No client relationship lasts forever.
Usually it’s the client who decides it’s time to move on. Maybe they needed your services for a certain period of time. Or maybe their business has changed and they’re looking for a new way of doing things.
But sometimes you should be the one to end the relationship.
I know it sounds crazy. Why in the world would you tell someone to stop giving you money? Well, there are a few really good reasons to do that. And we’re going to tackle them in this episode.
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#1 – When they pay late
There are a lot of reasons clients might pay late, like:
- Maybe they have cash flow issues
- Maybe they’re just disorganized (I’m probably one of these)
- Or maybe they don’t respect your time, or they don’t respect you enough to adhere to your payment terms and take paying you very seriously
So, let’s break that down one by one.
For starters, I wouldn’t target clients who have cash flow problems.
You want to target clients who you know can pay you and can pay you on time. If you really want to stick with a particular client with cash flow problems and help them weather the storm, then I think you can make an exception on this one—but it should be the exception. This should not be the norm.
If all or most or a good chunk of your clients have cash flow issues, then it’s time to step back and take a look at who you should be working with.
Now, you might have a client who is just disorganized.
If you have a good sense that they have money in the bank, you really can’t let them make that an excuse.
If the client is disorganized, then make the process of paying you as easy as possible—that’s just good business! Let them pay by check, email transfer, credit card, PayPal, carrier pigeon…
Whatever it is, make it easy and frictionless for people to pay you.
I know a lot of people don’t like getting paid by PayPal or credit card because they get dinged on transaction fees. I think it’s more important to get paid on time and to get paid regularly than to whine over a 2% to 3% fee. I lean more towards making it easy to get clients to pay me, so I make credit card an easy option—there’s a link to pay by credit card on my invoice.
That way, cash flow becomes less of an obstacle.
Now, the third reason comes down to respect. These clients don’t take you seriously enough, and that’s really non-negotiable.
If they’re not taking you seriously enough to make paying you on time a priority, then that’s something that you really have to address. There are ways to address it, and we’re going to get into how to fire a client later. A lot of times, the threat of firing a client actually solves the problem!
#2 – When they make unreasonable demands
You know what these are like.
It’s the out-of-scope items. It’s the revisions. It’s the changes. It’s the timelines. It’s the 11th-hour feedback right before the project or the deliverable is about to be finalized.
Now, it could be that the client just isn’t aware of the rules of engagement. This is an important point. If they’re not aware of how things work, when and how they can give you feedback, or what’s in scope or out of scope, they’re just not really on the same page with you as to how the engagement is going to work and how the project will be executed.
The truth is that’s your fault.
You need to do your part in making the rules of engagement clear in your engagement letter, your proposal, or your kick-off meeting.
In a kick-off meeting, you’ll have the conversation: “We’re doing this. Here’s how it’s going to work: here’s what I’m going to do; here’s what you’re going to do. Here’s the process. Here are the steps. Here’s a timeline. Here are the deliverables. Any questions?”
That’s really where you want to iron out any of those issues before they come about. If you find that clients are making some ridiculous demands, and it’s driving you so crazy you’re pulling your hair out, chances are there is something wrong with your process. Early on in the engagement, at the kick-off meeting, or in the proposal, you weren’t really clear about how things work.
Work to rectify that.
But look—some clients are just a pain.
You can’t change everybody, so if your best efforts at educating the client on the process just don’t work, and they continue to make unreasonable requests, then move on.
You might think, “It’s something small.” You might think, “Oh, it’s just a simple request. It won’t take me a lot of time. It will save the relationship,” and then you might do it.
And maybe that makes sense.
However, the extra time that you spend working on extra stuff a client expects for free might be time that you could spend earning more revenue from another client.
I want you to realize that there is an opportunity cost to everything. The request may seem harmless, small, or insignificant, and they may expect you to do it for the relationship.
But at the same time, everything you do and every minute you spend on a client, on a project, on a deliverable has an opportunity cost. If it’s not for that client, you could be earning revenue elsewhere.
Remember that—value your time.
If you find that you’re spending a lot of time on a client because they keep making demands, and they just won’t follow your process, then move on. There are plenty of fish in the sea.
#3 – When they give you attitude
Now, this one is a little bit interesting and nuanced. On the one hand, you want to have a healthy relationship with your clients. That’s obvious. You want to be on good working terms, but you don’t need to be friends.
You want to have a high level of professional respect and courtesy on both sides, but you don’t need to be buddies. That’s not a prerequisite to a client relationship.
Sometimes a client may give you a little bit of attitude, or they may push back.
To some extent, that’s healthy. As a consultant or service provider, if you’re positioned as an expert, and you’re delivering value, part of that comes with challenging the client, the status quo, their assumptions, their assertions, the way that they see things, and the way that they see the business.
