Awkward Customer - how to deal with them

Hi all,

Can I ask for some help with how to deal with a really awkward customer, please?

I have spent 15 months writing a bespoke application for this small business. They have made change after change after change and I have bent over backwards to accommodate them. As for money … this bit kills me …. I have made pennies … I am too embarrassed to give you the figure.

Due to all of the changes, I called a meeting with them and explained I could not continue with the project as I needed to make more money. Now they are being really awkward … this is wrong, that doesn’t work, I want this in place before you go … I am sure you know what I mean.

How do I deal with this business? I wanted a customer that I could use to point people to and say ‘go see what I did for them’. Now I just need them out of my life. I am not trying to be dramatic, but this is making me ill now, I really don’t sleep too well any more.


I think your quotes give you the answer.

You need to fire this customer and move on. Give them a notice, say one week, then stop answering them. Why are you even arguing with them? What are they, your mom?

For future jobs, buy a few books on negotiation, do a few courses on freelancing. Brennan Dunn & @Christopher come to mind- they have good stuff.


Thanks Shantnu. I really want to do that, but I thought I would just try to get other peoples opinions about what they would do / have done when faced with something similar.

Oh boy, I agree… I need to take those courses and reading you mentioned.


People new at running a business tend to be afraid to say no, to be firm, and to be abrupt. Others will take advantage of this.

Let your no be no. You owe the customer nothing. Really. It is absolutely acceptable to say no to a customer.

Use short replies, simply saying, “I’m not available for the foreseeable future”, “No, I can’t do that”, “I don’t know”, etc. They’ll know what you are really saying, and will soon stop pestering you.


Steve, Thanks mate … I really needed to read that. Seriously, if you were within reach right now, I’d buy you a beer.

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What kind of contract you have with them? Anything binding?

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Look at this from the customer point of view. The guy offered them to make an application that will make his business life simpler. The business owner had no prior experience in buying and managing the building of a custom application, so you cannot really blame him for scope creep and delays - it was the job of the consultant to organize the process efficiently, to mutual benefit. And the consultant has failed at that (which is common, everyone did that for their early projects).

But the customer still paid some money! Probably even more than he expected. And now what - money are paid, but where is the deliverable? Where’s the working application?

That is a one crappy situation.


They have a product. They have had it from 4th Jan 2016. And you know what, they utterly rely on the software now and it works well. Their problem is that they want the software expanding and I want to move on. I was willing to carry on, but their comment was ‘you can’t charge too much’ (I hadn’t mentioned any figures). OK, they don’t want to pay a lot, that’s fine. But I don’t have to do it if I don’t believe the ‘deal’ is beneficial to me also.

We have already agreed a list of bug fixes. My problems, agreed. And these fixes, I think should be done for free. But there are now some new ‘these features don’t work and are faults’. These ‘faults’ (their word) are things like reports … not showing what they now need them to (they have been in place for a year or so). The tools are in place for them to create their own reports, or edit the ones I created. Their issue is they don’t know SQL (valid point of theirs) but don’t want to learn it (I don’t think this is a valid point). Am I being unfair ?

I think what really bothers me lately is that they are referring to the application as being ‘theirs’. Maybe just paranoia on my part, but I feel they are trying to stamp some claim to copyright. I have ran this past a solicitor / lawyer (Im in the UK) and I don’t think they can realistically do that.

The answer to you previous question. No there isn’t anything signed with regards to T&C’s, so nothing binding, just implied. I know now there should be, but it was my first ‘paid’ job as an self employed programmer (I accept that is no excuse though). The ‘implied’ part is a worry, because the more I do for them now, the more I ‘imply’ I owe them.

Ouch! That not only hurt, it tastes bad too, I’m not offended by it, you’re right, I did fail.



Erm - that all depends on the contact. If it was work for hire then it would be usual to include an assignment of IP and copyright to them upon payment. Sounds like you’ve not got anything in place about this though?

In the interests of clean break its probably worth letting them have source etc and IP assignment in order that they can get someone else to work on it. Otherwise no wonder they are so keen to keep you chained up.

Once you’ve extracted yourself from all this taken a breather from it for a week or two, do a post-mortem of what you should/could have done differently. Others ^ have given some good points to start learning - being a successful ‘consultant’ is about much more than just coding.

Since day 1 and every iteration of the application, I have claimed all copyright. So they would need to drag me through a court for that. In the UK, my understanding is that without an ‘explicit written’ transfer, then the copyright remains with me. I don’t think you can ‘imply’ giving it away.

I do like your post mortem idea. I’m kinda going through some of that now. But I do still need to focus on reaching that point where I can bring the job to a close.

You’re fair. This kind of things should be spelled out in in-scope/out-of-scope sections of the agreement, but the knowledge of that only comes after the incidents like that.

