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When to Fire a Client and How to Do it Right

When to Fire a Client and How to Do it Right
Most clients are awesome. But sometimes, you’ll end up with a client so difficult that to protect your company, you need to show them the door. Here’s how to fire a client as painlessly as possible so you can get back to business.

No one wants to fire a client. They pay us money, they have interesting projects, and sometimes they become our friends. Then there’s the other kind of client; the one who is such a nightmare to work with that your business starts to lose money and morale.

I fired a client ONCE, and it was when I was a marketing/communications freelancer. While I’ve worked with lots of challenging people in my career, I quickly realized that this situation was different and there was no chance for a resolution.

Without getting into all the gory details, here’s the gist of what happened:

  • Communication barrier

  • No acknowledgement of my expertise in an area my client had zero experience

  • Unconstructive and harsh criticism from the client

  • I couldn't understand why she was upset, and she wasn’t able to articulate the issue in a way that I could do anything about.

  • She had a very hostile attitude that suggested I had taken advantage of her.

Let me say that in my 17-year career in marketing, I have worked with a lot of smart, and incredibly talented people. But I’ve also had some doozy clients and nutjob colleagues. I sucked up a lot of bad behaviour over the years for various reasons:

  1. That’s what grown up professionals do.

  2. I didn’t have the authority to fire a client (or coworker) even if I wished for it on every fallen eyelash.

  3. I needed the work.

But here I was, finally my own boss, and I could see that no amount of talking was going to solve the problem. I also knew that this client was likely a one-off. It wasn’t going to turn into big, fat juicy retainer, ever. Continuing to work with this client was probably going to drive me to drink and drain my energy for my other mostly awesome clients.

So during yet another difficult phone meeting, I suggested that maybe it wasn’t going to work out for us to continue working together as it was obvious that we were at a standstill.

Thankfully, the client agreed.

Here’s my advice based on years of not firing clients but wanting to, considering firing clients but changing my mind, and learning to recognize when the time is right.

The challenging project vs. the challenging client

Challenging projects worked on with a collaborative client can still have a successful outcome.

Challenging projects can be the kind that propel your agency forward in its maturity and reputation.

A challenging project can strengthen your team by coming together to solve a common problem, it can demonstrate your ability to find an innovative solution, and it can be that case study for the ages of “Just when we thought all was lost, we discovered the key to making dental floss hip.”

Challenging projects can be fun, inspiring, and rewarding, even if they are a brain-busting amount of work.

Challenging clients on the other hand, not so much.

While 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 nails-on-the-chalkboard, time-sucking, morale-busting, money-losing nightmare.

Beyond being challenging, what we’re really talking about here is THE PROBLEM CLIENT.

I’m talking about the client who is never pleased with an idea that isn’t theirs, never delivers a clear brief, never sticks to deadlines, never wants to pay for their 27 rounds of revisions, and in general is unreasonably demanding.

The problem client is the one who turns your agency into chaos, affects the culture of the office, infringes on your ability to service other clients, and eats away at your profit margin.

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Problem Client Poster Child. Cue stress sweat.

So, how do you decide to fire a client?

Confirm this is actually a problem client.

OK, so I’m going to assume if you’re reading this that you are a functioning adult who has experience working with difficult people and difficult situations, and you understand that business and life, in general, is not a candy-coated Pollyanna ride through Smooth Sailing Town.

Just because a client is challenging does not necessarily mean they are a problem and need to be fired. Part of your job, and that of your team is to make clients happy.

If you’re considering firing a client you need to ask yourself the following:

Have you exhausted all solutions for making this situation better?

In my situation, I realized pretty quickly that there was such a chasm of misunderstanding between the client and me, that there was really no resolution. I had no concept of why she was so unhappy with the deliverable, and she seemed incapable of explaining her reasons to me.

If I had had a whiff of a new direction I could have gone in, I might have taken it, even if I didn’t think it was the right decision. That way we could at least finish the project and move on from each other on a better note.

Takeaway: Make sure you and your team put a sincere effort in to trying to save this marriage. Maybe you need a different account manager, clarity around your project process, a more detailed briefing document, or a better way to manage expectations. Or maybe you just need to sit down and talk face-to-face with the client to see if things can improve.

Have you checked your ego?

I admit that there have been times when I was annoyed with a client, and much of the reason I was annoyed was that my ego was bruised. Maybe they didn’t love my idea, or they wanted a bunch of revisions that were a pain in the butt to do, but they weren’t unreasonable.

In general, I try hard to not let my ego get in the way of delivering better work to clients (or to Proposify), and to distinguish between what the client wants and my view of myself as a total frickin’ genius.

Takeaway: Make sure you’re not letting your ego, or that of a team member, run the show. A client isn’t an asshole just because they didn’t love your concept. Maybe you’re the asshole for not listening carefully to what they said were looking for.

