Have You Ever Fired A Client?

Production is more than just shooting or post production, it’s also about the relationships you have with your clients. BTS on a shoot at a popular department store for a charity client.

Instead of writing another blog entry about technology, it felt like this entry was a good time to talk about the ugly truth of client relations in the era of the pandemic in 2021. It’s a touchy topic to talk about when many in our business are struggling to stay afloat, but it feels like the time is ripe to talk about the hardcore business side of being a production company owner, freelancer or crew person.

I know, I know, “I’m an artist.” “I’m not a good business person, that’s why I’m in production instead of corporate management.” “All of my clients are great, why would I ever need to fire them?” I’ve often had the same conversations in my own head when thinking about my client relationships. In this time of pandemic restrictions on production and many of us barely making ends meet or worse yet, NOT making ends meet, is it really the best time to talk about firing clients? It’s my opinion that while work might be slower since the pandemic, it’s a good time to evaluate who you work for and with and why.

Whether you are the crew or you hire and run the crew, maintaining a healthy working relationship with your clients benefits everyone you work with.

In writing this blog, I’m not going to name names or identify anyone, whether it’s me, a colleague or strangers I’ve met and worked with in production. I’m not going to call out any clients by name either, so this will become what’s hopefully a series of observations based upon my and other’s collective experience with clients during our careers. Hopefully, you’ll be able to identify with at least some elements I’ll present in these scenarios and then at the end, I’d like to discuss potential actions you, your colleagues and co-workers can take and whether or not I’d consider personally “firing” such a client.

As contractors and employees, “firing” a client often involves turning down working with them again for various reasons. You can have a heart-to-heart with the client about your decision or you can just decide that when they call to work with you again, you “may be too busy to take on another project.” How you deal with them at that point is up to you.

Scenario 1 – The Cheapskate

You made the mistake years ago of working with this client for a very low price. When you look at your rates today and compare them to the rate you charged this client years ago, you realize that you may have severely undervalued your work and services in the past and possibly your gear provided as well. You’ve worked on and off with this client for years and they like you and your work. Every time you bid on a new project though, whether it’s a bid on an overall production or just your day rate, the client balks at any increase in price.

Fire this client or keep working for them at the low rate you set with them years ago?  

Scenario 2 – The Abuser

This is a more recent client you received from a word-of-mouth recommendation from another satisfied client. This client doesn’t balk at your rate you bill them. This client has high expectations and demands though and when things get hectic on projects, they generally become an unpleasant person to work with. They lose their temper in the heat of the moment and have said mean or unpleasant things to you and/or your crew that they’ve later apologized for. The work turns out great, they pay on time and pay the rate you ask, they’re just a difficult client to deal with for you and your crew. This client has low emotional intelligence and it handicaps their business (and likely their personal) relationships with those around them.

Fire this client or keep working for them and continue to subject yourself and/or your crew to a not very nice person who has stepped over the line before?

This is a BTS still from a shoot we did at a local TV station where we had to do some serious systems integration to make our gear integrate with an existing station’s broadcast output workflow.

Scenario 3 – The Flat Rater, “You’re The Expert, Make It Happen.”

This client has worked with you for a number of years. They’re known in their world for being an innovator and visionary. Yet when it comes down to it, they’re not willing to pay for the resources needed to execute their “visionary strategy.” This client puts you in difficult spots with technology and execution, expecting you to fulfill their vision while they still try to cheap out by refusing to pay for the necessary crew positions, equipment, pre-production and rehearsal time necessary to ensure success. They fly by the seat of their pants and expect you to do the same, but if their project has challenges due to their seat-of-the-pants attitude, they blame you for the failure.

Fire this client or keep working for them and continue to try to convince them to increase their budgets and resources to match their creative vision?

Whether in the TV control room or outside on location, you should seek to build and maintain good, collaborative working relationships with your clients.

Scenario 4 – “You’re An Hourly Worker, Like a Burger Flipper, Right?”

