When to Fire a Bad Client

Originally Published on Medium.com on March 18, 2016 By Felicia C. Sullivan

Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Music blared, pizza was ordered, and GIFs circulated. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the neon sign saying RUN blinking above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations, and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Or maybe I had just chosen to ignore all the warning signs that this big-name client would end up being a complete and utter nightmare.

It started with the creative director who OD’d on GaryVee motivational videos and read one too many Mashable articles. This creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic — even simple Tweets promoting their new launch — had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. But even that paled in comparison to the review process of our work, which involved at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the scope of work contract that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and that each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue — not even his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cares about the dwindling sanity levels of your staff or the excessive hours burned — thus making the project unprofitable, considering the brand’s meager retainer — when you’ve got a mortgage on a West Village townhouse? #amirite?

After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and drove the staff to day-drinking, I walked into our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?), adding that several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that an agency will never fire a seemingly lucrative client unless they’re hurting the bottom line. In this case, the account being in the red and the team screaming red were sufficient grounds. Simply put, the client took more time and produced more grief than they were worth. Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights just aren’t enough.

For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor, and I pay attention to various indications during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.

A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, when the going gets rough you want to do everything you can to salvage the relationship, including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising: not every battle needs to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if the partnership continues to suffer even after you’ve made valiant efforts to save it. Granted, sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that). But everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business, not a nonprofit. If a client is straining and draining you, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play more than ever when you’re a consultant.

Here is a list of the five most problematic types of clients and some good reasons it’s okay to fire them:

The “Why are you so expensive?” client.

It’s perfectly normal for a client to ask how you came to an hourly fee or project rate. However, repeated questions are red flags. You should also be suspicious of requests to reduce your rate or work on spec (no way, no day), not to mention promises of business referrals for a reduced rate (if you do great work, you should be comfortable asking for referrals without having to work for less). There have been times when I’ve lowered my fee for a dream client or a good cause, but I do not compete on price. It’s a losing proposition. Someone will always underbid me, and I have enough experience and confidence to know that my work is not a race to the bottom. Be wary of someone who nickel-and-dimes you every step of the way.

The “This should only take you five minutes” client.

A client who believes that everything is so easy, or is baffled as to why something would take longer than a few minutes is a prospect that should send you running for the exits. A good client hires an expert who fills gaps in their business. They should trust that you know how long a task is likely to take, and that you’re going to be honest with them about schedule changes and unreasonable timelines. If they don’t, they lack a basic respect for what you do and will gaslight you every step of the way. I live by the triple constraint concept in project management. If you want something fast and high quality, it’ll cost you. If you want something fast and cheap, it’ll be low quality. If you want high quality and low cost, it’ll take time.

The “I flunked Communication 101” client.

This is one of the most important aspects of a client-partner relationship. A lack of established lines of communication can put a project in jeopardy, and communication extremes are just as precarious. You should not have to deal with a client ghosting you (do you really like sending 500 “just checking in” emails only to finally hear that they need X deliverable by 2 p.m. tomorrow OR ELSE?). I had a client who could never properly articulate what they wanted, even when they were presented with examples, questioned, and coached. They were never quite satisfied, and their constant nitpicking took time away from the things that really mattered. They didn’t understand that done is often better than perfect. Even when they liked the finished product, too many hours and dollars had already been wasted.

The “Don’t mind me stalking you and screaming over your shoulder” client.

Who feels empowered when they’re micromanaged? While your client may know their brand and business inside out, they hired you as an expert to help them with some aspect of it. When they get too involved in the strategies and tactics for which they hired you, or if they constantly second-guess your judgment, fire them. Micromanaging signals a lack of respect and an unhealthy obsession with control. Micromanagers never grow into leaders because they don’t know how to trust and let go. As a result, your work will be inefficient and you’ll probably be blamed for every misstep and failure, even though the client was basically wearing earmuffs while you offered your expertise and recommendations.

The “Why haven’t you responded to my 35 emails in 10 minutes” client.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. I used to tell my staff that they should take their work seriously, but bear in mind that we’re not curing cancer. Not even close to it. While it’s important to be responsive to your client, you don’t need to be on your deathbed answering emails. Set communication expectations from the outset. I even bake them into my contracts and remind clients about them in my onboarding email series. I note the hours of my availability (specifying time zone), let them know when they should expect to hear from me, and outline communication protocol for emergencies. And by “emergency” I don’t mean “Hey, that pixel is off-center.” You had better be on a gurney. You don’t have to act like a first responder when it comes to emails in order to be an effective consultant. Sometimes a response requires time and thought; it doesn’t always pay to be instantly available and immediately reactive. If a client fails to understand that and has a rage blackout because I’m not holding my phone at 3 a.m., we have to part ways.

It can be incredibly difficult to cut the cord on a relationship, especially when your livelihood depends on it. In five years, I’ve only let two clients go — and trust me, I took a lot before I decided I couldn’t take anymore. However, I’m now attuned to the warning signs in the proposal phase — how a client communicates, what kinds of questions they ask, etc. — so I can avoid the painful process of saying, it’s not me, it’s you.

Felicia C. Sullivan

Published Novelist. Brand/Marketing Strategist. lovelifeeatny@gmail.com Newsletter: https://bit.ly/2WLyZmv Hire me: https://bit.ly/2UIadlm I have opinions.


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