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Bad clients and when to fire them

“What are you, stupid? I just explained that to you.” No, that’s not a line from a novel about a bad boyfriend, but a real comment from a former client. He was replying to me when I respectfully questioned his reasoning on a marketing message he was using in his small business branding.

Admittedly, this is an extreme example of bad behavior, but every small business has faced a problem client at one time or another. These challenging customers can drain your energy, suck up your time and even sap your enthusiasm for running your small business.

It really comes down to the classic 80/20 rule: Twenty percent of your clients will cause you eighty percent of the grief in your business. Smart small business owners know how to identify trouble clients straight away, head off problems early on and, when necessary, cut their losses.

Here are just three types of bad clients a small business may want to send packing:

Constant Complainer: These are clients for whom you move heaven and earth, and they still aren’t happy. You deliver on budget, on time and what you promised, but they always seem to find something wrong. Worse yet, they never acknowledge you for what you have produced or the professional way in which you provide it. If this sounds familiar, there may be a gap between what you can deliver and their expectations.

Begin by sitting down and having a dialogue about what their exact expectations are and where they don’t feel you are living up to them. If in the course of the conversation you discover that their expectations are unrealistic, or something you can’t deliver on, be straight. Once you know the criteria they are measuring you against, perform to it.

If you do meet their expectations, and they are still unsatisfied — cut your losses and let them go. Try saying: We’ve worked together for a while now and you still seem to be dissatisfied with the job I’m doing for you. I’ve tried my best to meet your expectations, but at this point, I think maybe we are not a good match and you might be happier working with someone else.

Cheapskate: Have you noticed that while some clients settle on a fair rate with you and then move on to the business of working together, others constantly bring up your pricing and question each charge, no matter how small?

It’s one thing to negotiate a discounted rate for a client who brings in big business, but it’s another to be badgered to death on price.

In my experience consulting with small businesses, it’s often the case that the clients that pay the lowest rate are the ones who are the biggest pain and the least loyal. If you’re in a constant battle over cash, don’t over-explain or argue your position, just simply and politely tell the person, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do what you want for that price.”

A variation on this type is the Late Payer. All clients may from time to time be slow in paying, but customers who repeatedly pay late, promise to send you a cheque by a certain time and never pay up — are not worth keeping. You’re a professional and have the right to expect to get paid for the work you do.

My Way Or The Highway: Nothing is more frustrating than being hired to help your client achieve their objectives and having your well-meaning and professional advice ignored time and time again. Clients who insist on doing things their way, don’t take your suggestions to heart, argue with you at every turn and then complain when they don’t get the results, are bad clients. Try saying: “I’m feeling frustrated that you don’t seem to take the professional advice you are paying me to give you to heart, and I think it might be better for you to hire someone whose opinion and expertise you feel more comfortable with.”

No small business will be without challenging clients, but it’s important to separate the occasional misunderstandings and mis-steps. While it’s never fun to fire a client, holding on to bad ones can carry a huge opportunity cost. The emotional, physical and mental drain can prevent you from having the kind of small business you set out to establish.

The next time you see a client’s name pop up on your smartphone or email inbox and you find yourself thinking, “Uh oh, what’s wrong now?” it might be time to tell the truth and take the risk to get rid of them. Who knows, you might get back enough of your time and energy to create some great new professional relationships.

Have you fired a bad client recently? How did it go?

Karen Leland is a freelance journalist, best-selling author and president of Sterling Marketing Group, where she helps businesses negotiate the wired world of today’s media landscape — social and otherwise.

 

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22 comments

Blair Hughson
27 July 2011 #

Wish I’d read this 2 years ago! I’ve come across all of these clients. Great advice.

Jo Sutton
27 July 2011 #

Very well described. As a client it is also beneficial to understand the corollory of your points. i.e. you are a good client then you get better service from your suppliers. I’m looking forward to having a portfolio with no bad clients with XLEDGER in the UK in the next few years!

Karen Leland
28 July 2011 #

Blair;

In the 25 plus years I’ve been a business consultant, I’ve never, ever had a client say to me “you know I fired that client too soon.” When it becomes obvious that someone is not a good match, it’s best to cut the cord and get your energy and time back.

Karen Leland
28 July 2011 #

Jo;

I really appreciate what you said about the other side. It’s really true in my experience that customers benefit when they are better clients. It’s that old adage that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Jerry
28 July 2011 #

Totally agree, but should we give a last chance to the client, listen to them for the last time before the decision. Sometime we could change the way we talk to our client to make things happen. (of cause, not 100% working, but worth a try) I used to tell my client what to do, but not how to do it, because, to me, it is such a simple task.

For example, create a new business account, easy, right? After talked to my client to find out the reason why they failed to do so after two month. the reason, simple, too many questions they don’t know how to answer the banker, like, what type of the account, do they need credit/debit card, under what name (under the trust or the trustee), need any link to the current business loan account, then home loan account, after couple of round between me and bank, they just never bother again…

Lucky I did talk to him before I fire him…

Bruce Campbell
28 July 2011 #

I fired three clients recently. At the same time, I went for price increases with my major clients. I came out ahead financially for less time commitment.

