How to Know When It’s Time to Fire a Client

Rachel Strella  -  Nov 24, 2013  -  , , ,  -  20 Comments

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I debated whether or not to write this blog. My husband, and in-house PR expert, heard how to fire a clientthe title and feared I would air my dirty laundry. I assured him that’s not the case. Truthfully, the reason I chose this topic is not to call out anyone or to express residual anger. In fact, some of the points I make here don’t apply to my personal experiences.

The reason I am writing this blog is to help other service providers who sometimes struggle with difficult customers.  Every day I interact with a variety of service professionals – friends and colleagues –and I’ve noticed that some of them pin their hopes on the betterment of a fractured working relationship with clients when the reality is that it’s probably better that they cut the cord. And the longer they wait, the more resentful they become.

Why do they stay?

You name it. Horrible economic times, self-confidence issues, difficulty setting boundaries, fear of backlash and unconditional loyalty.  If I can offer any insight from my own struggles with some of the aforementioned issues as well as what I see and hear from colleagues, this blog is it. Here’s when ‘it’s time!’

Abuse. This is easy to spot, but not always easy to sever. Abusers know how to keep their victims from retaliating. This is a delicate issue because it’s often very psychological. Just to be clear: there is NO room for abuse in any relationship – especially a professional one.  Abuse includes bullying behavior, shouting or degrading, manipulation, or a refusal to meet half way. If it’s their way or the highway – I’ll take the highway, thanks.

Reluctance to Change.  Have you ever proposed solutions for clients – for what seems like the tenth time – but they are hesitant to change, so they just keep doing the same thing and hoping for different results? That’s insanity! And it’s an exhaustive rat wheel and one that can lead to more stress than it’s worth.

Habitually Late or Default Payments.  There are times when clients pay late – stuff happens! Personally, I am OK with this as long as they communicate it and it doesn’t become a habit. But, continually late-paying clients raise a red flag. And there should be no reason clients are not paying for services rendered.  If they can’t afford your services, they need to be honest about it. It’s a matter of respect.  

The “PITA Client.”  If you’re spending more time answering countless emails, defending already formalized plans, deflecting unnecessary drama or fixing what’s not broken than accomplishing what you set out to do, then you might have a Pain In The A** (PITA) client. These are the clients who think they are the only client you have and they demand your 24-7 attention.  This is another red flag because these folks can ultimately deplete your time on trivial matters that do not bring them any closer to their goals.

Many times, we can feel it in our gut and we know when something isn’t right. Sometimes we can communicate these concerns and come to a resolution.  Other times, we need to contemplate cashing out.  If you’re scared, consider what my friend Jennifer says, “Bad clients are toxic. We exert a lot of energy into pleasing them and sometimes neglect the good customers.”

Firing a client is never easy. The gratifying part is when you know that you’ve given an honest effort – and put your best foot forward despite the relationship imbalance.  You ultimately decide to let them go and at the end, you thrive because you no longer have that liability.

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20 Comments to How to Know When It’s Time to Fire a Client

  1. Debra Ellis
    November 24, 2013 8:56 pm

    Hi Rachel,

    This is an excellent post. Thank you for including my post in it. The first time I fired a client was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. After it was over, everything improved. I had more time to work with people that shared a mutual respect with me and my team. Your post will hopefully give people dealing with unreasonable clients the courage to make a change.

    • Rachel Strella
      November 24, 2013 9:05 pm

      Hi Debra,

      I’m honored that you took the time to respond. Words of wisdom: “courage to make a change.” Indeed!!

      Thank you so much!
      Rachel

  2. Jennifer Grigg
    November 24, 2013 9:19 pm

    Rachel this was timely to read as I had to put everything in motion to fire my first client. It was an experience I will remember. Thank you for all your help!

  3. Shawn
    November 25, 2013 7:28 am

    I wish I had read this a couple of months ago. I had a client that I could never please. This was difficult because all my other clients seemed to love me and we had great relationships. The stress of dealing with her was so high that I finally worked up the nerve to tell her that I just didn’t think we where a good fit. Now that we don’t work together she is very supportive of anything she reads or sees on social media & my blog.

