overwhelm shutdown

Know when it’s time to tell a troublesome client goodbye

Every opportunity comes with a cost. Some opportunities cost too damned much by taking an unacceptable toll on your staff morale and your profit margin.

Some people in this world you are meant to serve, and others, not so much. It doesn’t make either of you bad. They will do great work with someone, just not you. And that is ok.

Do you know what your ideal client looks like? Do you have that persona mapped out? Have you written down what your firm is for and against? What is acceptable and what is not? Have you identified your company's core values? If not, it is really easy for ill-fitting clients to find their way into your corporate house to wreak havoc.

One bad-fit client can damage your culture. A series of bad-fit clients can make your team feel unprotected – they have to manage the projects of disrespectful and demanding clients. Stress rises and everyone feels it… your best clients also feel it, your family feels it and your bottom line feels it.

A difficult personality here and there is common and you should already have processes in place to manage them (we are talking about internally and externally). Often they can turn out to be the best clients or employees when they feel heard.

Sometimes there is a disconnect so severe with key personnel that it is best for us both to acknowledge the wrong fit as early as possible and move on.

I acknowledge that in many cases you can’t let go of a client due to contractual obligations and you just have to gut it up and get ‘er done. When you are in this situation, make note of the red flags you ignored and take great care to protect your team as much as possible. Stay professional. Creating and maintaining boundaries is key.

Here are some red flags to look out for that it is time to fire a client:

1. You dread dealing with them

If you avoid their calls, hate seeing their name pop up in your inbox, you know there's a problem. I'm not saying you have to best friends with every customer you have, but if just hearing their name is enough to give you a migraine, it's time for them to go.

You might not even have an obviously sour reaction to them. Do you find yourself fidgety and anxious before they arrive? Do you get a tight feeling in your stomach when you see their name on your phone? Are you relieved to see the back of them? It might be time to face up to the fact you're not a good business match – and that's ok!

2. They’re abusive

Abusive behavior isn't acceptable on any level. If a client verbally attacks you, withholds payments until they get their way, makes unreasonable demands or has a general lack of respect for you and your team, it's time to wave bye-bye.

If you wouldn't put up with that behavior from a spouse, a friend or a family member, why should you put up with it from a client? Abuse is abuse and it's never ok. You, your staff and your other clients deserve better.

3. They ruin your whole day

They're booked into a meeting. You spend all morning mentally preparing yourself. You're irritated and anxious. The meeting goes the same way they all do. Afterward, you find your mind drifting over everything you discussed, analyzing every sentence they said. Were they being too aggressive and trying to lead the meeting? Were you too accommodating? Can your team fulfill the work on time? Should you have made a stand against their bad attitude or timeline demands?

If you notice your entire day is revolved around one client, your mood is significantly worse because of their visit or your friends and family comment on your change in behavior because of You Know Who – something needs to change.

My turning point with one such client, let’s call him John, came from a passing comment from my 8-year-old son. He asked if he could fire my client. I was so taken back – what did he mean? His answer?

‘I can tell when you are working on his stuff. You are grumpy, sad and tired. You aren’t your normal awesome you and I don’t like this. Where is your phone? Let me fire him.’

4. You need a nap after dealing with them

No matter what you do, there's a level of creativity involved in your success. If you're feeling drained after working with one client, your creativity and enthusiasm will be depleted for all your clients. Is this one client really worth draining everything I have to offer other clients?

When we allow problem clients to eat away at our time, energy and creative juices, we rob our other clients of our best efforts and best work.

5. They make you second guess yourself and question your abilities

Problem clients are never happy. You could give them everything they want, for free, and they'd still find problems and complain. When your hard work is met with constant criticism and unreasonable demands, your confidence in your work and your company's service can take a hit.

Ask yourself if you're delivering your best. Be honest! If your answer is yes, and the client still isn't happy, it may be time to end your time working together.