You should however understand them too – they have a business to run, and learning SQL is extra thing to learn.

Well, in the absence of a written contract it is really hard to tell. In custom development the ownership of the end result and the code is typically transferred to the customer. If the developer wants to retain the source ownership, it should be spelled out and normally pushes the cost down.

Do you confront them re: “theirs”?

Are you planning to sell this application to wide public?

You have the source code, so they cannot easily stop you from re-using it. They do not have an expertise to build the application themselves, either.

If they take the matter to court, it will cost them much - and they are not parting with money easily, it seems.

Oh well!

It wasn’t a personal stab. To find efficient ways that work for you requires to fail a few times.

Just any project for a small business that took 15 months has no chance of being profitable. Next time you’ll recognize where it goes earlier.

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You’re probably right about the legalities of implied copyright transfer (the lawyers will get rich arguing about it) but I just don’t understand what you’re trying to do here?

  • It sounds like you just want out and move on, right?

  • But the customer is using the software “they utterly rely on the software now and it works well” so they won’t want to let you go if they can’t continue to use/adapt/fix it. Look at it from their point of view for a second!

  • So what do you really want? Do you want to keep ownership of the software or do you want out? Do you have any intentions of selling it elsewhere? Do you want to charge them a fee for ownership transfer? Do you think they will pay? Do you think they will get ‘the rage’ at what they will undoubtedly see as being held to ransom.

Yes, I do want to move now. The bad feeling is building by the day (the business and I are both equally guilty of this) and I think it is probably irretrievable now.

That is a good point and I do try to, but this has to work both ways for things to work out. You are right, though, I can see that they feel they are ‘losing’ something.

Yes. I have utterly devoted myself to building this application with the intention of trying to sell it to other businesses in their market. This has never been hidden from them. I know this bothers them because they tell me how the app is ‘too specialized’ now and that their competitors don’t do things they way they do.

No. I do not want to even impy that I want to transfer any ownership at all to them. As you said, see things from their point of view … well Yes, absolutley, they will see any suggestion of selling ownership to them as an attemp to hold them to ransom.

Sorry, meant to add this to my previous post.

I didn’t take things badly. And I totally agree … there is a lot to learn from failure. The only way for me to do that is the post-mortem routine Rhino mentioned earlier.

To show my naivety … I really need to pin down exactly how / what to scope, like the professional I would like to be.

OK so sounds like you need to organise a license/contract for them that will allow them to take, adapt and use what they have (including source code) for internal use only no reselling (suggest its perpetual without future payments) but you keep ownership.

That way you can go your own way without them losing access and its more likely to be a clean break.

The alternative is to play hard ball and walk with the software - but that carries risks of them playing hard back.

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Custom developed applications, if not passed to in-house dev team, require support now and then - and I believe this is what @johnny should do:

  • Freeze the current functionality and sign it off as “delivered”. In paper.
  • Explicitly retain the full ownership; the customer gets a license with clearly spelled out terms.
  • Agree on support rate/plan

Paperwork doesn’t have to be lawyer-written, just clear to read and understand.

This is a more problem for you than for them. You’d have to redo the parts that are too modeled after this customer, and come up with some configuration/plugin system that could satisfy the future customers - while still be able to support the original one.

This part I am not fully agree. This is a small business, right? They do not have an in-house dev team, and so the sources are useless for them.

Of course they can hire someone else to do the changes, but it may cost them more in the end than to CR it to @johnny - who has a build toolchain, testing suites and whatnot ready.

Worse yet, eventually the dust will settle, they will come back to @johnny with some change they want - and the sources that have been mutilated by some offshore coder.

I would offer them the sources as an insurance in case I get hit by a bus, but with an explicit warning that a third-party changes to it may and likely will result in extra costs when eventually a support s requested.

OK, thank you. Each of those points are reasonable. I do want to stay professional about this. With regards to support, they have already made it clear they do not want one. Again, no figures were mentioned, they just see support as costs to them. Shelling out money for something they see as an ‘insurance policy’ is too much. Having said that, I should give them the option.

Don’t misunderstand, I feel their ‘too specialized’ comments are aimed at protecting what they feel is an advantage for them. There is not too much that will need to be changed for other businesses. They are a family business and haven’t worked for competitors, so they wouldn’t know too much about how other businesses worked.

Mmm. Just read that. Yeah, I can see that happening.

Thank you, Rhino. I really need to let this idea rattle round my head for a little while. Right now, in my current frame of mind, it is too much for me. But I came here to illicit opinion and I’m grateful you took the time to reply.

Gimme some time!

Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I do not mean support as a retainer - but a clear notion that if any further change is requested, it should be provided for a reasonable pay, and the rate is X. I.e. to set an expectation.

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