overwhelm shutdown

How to Set Boundaries with Troublesome Clients or Say Goodbye

Establishing boundaries and learning how to fire a client gracefully are healthy skills to attain and vital to your brand.

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.

If you are having issues with bad-fit clients, you probably haven't done the vital brand work necessary to create these 3 important lists.

  • Define who is an ideal client for your various products and services (ideal = the ones you would love to clone)
  • A list of core values for your business – what you stand for and embody
  • A list of your anti-core values – what you will no longer put up with from a client, prospect or employee

If you haven't done this work, 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 when they have to manage the projects of disrespectful and demanding clients with no cover from their boss.

Stress rises and everyone feels it… you feel it, your family feels it, your best clients also feel it, and your bottom line feels it.

Uplevel them or dump troublesome clients?

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. So, it is worth the time to see if the relationship can be fixed with a few boundaries.

Boundaries come in many forms and should not be seen as harsh. On the contrary, they allow you to remain loving and serve the client well. Always try examining if boundaries or a difficult discussion will solve the problem before resulting in saying good-bye.

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. And by move on, I mean let them go find another firm to abuse because you value your team and will not put up with this client's shit any longer, no matter how much their billings are worth.

Ok, that seems crazy scary, but trust me, the burden of putting up with bad-fit clients weighs more than you could ever imagine. And you don't realize it until they are gone how much lighter everyone feels. Yes, your bank account may also be a bit lighter, but now you can fill that space with an ideal client with whom your team will be excited to work with.

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.

How to fire a client - red flags

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 be 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 and have realistic demands

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 productivity

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, Mom. 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. They drain your energy

No matter what you do, there's a level of creativity and energy 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. And not only will this wrong fit client affect you, but they will also, through you, affect your team, your family, and ultimately your give-a-damn to do the job. Is this one client really worth draining everything you have to offer everyone in your life?

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. That is a big deal, but more importantly, we can rob ourselves of the thing that keeps us going, our give-a-damn. Your give-a-damn is a terrible thing to lose. I know, I've been there.

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.

A rough client situation 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.

Here are a few more red flags:

  • No support for projects – they keep you running in circles with their missed deadlines
  • Taking the lead and requiring you to work within their process
  • Gaslighting – “I don't know what you are talking about, that didn't happen”
  • Poor anger management skills
  • Continual late payments
  • You constantly have to defend your fees because they don't value what you do
  • Overall disrespect

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)

  • Never blame or offend the client. They aren't bad, it's just that you are both not a fit to work together. They will do great work with someone else, just not you. And remember, we live in a small world.
  • Do not fire them without ending their project first. Or at least, without identifying the steps to hand it over to whoever is going to be working with the client next.
  • Don't get into any discussions about your decision. Make it final. Don't let the client sway you their way.
  • It's best not to fire them over email. You might send the initial message above via email. But meet with them face-to-face or have a phone call. Even if only to discuss their project's completion, account hand-over, etc.
  • Do suggest a replacement if you know of another firm that would be a better fit. This is good karma.
  • Here are a few more tips from the Hartford SBA on how to fire a client

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.

A good thought exercise for service-based businesses is to think of your 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? (psst, the answer is with total brand alignment)

The first step to aligning your brand is figuring out who you are built to serve and it isn't everyone.

Do the work, and 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 you require a client possess in order for you and your team to do your best work.

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, especially 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.

Think about what would happen if you didn't kick Mr. Anyhoo out? Well, your team would be demoralized and would eventually quit. The good clients wouldn't want to stay at your hotel any more because the service has gone downhill. With reduced bookings, you need to reduce prices or run sales, and you end up attracting more Mr. Anyhoos. You put up with them because you need the cash. And before you know it you are a commodity hotel with crappy service and everyone is unhappy. All because you didn't have the backbone to say no to an unruly patron.

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 energy, creativity, and give­-a-­damn are all precious things and so are 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?

Who the Hell Are You and Why Should Anyone Care?

You have good products and services… so does everyone else.

You’ve been in the industry for a long time… so have many others.

You have a great team… yep, so do most firms.

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

Tracy and her team help firms in and around the B2B building trades look and sound credible online and off.

She has been in the industry since the early '90s and is tired of seeing fantastic firms struggle, blend in, and get bypassed by prospects who judge them solely on the outdated information found online.

Branding & Beyond's mission is to solve real business problems and build the brand foundation clients need to get noticed and hired.

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