Is this client making you lose money?

I’ve worked in agencies where we had pain-in-the-ass clients, but because the account was worth so much money, we had no choice but to eat their exhaust. However, there are times when a client is so demanding and so difficult that you actually can’t make money off them anymore; they have time-sucked their way through your profit margin.

The client I fired hadn’t started to make me lose money yet, but I could see the loser train coming down the track really fast. I also couldn’t foresee any long term relationship that would make it worth struggling through things now, in exchange for the potential reward of interesting work and a juicy retainer later.

Takeaway: As always, 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).

Is this client making you lose staff?

Miserable clients can make for a miserable team. If your team is being driven mad by one client, then they’re not going to be able to do good work for your other clients, and over time a dark cloud of unhappiness and resentment will settle over the whole agency. That can spell disaster.

Plus, if a member of your team feels like you’re not standing up for them against a rude or harassing client (within reason, of course, since we’re all wearing our big kid pants over thick skin), they’re going to feel undervalued and will likely move on to another agency.

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"Ken Cosgrove wishes he knew how to fire his clients and his agency"

I think we can all agree that Ken Cosgrove on MadMen was a true victim of both bad clients and an agency that didn’t stand up for its team.

Takeaway: Remember that the talent in your team is the mojo that attracts clients. If you don’t have a good team, you don’t have good clients. It’s your job to lead and protect your team, whether it’s by offering support, listening and acknowledging their concerns, facilitating solutions, and, in extreme circumstances, telling a client to go pound sand.

Take a Deep Breath

Hopefully, if you’re considering firing a client, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into trying to turn the situation around. I worked for someone who was always on the verge of firing a client (mostly due to ego), and it was often my job to come up with a resolution or to prepare the process for how we were going to end the relationship.

So I would go through all the options and present a plan internally first, but usually, by then, things had calmed down. My superior would change his mind and claim that the client was the most valuable one in our roster and we couldn’t live without them.

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.

Write the email you WANT to send to the client and let out all your emotions about how you really feel, but DO NOT send it. You’ll discover the next day it was too harsh and unprofessional, but the simple act of getting it all out can make you feel better. The sober second thought is usually the wise one, and it could save you from making a costly business mistake.

So you wanna fire a client, now what?

Regardless of how terrible a client is, let’s agree that you always want to take the high road. Not only is it better to stay classy, but you don’t want to burn bridges that you might need to cross somewhere down the road. It’s a small world no matter how big a city you live in and you never know who’s talking to whom, and where that client may show up again in another context. Karma’s a bitch.

There are lots of places on the internet to find scripts for firing clients. I find some of them smell a bit like BS, but they might help give you some starting ideas. Every situation with a problem client is different, so you will need to custom tailor your exit.

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P.S. Don’t ever talk to me again.

Here are some suggestions for the approach:

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

Don’t be a jerk When I say don’t lie, it doesn’t mean you have to tell them that everyone on your team hates their guts. Candy coat things a bit. You can say things like, “It feels like we haven’t been able to find a way to work together that is beneficial for both sides.”

Don’t just email You can send them an email but make sure you also meet with them in person or call them on the phone. 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.

Don’t leave them 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.

Don’t get into he said/she said Stick to the high road and don’t get into the weeds of specific situations unless it is absolutely necessary. Don’t let this devolve into your high school breakup. Pull the Band-aid off quickly and efficiently.

Exception to the rules If your client has sexually harassed 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 them to the moon.

And by dropkick 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.

Happy Endings

In my case, the client and I both agreed that there was an obstacle to completing this project that likely wasn’t going to budge. I also had been paid for half the project and, considering we weren’t going to continue, I was fine with forfeiting the remainder.

When I hung up, I felt a mixture of elation and fear. I was so relieved to be done with this stressful situation but I wondered at the same time if I was out of my mind. What was I doing letting work walk out the door? Thankfully, that fear passed pretty quickly.

Mostly I felt proud of myself for deciding what was right for me and acting on it. When I worked in agencies I never had the power to say enough is enough, and I had some bad situations, like clients hanging up on me when they didn’t like what I said, and some who made sexually inappropriate comments. I’ve also worked with some abusive co-workers. Rarely did my superiors stand up for me or my team in those trying situations.

I also didn’t let this situation erode my confidence in my ability to do good work and make clients happy. The very next project I worked on for a different client, they asked me to invoice them for MORE than the agreed upon amount since they felt I had delivered extra value.

In general, I subscribe to the Jon Buchan client philosophy that it is a privilege to work with clients. But it’s important not to let one bad apple spoil the barrel you’ve worked hard to build.

  • Have you ever had to fire a client?

  • What steps did you take to soften the blow?

  • I’d love to hear your comments and hear about your experiences!

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