Firing The Unsavoury Client – The Right Way!

No one wants to fire a client. In business we all know it is hard work attracting and retaining clients –so the last thing most of us want to do is lose a client we already have in our client pool. But then again, there are nightmare clients who actually do more harm to your business than good and its these types of clients every businessman and business woman should avoid at all costs – including firing them if need be.

Throughout my entrepreneurial journey I’ve had many, many amazing clients to work with. Unfortunately, I have had a few clients that were less than stellar as well. Early in my business career I would have never believed that there would come a time where I would realize the need to fire a client. But over the course of a 20-year career, I have learned the hard way that saying goodbye to a paying client is sometimes better business than struggling to keep them.

In my experience there are a wide variety of reasons a business owner might fire a client. Communication barriers, unclear visions and mandates, unrealistic expectations of product quality and quantity, risk allocations, and an inability to find common ground with regard to relationship and respect are some reasons for moving away from an existing client. The fact is, some relationships in life just are not going to work out. I often say that my “company is not for everyone…and everyone is not for my company!” and that’s absolutely alright! 

As much as we entrepreneurs want to be successful, we have to realize that not every client is the right client. And sometimes a client that was a “right fit” client undergoes internal staff changes that allow what was a good relationship to transform into a negative relationship that is no longer healthy for you and your company. The trick is to be willing and able to free yourself from a bad situation so that you can remain positive and upbeat as you move forward, serving your other good clients and attracting potentially new good clients to your company. It takes positive energy to be attractive and aggressively compete in the market place; and it’s very difficult to let your positive energy shine through when you are feeling beat up, unproductive and unhappy with the relationship you have with a client.

No matter how disillusioned an entrepreneur might be with a client I always encourage a business to do some relationship reflection before pulling the trigger on an existing client and relationship. Here are some things to consider before initiating a goodbye to a client. 

1.     Honestly evaluate if is this a challenging project or is it really a challenging client? There is a difference. A challenging project with a good client can still have a very successful outcome. In fact, even when a challenging project stretches you it can be very advantageous to stick with it and grow your company’s resume and maturity. If the project simply cannot be successful because the client is the challenge, that’s when you may want to pull the trigger on the relationship. Working on a challenging project with a good client can still return great results, working with a challenging client can turn even a simple project into a disaster that takes up your time and costs you more in revenue and street credibility than it is actually worth.

2.    If the project is challenging, you may have to step back and determine if you and your team actually have the ability to be successful. Sometimes you do get into a situation where the project (for whatever reason) simply becomes bigger than you had imagined it would. Obviously, our entrepreneurial egos need to be set aside; at times like these a businessman needs to determine if he and his company are the right fit for the client. Sometimes it’s better to fire yourself from the project that you are ill-equipped to finish, than it is to fail miserably.

If you are considering firing a client, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Have you exhausted all solutions for making this situation better?

Takeaway: Make sure you and your team have put a sincere effort into trying to save the relationship with the client. Have you done all that you can to become compatible? Have you explored providing a different account manager, asked for clarity around your project process, suggested a more detailed briefing document, or a better way to manage expectations? Have you simply sat down with the client and talked openly to see if improvements can be made within the relationship?

2. Have you checked your ego?

Takeaway: Make sure you’re not letting your ego, or the ego of a team member, run the show. A client isn’t an a-hole just because they didn’t love your concept. Maybe you’re the a-hole for not listening carefully to what they said they were looking for in the first place. No matter what, make sure your ego and the egos of the rest of your team are in check!

3. Is this client making you lose money?

Takeaway: In business you need to keep your eye on your billable hours. You might have a plump 200-hour a month retainer, but if that client requires 300 hours a month of handholding, you’re in trouble (barring any of your own internal inefficiencies, of course). A client who is sucking the energy out of you and causing you to have to regularly allot more time to them than they are willing to pay is a poor client.

4. Is this client making you lose staff?

Takeaway: Remember, the talent in your team is the mojo that attracts clients. If you have a client who is driving your talent insane – so much so that staff begin to feel bullied and leave or want to leave – then most certainly it’s time to move the client on. As business owners/managers/supervisors it’s our job to lead and protect our teams, whether it’s by offering support, listening and acknowledging their concerns, facilitating solutions, and, in extreme circumstances, telling a client to go pound sand.

5. Take a Deep Breath

Takeaway: Never make a decision to fire a client in the heat of the moment. Sleep on it, talk it out with senior members of your team, go for a run, eat a cookie – make sure you are making the decision to move on for the right reasons rather than reacting emotionally on the “spur of the moment.”

If after following the above steps you still believe you need to move away from a client – move away from the client professionally. Be classy, don’t burn bridges that you might need somewhere down the road. The world is a small place and you never know who else a client might influence. It’s a very small world out there (in particular these days with Social Media and the ability to have non-stop connectivity with the world).

Suggested approach for saying goodbye:

1.    Don’t lie. You can stretch the truth by saying things like, “We’ve really enjoyed working with you but…”, just don’t lie about the reason. It can come back to bite you later, as most lies do.

2.    Don’t be a jerk. In not lying you don’t have to overly blast the client with statements like “everyone on your team can’t stand you!” Rather, contemplate statements such as “It feels like we haven’t been able to find a way to work together that is beneficial for both sides.”

3.    Don’t send an email to end the relationship. You can send them an email but make sure the goal of the email is to set up a final meeting with the client. Have the guts and courtesy to meet with the client in person or at least call them. It’s more professional, you’ll be sure to get the tone right (polite), and there’s a better chance to minimize any hard feelings.

4.    Don’t leave the client in the lurch. Finish up whatever deliverable you’re working on, package up their files and have them ready to hand over (as long as the client is all paid up, of course). Recommend another agency or consultant who might be a better fit for their needs.

5.    Don’t get into a he said/she said conversation. Be intentional with your conversation and take the high road. It will not serve you well if you allow yourself to get dragged into the weeds of the specific situation. Don’t let the conversation linger and don’t let yourself be drawn into a conversation that will likely lead to a bad ending.

Now obviously, there are exceptions to the rules. For example, if your client has sexually harassed or physically bullied any of your team members, made racist, or otherwise inappropriate and offensive statements or actions, or hasn’t paid you as per your contract, feel free to ignore all of the above and dropkick those clients to the moon and beyond. And by dropkicking them to the moon, I mean contact your lawyer. There are some extreme circumstances that don’t warrant the high road, they call for the legal road.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I provide to business owners is this: “select well!” By that I mean, select excellent and qualified staff who understand serving well. Select clients whose needs fit within what you and your team deliver well! Take your time as a business owner finding the right people with talent to serve the right client with their needs and you will be able to avoid (for the most part) the unsavoury client firing. It’s far easier and more lucrative to work with the right client on the right project than it is to have to deal with saying goodbye to an unsavoury client.

All the best!

Tom Watson

As seen on