You’ve probably encountered this client many times. They want to book you for an hour. “Because it should only take you an hour or two to shoot a 30-minute interview, right?” In this client’s mind, they’re either cheap or have their own cheap clients who think that production services providers are akin to the workers at the local fast-food outlet, never mind that production takes years of experience and skill to execute well with expensive, specialized gear that rapidly depreciates.

Would you fire this client or shoot a 30-minute on-camera interview for $75, which is 1/10th of your $750 for 10-hour day rate, and throw in your expensive production gear for free because “work has been slow due to the pandemic”? 

Background and Mindset

The upside of the democratization of video production is that tools that once cost a fortune are now inexpensive and more capable than the gear of yesteryear was. When I started in production, a 35mm film camera package that we rented and shot with often cost a quarter of a million dollars or more, a professional video camera and lens was often more than $100,000 and an AVID nonlinear editing system was often $150,000. Today, we can buy cameras that have far more capability, better features and a much better 6K or 8K image for as little as $2,000. If you have a decent computer, DaVinci Resolve 16.1 has MUCH more capable editing features and capacity than the $150,000 AVID Media Composer user could have only dreamed of back then. 

The downside is, because of the very low cost of entry to the tools that most production professionals use, the cost of professional crew with the knowledge, skills and innovation to create quality media production has largely become commoditized. In any town or city in America, with some hunting, you can inevitably find someone on Craigslist who’s willing to offer the world to a prospective client for almost free. We all know that the newbie on Craigslist likely won’t be very skilled because if they were, they wouldn’t be on Craigslist offering “video production services” for $100. Clients with experience know that when it comes to production, “you get what you pay for,” but many clients who aren’t experienced with media production often fall for hiring crew with a “governmental request for proposal” mindset where the lowest qualified bidder (Yeah, I’ve got a camera and some lights) gets the job regardless of experience, reel or reputation.

This is a BTS shot of a shoot we did for a client that had extensive live theater experience. The client directed the show and the client’s team was all excellent to work with. This is what we strive for—good creative partnership.

The Answers To The Scenarios

I don’t know if there are any right or wrong answers to the scenarios I outlined above. It’s going to vary with your experience, financial situation, gear that you own, your reel and body of work, the reputation and/or awards that you have, your education, your client testimonials and probably dozens of other factors. I have faced all of the scenarios listed above. Objectively, I can say that I’m experienced in production, I’ve been in it for a long time, clients tell me that I’m great to work with and bring a lot of added value to the table. I’m a good, active listener and I truly always have our client’s needs and wants front of mind.  

I don’t think it will spoil the outcome of your reaction to the above scenarios for me to tell you that in each instance I wrote about above, I “fired” the client and won’t work with them again. I’ve fired clients for many other reasons too, but never to be mean or vindictive or something as petty as to mend hurt feelings. The most common reason I feel you should fire clients is that working with them simply isn’t a good fit. Their expectations of you and your expectations of how they conduct themselves and their business with you are at opposite ends. Not to say that clients who ask or even demand the items I wrote about in the scenarios are “wrong,” although sometimes they are. It’s usually most likely that you and the client are just in different spaces, seeking different results.

A shoot at a baseball stadium. Small crew, small client team. Great working partnership. It’s what we all should be working toward.

Do What’s Best For You And Your Clients

I like working with clients who view me, my colleagues and the company as collaborators. All of my best professional experiences have been when the client team and my team, even if it’s only me or at times when it’s a decent-sized group of people, work together toward the same end result. We may not always agree about the method, budget, scope and obligations, but in the end, we work those issues out with mutual respect to arrive at success for the client and win for our collaboration. I suggest that if you form a similar view with your clients, the bottom feeders, exploiters and uninformed will quickly see that you don’t offer what they’re looking for, which is often to take advantage of you, but even more often, it’s because they’re uninformed and have not researched how difficult and specialized video and digital cinema production is to execute at a high level. What’s your take on firing clients?