If you’re doing that, sometimes you have uncomfortable conversations in which the client disagrees with you, or they don’t see your point of view, or they don’t get what you’re trying to say.
That’s a good thing! That’s a healthy part of a client relationship. You don’t have to get along all the time. There has to be some natural tension. If it’s not quite there, then I would argue you’re not doing your job.
I don’t want you to misconstrue this idea of the client giving you attitude to be something that happens naturally as part of that process. In that exchange, when you’re trying to push the client towards a particular outcome or to see things a certain way, and they’re not quite getting it, that’s one thing. Giving you attitude or being disrespectful is another thing altogether.
If the client does anything to indicate that they’re less than thrilled about working with you, then be very concerned.
Maybe they’re having a bad day—and certainly, everybody has bad days. Everyone is entitled to have bad days, and everyone has their quirks. You can use your judgment there, but if an attitude is coming up time and time again, then that’s something to be concerned about.
Maybe it’s something you did, and that’s something to consider as well. By all means, if you made a mistake, part of being a professional (part of being a grown-up!) is owning up to your mistakes and making them right. That’s something to think about.
If you’re getting this kind of attitude from your client, then question yourself.
“Did I do something? Did something go wrong? Did we mess up the last deliverable? Is there a legitimate reason why I might be getting this attitude?”
If you can find one, then address it and rectify it.
But if that’s not the case, and this attitude is becoming a pattern, then I think that’s a pretty good sign that the relationship just isn’t working out. It’s only going to get worse.
The truth is that it’s probably a matter of time before the client ends the relationship anyway, so you might as well not waste your time on a relationship that’s not going to go anywhere and end it yourself.
#4 – When the work isn’t good
I know it’s hard for you to admit that your work isn’t good, but at the same time, you should also have the highest expectations of your work. You should be the hardest on yourself when it comes to the quality of your work.
Quite often, clients can’t tell the difference—that’s the truth.
Think about whether your work is excellent or subpar or average. A lot of times, clients can’t tell the difference because they don’t have the taste. They can’t appreciate the nuances of your work.
But you can.
You know what amazing work looks like, and you know what average, run-of-the-mill work looks like.
When your work is anything short of amazing, that’s a big problem.
Now, why might your work not be good? Sometimes it’s the client’s fault. Sometimes it’s their demands, their tastes, the way that they want to do things, the expectations that they have.
It’s them interfering with the work. It’s them giving feedback until the work just sucks. That definitely happens.
But sometimes it’s not the client’s fault at all.
Sometimes it’s just not a good fit. Sometimes you’re not familiar enough with their industry. Or maybe you don’t have a good feel for the client’s business.
Or maybe something is just not quite clicking—your experience and their needs just don’t quite match. There are any number of reasons this might be, and it doesn’t always have to be the client’s fault.
For whatever reason, if you’re not doing your best work for a particular client, that’s a sign that you need to get rid of that client.
And again, the reason comes down to opportunity cost:
Every moment you spend on a client that’s not the best fit, that’s not generating your best work, is a moment wasted.
Yeah sure, they paid you. Sure, fine. Great. They paid you, but that’s a very shortsighted way of looking at things.
Every client is an opportunity for three things. One is revenue, which is important. Two is the referral. If you do good work for a client, then they’re more likely to refer to clients like them. And third is the testimonial or the case study. If the work is really good, you can show it off.
If the work isn’t good, you get the revenue. You might get the referral; you might not if the client doesn’t think it’s good either.
But even if the client thinks the work is good, the referral might not be worth much to you because the client is likely to refer you to people that are just like them, which is a road you don’t want to go down.
But thirdly, you definitely won’t get the case study or the testimonial because their work wasn’t good, and you wouldn’t want to show it off.
So, you’ve really wasted your time, and the opportunity cost of that is significant.
I’d rather have you work with clients who give you revenue, a perfect referral, and an excellent case study that you can proudly display on your website.
#5 – When you don’t like them anymore
I know that sounds harsh, but you don’t have to like everyone. Sometimes personalities clash. We all have our own quirks and eccentricities.
Maybe you don’t like their politics. Or you don’t like the way that they carry themselves. Or their voice gets on your nerves. Or you don’t like their haircut.
Whatever it is, I don’t think you have to justify it—there are just some people you don’t like.
I don’t like everybody. Some people get on my nerves, and it’s not that I think ill of those people. I don’t think less of them. It’s not that they’re bad people. It’s nothing like that at all!
There are just certain types of people with whom I like to interact and engage, and with whom I get along. There are certain types of people with whom I just don’t get along, and there are a variety of reasons for that.
I don’t need to justify it because part of the perks of running your own business is you get to call the shots.
I choose who I do business with. You choose who you do business with. I can’t fault you for that, and you can’t fault me for it.
