It’s not much fun,
but it has to be done
By Amy Berger
The first time I did it I had been in business only five weeks. The client I signed
up with sounded fabulous over the
phone—intelligent, sensitive, reasonable with
deadlines. But when we got into the actual
nitty-gritty of the work, I developed the sickening feeling that nothing I produced would be
good enough. I terminated the contract and
returned the $5,000 deposit. I also had to invest
$69.95 of my own precious resources to return
paperwork and research materials—a heck of
a way to start my own business!
Although it was a heartbreaker, I’m glad
I let go of that client. The stress I would have
felt for two months trying to please this person would surely have done me in. Plus, three
days after terminating that contract, another
one came in and things have been lucrative
Here are some hints for determining
whether or not to sever ties with a client before
an uncomfortable situation goes too far.
The client seems ambivalent. You’ve
had your first or second meeting with the
client, and all seems to be going well. The
chemistry feels right—or at least right
enough—and the client has indicated he will
sign the contract you presented.
You’re excited about the project and raring to go. Then several days go by and there
is still no signed contract humming through
your fax machine. You receive a call from the
client saying he has to go out of town for a
few days and will sign it as soon as he returns.
Or you learn that there are other levels of
management who must approve the contract
prior to signing. Worse yet, you stop getting
responses to your e-mails altogether.
Then, out of the blue, your client surfaces
and says he is ready to sign, but the contract
must be revised to include the new start date.
Search your soul and ask, “Do I really want to
work with someone who drags his feet like
that?” Maybe, maybe not.
FROM THE US ARCHIVES
You can’t tell who’s
boss. While setting up the
contract, you dealt with Mr.
Jones. The minute the contract went
into effect, however, Jones got transferred to
the Middle East and you now report to Ms.
Brown, or, worse yet, to Ms. Brown and Mr.
Green. By week three you’d expected to
accomplish certain tasks, but you’re still figuring out who does what. Do you really want to
stay around and let your client’s internal office
politics waste your time?
Your communication styles don’t
mesh. Talk with your client a lot, and not
just about the project. Find out how she functions on a stressful day; monitor how she
The stress I would have felt
for two months trying to
please this person would
surely have done me in.
communicates with you. Does she return
your calls on a timely basis? Is she only an
e-mail type of communicator? Does this fit into
your most productive work style? Although the
project might be very interesting—and the
promise of payment even more alluring—if
you have to struggle to get answers to simple
questions, who needs the aggravation?
The client is over-involved. After you
complete your initial project kickoff meeting,
try to get some kind of “deliverable”—such
as a list of questions or assumptions—to your
client within the first week, if possible. How
does your client react? Is he pleased with
your insights so early into the project and
does he encourage you to continue your
work? Does he sound nervous and suggest
having more meetings to clarify things? Does
he talk to you as if you were an employee
rather than a contractor? If you know you
have a clear understanding of what needs to
be done, yet your client isn’t sold after several
e-mail transmittals or phone calls, it may be
time to walk away and find clients who trust
Once you’ve made a decision to end your
working relationship, be prepared to do one
or all of the following:
• Return all or part of payment received.
• Write a termination letter stating that
you are pulling out of the project and
your client owes you nothing.
• Write a termination letter stating that you
are pulling out of the contract for specific
reasons (i.e., irreconcilable differences)
and that your client owes you x amount.
Then hire a good attorney or mediator.
• Expect to receive no or minimal payment.
• Expect to sleep well at night.
The bottom line is this: You’re the boss,
the master of your own destiny, or at least
your own sanity. If you’ve been in the business world long enough, you know that when
one door closes, another, better one typically
Amy Berger is principal of Berger Technology
Research—a market research and writing firm
serving high-technology and financial-services
clients—and the author of The Twenty Year
Itch: Confessions of a Corporate Warrior
(Motivational Magic Press).