Why you must fire your worst clients – and how to do it

You’re working flat out with steam wafting off your keyboard when the phone rings. Your heart sinks and a faint shudder runs down your spine. It’s your client from hell… again.

It is the fifth time he has phoned today to have a grumble about something and you are ready to explode. Instead, you pick up the phone and politely note all his “ideas” for the next 35 minutes. Meanwhile, the ultra-important task you were working on for your favourite client is in danger of missing a crucial deadline…

If any of this sounds familiar, you have a bad client. And the good news is, you must fire them!

It may sound harsh but anybody who is causing you that much trouble isn’t worth what they are paying you. And that stands even if your worst client is your biggest source of revenue.

Business owners are normally very passionate about what they do. So when someone isn’t 100% happy with it, it becomes a personal mission to get it right. This is why a difficult client can quickly eat up all of your time.

You may have heard of Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. It is as relevant in business today as when he came up with the formula in 1906. The concept is simple: that most things can be split into a divide of 80 and 20.

So for example, 20 per cent of your clients are probably contributing 80 per cent of your revenue. It also goes that 20 per cent are contributing 80 per cent of the hassle. If that’s the case, you may have to let some of them go.

Bad clients can be a negative influence for a number of reasons. Do any of these troublemakers sound familiar to you?

Mr “cheque’s in the post”

Anybody who persistently neglects to pay their bill or pays it very late is extra work and expense. You’ve done the work, you’ve issued your invoice, but they insist on taking extra time to pay. Every month. Your client is treating you like a free overdraft facility! While you’re spending all that time chasing payments, you are effectively working for nothing. Remember you have bills to pay too. And you wouldn’t treat your suppliers like that, right?

The client who phones at 8am Sunday

If you have an agreement to spend a set amount of time on a project, stick to it. That is what they are paying you for. If a client expects a 24/7 service, that is what they have to pay for. If they aren’t prepared to do that, it’s time to go your separate ways. You should also treat clients who want to be your friend in the same way. Keep your relationship strictly professional.

Roger the deadline dodger

A date is agreed and everyone puts in a super-human effort to make sure the deadline is met. Everyone except the client. When it is time to approve work or make their agreed contribution they vanish into thin air and the deadline passes by. Then a few days later, they will expect their suppliers to put in extra work again to get the project back on track.

I know better than you…

Your client is paying you to do a job in your area of expertise but suddenly decides they know how to do everything better than you. If they think they can suddenly rival the services you have spent years perfecting, then let them. Say your farewells, sit back and watch them struggle.

By the way, clients that treat you in a certain way normally treat all their suppliers the same. If you’re not sure about a client, track down a previous supplier and see what their experience was.

Once you know who has to go, how do you avoid an unpleasant and unprofessional Apprentice-style boardroom showdown culminating in the immortal words ‘You’re Fired’?

Let them go in your mind first

Turning down money is something that no business wants to do. But if your client from hell is causing you that much trouble, you will never be free to move forward with other clients. The first step is to make a rational decision and mentally let go.

Keep it business-like

This is business, not a soap opera ratings-grabbing episode. Don’t scream and shout and take the opportunity to say out loud exactly what you think of them. Be polite and simply explain the relationship isn’t working out. Be calm and helpful by suggesting another supplier they may be comfortable working with (maybe a competitor of yours that you want to bog down with a bit of hassle…?)

Plan for D-Day

It would be easy to tell your client to stuff it but never fire someone in the heat of the moment. Make your decision, decide when to break the news and stick to the plan.

Write it down

Put everything in writing and keep it short and clear. Document emails if possible and submit a final invoice if there is any money outstanding. Chase up payment of that final invoice more keenly than you would others; “final” invoices are the ones that tend to get forgotten.

Keep your mouth shut

However enraged you are with the way you have been treated, resist the temptation to tell everyone you meet what a nightmare your client has been. It is bound to get back to the client and damage your reputation too.

Focus on the future

Finally, take comfort from the fact that by firing your worst client, you are opening up your doors for another, much better one to come along. It is a fact of business that when you really need a new client and put in the marketing work to find them, one will come along just at the right time.

Last updated: 13th April, 2021

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