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When It’s Time To Fire Your Client: the 4 Signs

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Guest post by Sibyl Edwards, regular guest contributor to Women Grow Business. Sibyl works as a digital designer and strategist based in Washington, DC. She has many years of experience in interactive design, identity branding, and digital strategy for businesses and non-profits; Sibyl can be reached at www.twitter.com/saedwards.

We all enter into a relationship with the best intentions right?
As the relationship evolves (or regretfully devolves in some cases) — the lack of understanding, lack of respect, and poor communication can destroy any promising relationship, leaving both parties disappointed or even bitter.

No, I’m not talking about romance. I’m talking about client relations in business.

Just as in romantic life, when a client relationship has become an exercise in pain and misery – it’s time to walk!

And in some case, that means firing your client.

(image, Exit Like You Mean It, by AWix)

You are probably thinking, I’m nuts to advocate such a thing during an economic recession.

But for the health of your business and your employees, it can sometimes be better to sever ties. The time wasted (your time equals money) on clients who don’t take you and your business seriously is time that you could be out getting clients who will work well, allowing your services to be of better benefit to them (and then your business would be handsomely paid for it).

I will describe the signs of a bad client relationship and why you should fire them. And certainly remember each situation is unique; you and your business needs to use best judgment in deciding whether a relationship with a particular client is worth continuing.

4 signs and scenarios of a bad client relationship

  • #1 – Doesn’t know what they want i.e. committing to strategy is king!
  • As stated in my recent post How 10 Site Design Laws Relate to Good Living, having a vision and goals is critical. Once the vision has been laid out, it is absolutely necessary to lay out the goals for the project. Non-specific goals can water down the results of an otherwise great project. Without goals, you can’t properly strategize and set metrics.

    I once worked for an agency client that couldn’t figure out exactly what features they wanted on the site (which I was designing). The client’s COO and CMO couldn’t agree on what they wanted. Many weeks and hours were invested revising and redoing the project to meet with the ever-fluctuating goals.

    The project missed its deadline and in the end to appease the client we only charged them for the hours stated in the initial budget – not the hours (twice as much!) we had accrued with revisions.

    Once a strategy has been decided, clearly state it back to the client – in writing – so everyone agrees and remains focused on it. Weeks into the project if the client still isn’t clear on the project’s goals, diplomatically I highly suggest referring them to another firm and give their money back.

  • Sign #2 – Won’t take professional advice

  • When a client hires another business or person to facilitate a service, the client is conveying through this decision that “We don’t have the expertise, time, resources, etc. to do ___________.” So when a client hires a consultant or firm, it is reasonable (if not critical for the sake of the client’s business) to listen to whatever advice and strategy is given (and then get out of the way!).

    Notes on policy wonks, back flips, & micro-management
    A few years back, I did a freelance job for a friend, a PR strategist, whose client wanted a website that appealed to teens. After I presented them designs, the client proceeded to pad the content of the site with a bunch of long paragraphs and charts of information that would make a policy wonk do back flips. All this despite my advice that too much copy loaded with jargon would drive the teen user away. The client then insisted on running ads about the site on online news and financial sites thinking the teen’s parents would see it and that would help drive traffic to the site. It emerged into something other than the teen site my friend recommended.

    The end result – little to no traffic to site.

    When clients micro-manage the process and fail to accept professional advice, the results won’t live up to your client expectations and may damage your professional reputation. So is it really worth it? If your professional advice isn’t valued, then you don’t need them as a client.

  • Sign #3 – Refuses to meet deadlines

  • In order to meet deadlines, milestones and checkpoints need to be set for you and for your client. Failure to meet those checkpoints can delay or obstruct a project. If your contract states that you need X by Y date, then your client should adhere to it as close as possible. When your client constantly fails to provide pertinent information or assets by assigned times it can severely delay your release date or cause you to completely miss your deadline altogether.

    If a client who misses milestones continues to do so after you have diplomatically discussed it,  cut them lose! Or you will find yourself working around the clock to get the project done on time or risk missing the deadline.

    Mark my words, 8 times out of 10 the client won’t pay for the extra hours needed to get the project done on time.

  • Sign #4 – Lacking respect for basic business operations

  • Does your client constantly miss important meetings to discuss the project? Do they repeatedly cancel meetings the same day even though you set up the meeting days in advance? Does the client (who makes the decisions) redirect your team to their assistants or interns when you need to discuss the project with the lead decision maker? Have they written you a bad check for fees and services but insist it was a “mistake” that will never happen again? Do they discuss your fees with another client? Or insist that you offer a referral fee or discount when referring you to someone else?

    If the above has been demonstrated, then chances are this client doesn’t respect how you / your team want to do business. Save yourself the aggravation and send them on their way.

I hope this has helped clarify any decision you need to make about whether to keep a certain client around or dump them.

Believe me, the first time I fired a client, I thought I made the biggest mistake ever! But I know that in the end, I made the right decision for the integrity (and profitability) of my team. And you can too.


    1. Great article and advise and Oh – so true. I think the majority of us have been in a situation where we all “want” to fire a client, but just don't want to take the risk. I've found out, as you stated aboe, it is worth it for so many reasons.

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    2. One more to add “Engages in unethical behavior.”

      In this case, the client may want to you to spread untrue information or steal information. A common practice in lobbying, the client may retain the major firms to limit opponent/competitor access to expertise.

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    3. Hi Sharon,

      I'm really glad you liked the article. And you are right, it can be really scary at first but as long as you are diplomatic and respectful (if possible!) and explain why you can no longer do business with them, it is usually worth the risk.

      Best,
      Sibyl

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    4. Hi Jessica,

      It is great to hear from you! I hope all is well.

      I agree about “Engages in unethical behavior.” as one to put on the list. Information is power and when a firm hires another company or firm to block access to information, or steal info, I would avoid doing any business with them if at all possible. Believe me, their unethical behavior has a habit of spreading to all their business dealings – eventually infecting yours.

      Best,
      Sibyl

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    5. Great article Sibyl.

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      • Thanks Allyson (from both Sibyl and myself!). I too appreciate her insight and clear thinking on this sensitive client relations point. Looking forward to WomenWhoTech’s telesummit May 12 for sure (congrats on your second year(!)

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    6. Hi Sharon,

      I'm really glad you liked the article. And you are right, it can be really scary at first but as long as you are diplomatic and respectful (if possible!) and explain why you can no longer do business with them, it is usually worth the risk.

      Best,
      Sibyl

      7
    7. Hi Jessica,

      It is great to hear from you! I hope all is well.

      I agree about “Engages in unethical behavior.” as one to put on the list. Information is power and when a firm hires another company or firm to block access to information, or steal info, I would avoid doing any business with them if at all possible. Believe me, their unethical behavior has a habit of spreading to all their business dealings – eventually infecting yours.

      Best,
      Sibyl

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    8. Great article Sibyl.

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