing me any more money? What do you mean I have to buy the software? Anyone working in a high-tech career has heard statements and questions like this from a client or two along the way. . Any of them are a signal that the relationship between you and your client is going to be a rocky one. In some cases, such as working for a company, you can't get away from these situations. These people are probably co-workers. When you are out on your own, though, sometimes you have to "fire the client." This can be one of the most stressful work situations that you ever face, but it is also the most important. Bad business relationships will drag down the quality of your work for other clients and might even send you back into the relative safety of a corporate job.

Is that my phone ringing?

A few months ago I related problems with a client. I broke my own rules about reducing my fees to help out a client who was in dire straits. Several technical people had moved on and left him without the expertise he needed to service his clients. I figured I could use the work to fill in some slow periods I was having elsewhere. As is often the case, this client turned out to be less than ideal. He was indecisive and a micro-manager. Instead of giving me a task and allowing me to accomplish it he wanted to sit by my side the entire time. Then, the one time I worked without his direct supervision, he complained that I had taken too many hours to complete the task.

At this point, I was ready to give this client an earful. I wanted to tell them exactly what I thought of him and his project. As a businessperson, though, I knew better than that. While this client could have very little effect on my business as a whole I prefer not to burn bridges unless absolutely necessary. In this particular case, I used the excuse that my other work, my writing, my private training, etc. was beginning to take too much of my time. I backed out of the relationship as gracefully as possible and I feel much the better for it. I am still a bit angry about how I was treated, but it wasn't worth the angst required to tell the client the truth. It also wasn't worth risking the money the client still owed me. Sometimes we all have to sit quietly until that final check clears.

Not worth the time

In most cases, it is not worth your time or energy to tell a client exactly how stupid, cheap, arrogant or abusive they are. If the client exhibits any of these faults they will probably not have the wherewithal to understand their faults. They will blame everyone but themselves for their problems, including you. IF you anger them they also might become vindictive and attempt to hurt you and your business financially. Don't fall into this trap. It is far better to back gracefully out of the room, like courtiers of old leaving the King, than "flip them off" and storm out. Actions like that, no matter how good they might feel at the time, can only lead to bigger troubles down the road.

One action you can take, though, is the protection of others who might come across this client in the future. You certainly wouldn't want to recommend any of your friends to work for a person such as this. There is no sense in sending someone else into the lion's den. You can also gently and obtusely warn others from doing business with this person. Again, you may not want to say exactly what you feel, but all of us can come up with a diplomatic way of steering others away from this client. Simply describing it as a "difficult relationship:" should be enough to send up warning flags with other high-tech workers. There is no need to go into details.

Sometimes we all need to "fire the client" in order to allow ourselves and our businesses to grow. I hope you won't have to use this power frequently, but it allows you the most control over how you develop your high-tech career. There are always times when you need to look out for your own best interests as no one else will do it for you.


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