You are not meant to serve everyone. Not everyone has to like you. Turning away the project can feel like financial suicide, but the footprint of a bad client is much bigger than you can imagine. It erodes moral, creative energy, and general give-a-damn for the work. Your best clients will feel it and so will your family. Some opportunities are not worth the cost.

Rough client situations can be a great opportunity to bond and cement your relationship. Lead with empathy, and know how to identify a situational issue from a wrong fit that has to go to preserve your culture and brand integrity.

So, how do you fire a bad client?

As with most things in life, it's best to keep it as simple as possible.

Refer to your contract to ensure you are adhering to your exit clause.

Ethically, you don’t want to leave anyone high-and-dry, so find a logical point in the project to stop, document and package it all up to provide the client with what they need to find another firm. Offer to refer them to another vendor, if you have one.

Stay professional, there's no need to get personal and burn bridges. Sometimes the best (and easiest) way to end a working relationship is with a clear, concise email. That way, the conversation is in writing, emotions aren't involved, and things won't get heated (which can happen in person!). But do realize when the relationship needs to be discussed over the phone, then follow up with an “as discussed” email.

Here's a fill-in-the-blanks example for you:

Dear (name of the pain in the ass client),

Thank you so much for all of your support and business over the last few weeks/months/years (delete as appropriate).

We've recently completed a review of our workload and have come to realize that we're probably not the best match for your needs at this time. While it's been a pleasure to work with you, please consider this formal notice that our relationship will end on X/Y/Z date.

It's been a pleasure to do business with you, and we wish you the very best in all of your endeavors.


(A much happier you)

Feel better? You will once they're gone!

But how do you make sure you don't end up stuck in the same situation again? You need to create a client filtration system. Don't accept someone as a customer just because they have a pulse and a checkbook.

I treat my business as if it were an exclusive boutique hotel.

All of the suites share walls. Each client is nicely tucked into the fully furnished, comfortable, happy boxes. Coexisting nicely. They greet each other in the hallway on the way to the gym. They hold the elevator for you and say lovely things to your kids about their manners. They may have bad days but overall they are great to work with and be around. They are always kind to the waitstaff.

All is well and good until the Mr. Anyhoos of the world check in and disrupt everything.

Better yet, how do you stop them from making a reservation in the first place?

Install a Red Velvet Rope Policy to filter in the ideal and filter out the not-so-ideal.

This Red Velvet Rope Policy is a list of behaviors that will not be tolerated and a list of qualities from a client that you work best with.

What behavior are you willing to tolerate from your hotel guests:

  • Being rude, loud, and disturbing other guests?
  • Their kids yelling and running in the hallways after 10 pm?
  • Constantly calling the front desk complaining?
  • Demanding services for free?
  • Disrespecting your staff?
  • Ordering room service and trying to negotiate the cost of the hamburger?
  • Reserving the room for 2 and sneaking in 6 more people?
  • Refusing to pay for services or skipping out on their bill?

In this context, it is obvious that these disruptive guests need to be evicted. You must protect your other guests and your employees from being treated poorly. They need to feel taken care of, not ignored as you put up with obnoxious customers.

We need to embrace the fact that we are NOT here to serve everyone.

You do NOT need to please everyone or solve every problem just because you have the skill set to do so.

You have my permission to trust your gut and say goodbye to the clients like Mr. Anyhoo forever. You have a lot of ideal clients out there waiting for you to do awesome work with them.

And don’t look back.

Because your Give­-A-­Damn is a precious thing and so is your culture and brand.

Now, go make a list of clients you need to dump or find a way to uplevel them to an ideal customer with a few boundaries!

Contact us if you need help creating your brand foundation and your Red Velvet Rope Policy?

Tracy O’Shaughnessy Founder / Lead Brand Strategist of Branding & Beyond

Tracy and her team help B2B firms in the construction industry and professional services look and sound credible online and off.

She has been in the industry since the early '90s and is tired of great companies being treated as commodities and competing on price because they don't look and sound as credible as they really are.

You can find Tracy on Linkedin and here on this blog.