If you don’t like a client, or you’re just not getting along with them, and you find that your interactions with them are draining, then get rid of that client.
That’s a very valid reason!
We’ve all had those kinds of experiences. You’re talking to a client that you don’t particularly like. They’re not your best client. You’re not crazy about them. You spend an hour with that client, and by the end of it, you just want to bang your head against the wall or crawl into a corner and let the day end already because that was so painful.
Then you have other clients that by the end of that same one-hour conversation, you’re energized. You feel amazing. You feel motivated. You feel positive. You feel like a million bucks.
You spent the same one hour, but at the end of the first conversation, you come out drained, like they’ve sucked all the life out of you. And at the end of the other, you feel energized and motivated, and you feel like you can do anything.
I’d rather you have more of the latter!
I’d rather you work with clients who motivate you, who energize you—and not with clients who suck the life out of you.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of personality. “We just don’t get along. It’s just not working.” They may not have a problem with you, but you might have a problem with them—and that’s fine.
I’m not suggesting you tell them that you just don’t like them. That’s not really a nice thing to do—be more tactful than that. But sometimes that is a legitimate reason to pull the plug.
Again, opportunity cost is an important thing.
The more of your clients that you like, and the more that they energize you, the more energy you’ll have to do more work with better clients.
And that’s really valuable—you can’t really put a price on that.
How to Fire a Client
Now let’s talk a little bit about how to fire a client because that’s not an easy thing to do, is it? No matter what the reasons are, if you want to exit a client relationship, but the feeling is not mutual, then that can make for a very uncomfortable conversation.
However, if you do this right, it can quite often address and solve some of the problems that you were facing:
- If they’re paying late, then this might be the wake-up call they need to start paying on time.
- If they’re making unreasonable demands, this might get them to sit up and start playing nice within your process.
- If they’re giving you attitude, then this might be the conversation that sparks a deeper conversation around what’s going on. How do they feel about the work? What’s going on that’s making their attitude come out the way that it is?
Quite often, it might not be you; it might be something else, and you’ll discover what that is through this process.
Whatever the reason is, call a meeting. Tell the client you want to discuss your working relationship. In the meeting, just be frank about it. Be a grown-up.
“Look, we’ve been working together for a long time. I’ve had a really good time working with you. It’s been a great opportunity for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the work. But for the following reasons, I don’t think we can continue.”
Say what your reasons are. If it’s payment, then state that.
“Look, you’re not paying on time. Maybe there are reasons for that; maybe there aren’t. I’m not sure, but I need to work with clients who pay on time. It’s really critical to my business. You wouldn’t appreciate your clients paying you late either, and I don’t appreciate that. So, for that reason, I think it’s best that we part ways.”
If it’s demands, then:
“Look, I’ve got a process, and I ask all my clients to follow this process. Your needs seem to be unique, or maybe you like doing things a certain way. It doesn’t really play nice with my process, so I think that’s really not going to work out.”
Now, in those two scenarios, I think a lot of times, clients will say, “No, no, no! We need you! I’m sorry. I know I haven’t been paying on time. I know we’ve been making demands. I know! I’m sorry, but we need you.”
And then it’s up to you.
If you think that they’re sincere enough and that they can actually make good on their promise to make things better, then you may want to continue. Otherwise, if you don’t think anything is going to change, then you should move on.
When it comes to attitude and disrespect, I think this is a good chance for an open and frank conversation.
They might say, “You know what? To be honest, I think that things haven’t been going well, and I think there have been some issues with your work. I think you’re right—we should part ways.”
But maybe there is something else—and this is quite often what happens. They might say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disrespect you. I didn’t mean to give you attitude. I didn’t mean to act in a less-than-courteous-and-professional manner.
Things are crazy around here right now. I’m under a lot of pressure. Revenue is down, and the board is on my case. My staff is acting up. I guess I took it out on you, but that’s not fair.”
Those conversations are really important. Those are the conversations that make for really strong client relationships.
When a client opens up to you, and they tell you what’s going on, and they tell you their frustrations and some of their challenges and inner battles, that’s your opportunity to really level up your relationship and become somebody that’s indispensable to that client.
Often, they can’t vent their frustrations to anybody else, especially if your client is in the senior ranks at their company. They can’t vent to their peers as much. They can’t vent to their board. They can’t vent to their staff because they’re all part of the problem.
But they can vent to you.
They can tell you what’s going on. They can tell you what they’re struggling with. And if you listen and understand, then you’re going to develop a stronger relationship with them—and they’re going to become a loyal client.
In a nutshell, that’s what you can do if you want to fire a client:
- Have that meeting.
- Have the frank conversation.
- Give the client a chance to explain themselves.
A lot of times that resolves the issues. Sometimes it doesn’t, and then you move on, and hopefully, you’re better off for it.