Karen Leland
29 July 2011 #

Bruce;

It’s also been my experience that when you let go of the bad clients, especially the lower paying ones, it’s often the next step to realize that rates overall may have been a bit low. Setting a fair rate of pay and then holding to it, is better for all involved.

Karen Leland
29 July 2011 #

Jerry;

I loved what you said about giving the client a chance. Yes, it’s really important to begin a dialog with a difficult client about why they are having a problem with you, and why you are struggling in working with them. I have had clients where after this discussion we were both able to make adjustments and go onto a very happy relationship.

It’s the folks that no matter how much you talk, things stay the same, that need to be cut loose – in my humble opinion :-)

Jerry Zhao
29 July 2011 #

Agree Karen! Just like cancer, cut it early. :)

Simon Garlick
30 July 2011 #

Karen – this article came at a perfect time. Really insightful. Thanks!

TV Eye
31 July 2011 #

Ewwww, I had a client who made me go through their bio on their website and change tiny little things like commas and other assorted grammar ever week. It got really annoying. Instead of emailing me a copy of the new bio, I’d get calls or emails saying “on paragraph 6 on the 4th line can you add a exclamation mark after the word ‘is’ ” then next week it would be ” can we take the exclamation mark out, i don’t like it now”

It seemed like really pointless ego, nit picking work.
I understand updates and good grammar are needed on the web but this was ridiculous and time wasting

Jose Guerva
31 July 2011 #

I am a web designer in Brazil, and If I followed this advice I wouldn’t have any clients. :)
All my clients are like this and much worse. :(
If you live in a country where you have the luxury of passing up clients you don’t like, consider yourselves lucky.

Chuck
31 July 2011 #

In defense of the client, there’s someone for everyone. Sometimes the client is simply a bad fit and would be better served with another agency.

Charlene R.
31 July 2011 #

I tend to let my guard down on referrals. My biggest divas and collection concerns have been the referrals. But I actually think I should be more diligent on referrals and really be aware of red flags (and a red flag can be as simple as one “uh-oh” comment) — the referrals were from people I trusted and knew in “high places” but that recommendation isn’t in anyway a pre-screening process, the referrer just knows what you do and that someone else they know is looking for help and they want to help create a win/win situation for the people they know and like — that’s it!

Deb Kotlarz
31 July 2011 #

If you are going to fire your clients, you need to be strong, and recognize that they are preventing you from being successful; they are preventing you from loving what you do every day!

Don’t be surprised if the clients suspect they’re about to be dropped and start to promise the world to you, all wrapped up with a bow. They’ll tell you that they’re on the cusp of something magnanimous, which is sure to deliver X amount of money into your pocket… “If you’ll just keep working with me”

The only bad clients I’ve been willing to work with are those who will deliver to me some great examples for my portfolio. Otherwise I kick them to the curb as soon as they start trying to ‘sell me’ their project.

Karen Leland
1 August 2011 #

TV Eye, I’m laughing out loud about your description. Yes, we have all had clients who are nit picky. For myself I try and distinguish between clients who are a bit finicky and those who are truly not a good match. If the client is great overall, I allow for their quirks, just as I hope they will allow for mine.

Karen Leland
1 August 2011 #

I really loved what Jerry said about giving clients a chance. Nothing in what I wrote is in anyway meant to convey that we should just hair trigger get rid of customers. I think truly bad clients (meaning those for whom their is not a good fit) show themselves over time and with consistent problems. It’s always worth the investment to take the time to talk things through and see if they can be resolved.

Karen Leland
1 August 2011 #

Jose,

Yes if we have that luxury we are lucky. But one thing I might suggest if I may. I often have my clients sit down and create their ideal client profile as one way to begin to screen for and create such clients. If you have not done this, you may want to.

Karen Leland
1 August 2011 #

Deb,

Again, I’m laughing out loud at this one. Be strong is the motto. However, every once in a while I have one who ‘gets it’ and realizes that what we have is a partnership and we both have to do our share for it to work.

Karen Leland
1 August 2011 #

Charlene;

That is such a great point about the red flags. Often the trouble starts early and we just don’t want to pay attention to that little ugg in our stomach that says oh uh this person may be a problem. Over twenty-five plus years of management and marketing consulting, I have learned to focus on the red flags right from the beginning. As a therapist I know once said “all the information is there on the first phone call if only we pay attention.” And as Oprah once quoted Dr. Maya Angelou as saying ” People show you who they are early on, believe them sooner.” Words to live by!

English Bloke
1 August 2011 #

IMO you have to weigh the amount of energy you’re spending managing (stressing over) these issues and determine if it’s worth it. Most of the time it isn’t … on any level. Even if they’re not slow or low payers, if you compute the amount of time you spend on high maintenance clients, you could likely be working for free.

Brody Semchuck
5 August 2011 #

Nice post Karen – now all we need is the converse, “when should you fight to keep a client”.

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