when to fire a client – wait, you can do that?

In today’s economic climate, I’m sure this is a thought that hasn’t crossed a single architect’s mind, but, from time to time, even service providers have to know when to say when. So, let’s talk about when to fire your client.

It is never a pleasant experience to have to sever a relationship with someone, whether that relationship is personal or professional. I think it’s actually a little easier if it’s personal because there’s at least a good chance you’ll actually never have to see that person again. With professional relationships chances are pretty damn good you’ll see them somewhere out in town or at a trade meeting, Rotary, the Elks, whatever. And this can make for awkward social situations to say the least.

Now, just as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so too is the relationship between Architect and Client. Hopefully they’ve sought you out because of your integrity (you’ll take almost any project), your dedication to your work (you’re cheap), and they like your design style (you do what you’re told), which means at the get-go you’ve got a few points in the “win” column. From here things tend to move smoothly, everyone is happy, checks clear and the project moves forward with a signed contract and everything. 🙂

Ah, the contract – one of my favorite things in architectural practice (no sarcasm, I really do love contracts). In the contract, everyone is so happy with each other that we even go so far as to outline and detail our relationship. We describe the architect’s responsibility and deliverables, perhaps even a project schedule (cause those never change, right?). Then we describe the client’s responsibilities and the architects compensation. These are all happy things, nice things, things that allow us to sleep soundly at night not worrying about paying the rent or our employees this month. But there is one section of the typical contract that I like even more:

Severability or Termination of the Contract

This section is typically at the end, after all the happy stuff. It’s usually mentioned in a context like “oh, and this, at the end, yeah that’s just in case I come to hate your guts and think you’re completely incompetent and inept and want to fire you. No biggee.” Most contracts that I see are scribbled on, marked through, revised, and finally signed. But this section at the back is almost always glossed over, and it shouldn’t be.

But why? Because how you start your business relationship is not nearly as important as how you end it. And unfortunately sometimes that relationship needs to be ended before that glorious completion date outlined in the beginning, happy part of the contract. I know, you’re thinking “why in the world would I ever want to fire a client?! I mean, their checks still clear and everything!” But, oh, there are reasons! Say for example you’re working through Design Development and suddenly the client wants to change the entire scope of work, project schedule and construction deadline. Oh, and they won’t even entertain the idea of additional services, let alone altering the contract to reflect the changed scope and deliverables. At some point in those conversations with your client’s secretary you have to decide when enough is enough and exercise your contractual obligation to end the project relationship.

Or, what if in the Schematic Phase of a project the changes and revisions and updates just never end? Every time you sit down with the client there is some new thing that they “just thought of on the way to your office” and “can we get that into the drawings so I can review them one more time?” I imagine no one has ever heard that before right? :-\

In any service profession, there is a point at which the scales tip from being of service  to getting taken for a ride. It’s extremely hard to know when that scale has tipped and no one can tell you (certainly not me, I’m still figuring it all out). You have to learn it, sometimes from hard won experience, but it’s a necessary part of the process in dealing with the business of architecture. So, be sure to a) read your contracts carefully and b) learn to read your clients even more carefully. Above all, always be upfront and honest with your clients and encourage them to be upfront and honest with you, even brutally so. Make sure that expectations, both realistic and extraordinary are put on the table early and talk about them. Outline exactly what you’re willing to provide, what it’s worth and most importantly how the two of you should proceed if the project simply is not worth pursuing any longer. Just because you have to fire a client does not mean that same person won’t have another project for you down the road.

2 thoughts on “when to fire a client – wait, you can do that?

  1. Interesting post, sir! I didn’t know we can do that… It does make sense though. I can understand what you mean by the never ending schematic phase and the sudden want to rush the contract documents. We do have a project like that. It was inactive for over a year and have just moved again early this year. I don’t know what my boss and the client had agreed upon though. Yeah, we are still doing that project.

    How do you fire them nicely/politely though? Or will the possible encounters in the future just be really awkward?

    • Thanks for the comments. I’d like to believe you were being sarcastic about not knowing you could fire a client. But that’s just not the world we live in today. Architects, in my opinion, have become so marginalized that we actually think we HAVE to continue on with clients and projects that perhaps have no end. The lesson I was trying to convey here had more to do with carefully negotiating our contracts than with actually firing a client – though, yes, you can do that.

      Perhaps at first it’s not going to be so pleasant. After all, we’re much more used to, as you put it, having project simply stale mate at the client’s discretion rather than ours. But, in certain circumstances this is an option to us as well, as long as it’s in our contract.

      In my situation, I got to a point where I simply felt as if I were being taken for a ride spending not just hours or days, but weeks on a project that went through so many rounds of “revision” in both plan and model, that finally I had had enough. This article came out of that experience and is also part lesson for me on how to do things differently next time. How to better plan, and how to better negotiate certain situations. All part of the process.


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