Human nature is human nature. If a business owner can get away with paying less for your services, he or she will. If someone who has hired you to do work for them can get more out of you than was initially agreed, they will. If you show weakness in your business dealings, you will get exploited.
It’s a sad fact that if someone who is buying your business or creative services sees a gap, a chink in your armour, they will take advantage. The natural inclination, it seems, is to get something for nothing. A retainer or service agreement might sound good on paper but when you put it into practice clients may find all sorts of ways to get more out of you than was initially agreed. If you allow a client had to walk over you, then you perpetuate their behaviour.
So what do you do when you get the first signs of a client or customer behaving badly?
At the outset, let’s make it clear that if you’ve done your homework, listened to your intuition and not brushed over certain flaws that you could see in the supplier-client relationship, you would not be in this situation. It’s easy to say that but much more difficult in practice. In the beginning of a client relationship, what some call the “contracting phase” you need to ask questions that give you the answers about how the potential client is going to behave. It may also be a good idea to take out a pencil and note your needs before you engage with a client. You might not go through this list with the client but you could mention what you find important in a “working relationship”. At very least this will set out expectations right upfront so later on when things go awry, you have clarity.
If the client is not making himself or herself available for important decisions to move with the project, that’s a red flag. Another red flag or warning signal is when the client does not share a 50:50 responsibility for the project. If you are ending up doing all the work and the client is not doing his or her share, then there’s something wrong. Some clients have a sneaky way of telling you one thing at the “contracting” meeting but once you start doing the work for them, they load you up with all sorts of other smaller and sideline projects to balloon the work. All this unfortunately does is lower your rate and make the project less and less appetising until you throw your hands up in frustration.
It’s never a nice thing to cut or severe a relationship. But you have to take the pain and the earlier you take it the better. Just talk to the client or send an email thanking them for their work and say that you underestimated the time involved with the project or any other valid reason, that it was good working with them and you wish them well. But made sure that you do this when they give you your latest payment and don’t take on new work.
As a parting thought, it’s also important to be very selective about which clients you’d take on if you have to do client work rather than doing work for your own business. Find out what they are like to deal with, make an assessment and don’t engage with them if you have red flags early on.
If something is going to go wrong, it will. It’s hard to say goodbye but realise that there are many other things in this world that you could do with your time, many other areas of life where you can add value and possibly better, more mature and fair clients.