how to know you should fire a client

I love my clients. Can you say that about your clients? Be honest! If not, you’re probably invoicing a toxic relationship that you need to cut loose. I’ll admit that through the years, I’ve had to fire a client or two because of what began as a harmonious working relationship, had over months and months of me performing miracles in an attempt to win favor, turned into something resentful and no fun for everyone involved. It’s important to recognize when to walk away from those bad business boyfriends (before they fire you) and how to identify the signals that you need to recalibrate an existing partnership.

Here’s my advice from the school of hard knocks:

The first sign that things are going south is how you react when the phone rings and you see their caller ID. Do your eyes roll back in your head? Is your trigger finger on “send to voice mail” so you can screen the call first? Ask yourself WHY is it that you don’t want to hear from that client? Are they too needy? Do you have too much on your plate? Why is that, and is it a pattern, or a simply a temporary bump in the road?

They keep you in the dark. As a consultant or service provider, we’re often brought in to test drive a solution or fill a gap, but yet it’s so important to see where the bus is headed. If your client or customer won’t share the map with you, that’s a big fat red flag. If they have no strategy at all, that’s a big fat flashing detour sign with a warning bell that you should get the hell off the bus. How on earth will you be considered effective if there’s no one driving that bus? You’ll never know if you get to the destination if the bus is wandering about aimlessly. The alternative is to take control of the bus. If you’ve earned their trust enough to set the GPS, stay on board and steer the motorcoach off the dirt road and back onto smooth pavement. If they challenge your advice, save your sanity and disembark at the next stop without regrets.

Have you performed too well? If that Chicken Little client expects you to perform a miracle on the regular, you’ve fallen into a trap of lowered expectations and quite frankly, shame on you. The client thinks you can pull that rabbit out of a hat whenever they put the pressure on you and you’ve consistently delivered. Push back and explain your turn-around time REPEATEDLY until they can recite it back in spades. An occasional miracle is always a good thing, but don’t tarnish your win by doing it over and over again because then it’s not special, it’s become the norm. If you can’t deliver on today’s insane crisis they handed you, now you’re viewed as a liability because in their perception, you can’t deliver and you failed. Note: You do not own their bad business practice and you don’t have to cater to it. My mantra (after dealing with just such a client) is “Your lack of planning does not create my emergency.” In fact, that’s so important to me, I set up a whole product line in Zazzle to surround myself with just that reminder.

They treat you like an employee. Sure, it can be flattering that your big client has brought you into the fold but it likely comes with strings attached. Employees are available to pop into their boss’ office for a chat anytime. Vendors and contractors are (likely) not. They have many customers and clients to serve and there are logistics to take into consideration. When one client demands that you drop everything or reschedule other commitments in order to meet their needs, you have to evaluate if that’s reasonable. If the answer is no, if that client is aware that you’re otherwise committed to one of your other valued customers at that time and they decidedly communicate a guilt trip on you about how you’re “never available,” for something that could have easily been scheduled at a different time when you had plentiful availability, (yeah, that’s happened) that needy child has no respect for you, does not appreciate that other companies value your time, and quite frankly, they need to hire someone or bring that service in-house in order to meet their demands. A good client views your self worth, will offer to find a mutually agreeable time and location where you can conduct your business – and guess what. That’s a client that you will move a mountain for when a true emergency arises, and you will always take their call.

They question your invoice in detail. So here’s the thing: Often when you are a consultant/service provider, you’re billing for your time + your out of pocket expenses. A problem arises when the client likes the work you’ve done for them, and asks for more without a clear understanding of what they are asking from you. This could very well be your fault. If you aren’t communicating the scope of their request, or offering up an amended contract, they will balk at your invoice and now you’ve created an untrusted relationship. I have walked away from a large payment and fired the client because they didn’t believe me when I said their escalated time investment would result in much higher billing. They drilled me on the total amount due and I hadn’t previously adjusted my agreement with them in writing. I chalked it up to a life lesson. A painfully expensive one, but it was and you can bet I’ll never find myself in that situation again. Proposals are a little like a prenup. You don’t think you need it when you’re in love, but if you’re headed to divorce, you’d damn well better hope you had one signed. And honestly, if there’s no change in the services you’re providing and they begin to question your billing, then you should be looking to fill their seat because they’re not telling you that they are shopping for a new vendor.

A client relationship is a precious thing and it absolutely can have a life cycle. Always keep in mind that this project or service that you’ve providing to your client/customer on is REALLY important to them because they are paying for it. To you, it may be one of many similar projects that you’ve got on your plate and it’s NDB. Recognize that and maintain your bedside manner for the clients you love. But if they have become the client you dread talking to, come to terms that it’s no longer a good fit and make a change. The loss in revenue can be scary, but trust me when I say that your mental health is way more important than catering to unreasonable and disrespectful people. Let that crazy client be someone else’s problem while you create an opening on your calendar and fill with a business boyfriend who appreciates you. The time you’ll save from not jumping through their hoops of ridiculous demands will be put to better use with a client who appreciates you, and the happier you is much more likely to attract your next beloved customer.