    • Rachel Strella
      November 25, 2013 8:45 am

      That’s usually how it goes, Shawn. I think there are many business lessons we learn the first few years – and this is a big one. Glad you were able to overcome.

  4. David Wang
    November 25, 2013 8:10 am

    Useful guide Rachel. I think I’ve fired two clients ever – the last one was because she was the PITA client, thank goodness I’ve not had to deal with any abusive clients.

    Not sure if you’re already planning a follow up post, but this was a great guide on doing the deed:

    http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2013/02/how-to-fire-a-client/

    • Rachel Strella
      November 25, 2013 8:47 am

      Hi David,

      I’ve dealt with most of those types at some time or another – and I find it gets easier to handle as time goes on. Thank you for the resource! This is a great guide!

      I appreciate that you stopped by the blog today! Nice to ‘meet’ you!

      Rachel

  5. John Webster
    November 25, 2013 8:32 am

    You are so right about waiting making it harder. Being the “nice” or “patient” person does NOT pay dividends. When the relationship eventually ends, the client never remembers ones patience.

    Rachel, I think this will help many solopreneurs and consultants.

    Well done!

  6. Kristin Davin
    November 25, 2013 5:58 pm

    To use your words, “Firing a client is never easy. The gratifying part is when you know that you’ve given an honest effort – and put your best foot forward despite the relationship imbalance”. I have fired a few patients over the years and have been fired. As a psychologist, I have learned how to come to terms with both situations. I now recognize more easily when I am doing all the “heavy lifting”. However, I find my field is especially challenging in this regard because we are trained to keep working hard, looking for any amount of change, and hoping that, over time, the tide will change. But I became wiser and learned that like my patients, I too have limitations. When you are able to end this relationship in a manner that resonates with you, you experience great freedom. Great blog!

    • Rachel Strella
      November 25, 2013 7:17 pm

      I am sure you practice this a lot in psychology, Kristin: You can’t help those who don’t want to be helped! It’s true of clients, customers, patients, friends, family, etc. There are times when you give much more than the other party – and when you’ve exhausted yourself – is when you know it’s over.

  7. Daniel Simmons
    November 25, 2013 7:11 pm

    Wow, just dealing with a long term client who at one time or another has violated all four reasons! Great article!

  8. Pingback: Best Blogs 29 Nov 2013 | ChristopherinHR

  9. Victorino Abrugar
    December 3, 2013 5:48 am

    These are good tips to know when to fire a client. I believe that firing an abusive client is not only our way to protect our business, but also our way to protect our good clients, and future clients.

  10. Midge Hand
    December 5, 2013 12:25 am

    Great post and really good advice Rachel – I have a PITA client and a reluctant to change one. After some honest straight talk from me the PITA turned around (we hope it will last)… and the reluctant to change one… quote them the definition of insanity ” doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”, Get rid of them is my advice…and concentrate on the ones that value what you do so you can work together to get the best results. Sometimes you have to be gutsy and lead with confidence. Trust you gut instincts they are usually always right.

    • Rachel Strella
      December 5, 2013 8:58 am

      Great insight, Midge. The gut check is worth it’s weight in gold. So many times I ignored it – and every time, I should have listened!

  11. Marshall Ponzi
    January 31, 2014 12:07 pm

    Rachel –

    Great points! Just saw this link via Twitter, so I’m late to the conversation. You’ve certainly hit on all the major characteristics of dysfunctional client relationships.

    Whenever I’ve experienced these (too many times), my exit decision boils down to one key question: Is there a lack of mutual respect? If yes, I try my best to move on diplomatically. In those cases, it’s probably best for both parties.

    Also, I’m learning the best time to fire a bad client is right before they hire you.

    Your points are great evaluating whether a potential relationship will be a good [mutual] fit. Sometimes the prospect of a new client, makes it easy to look the other way when we should be most discerning. Especially hard for new businesses that are eager to grow and establish themselves.

    Glad I found this article. (The power of Twitter!)

    • Rachel Strella
      February 4, 2014 8:32 am

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Marshall. Just like any relationship, client relationships evolve. Sometimes you no longer serve their needs and sometimes there is a lack of respect. I find, overall, it just wasn’t meant to be. And that’s not always easy to know right away. But, most times, I get that twinge in my gut. That’s my reality check to run the other way!

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