Let’s face it. There are bad clients. Really bad clients. Clients so bad that they will ruin your sleep patterns, give you acne, cause bleeding ulcers, make you bald, and make you want to run away into the desert so that you never have to take their phone call again. I have truly been there and it was a miserable time in my life. I desperately needed to know how to fire a bad client and when to actually do it.
In the early days of running my first business, one of our largest clients was always threatening to leave us, always stalling on payment, and being so unreasonably mean and cruel to myself and the staff that one day, I lashed out, told him to take his company and get lost. I went home that day, thought about the repercussions, laid on the floor… and cried like a freaking sissy. We just lost our most significant source of revenue in a very early stage of our business. I was in a bad spot. My wife wondered if I was having a breakdown.
Should we always try to make the customer happy? Of course. But should we put up with insufferable jerks who are only looking for a dog to kick? No way. The problem I had early on in my career was with how to actually deal with a bad client. I had no idea what to do. They had me over a barrel. We needed the revenue and they knew they were a big client to us. But there comes a point where no amount of stress and abuse is worth it.
So what do you do?
1. Turn Down The Business
The first thing you should do (if you can,) is to identify whether or not this is the type of client that you’re going to want to work with in the long term. If the client is already hard to work with and you’re still in the scope creation and quoting phase, then it’s probably only going to go downhill from there. Look for the following red flags when you are just getting to know a new client:
- Are they questioning your prices?
- Do they go dark or are unresponsive for long periods of time?
- Are they asking you to do things that are outside of your core competency?
- Are they hard to get along with… already?
- Do they align with your company culture and standards? (e.g. Are they asking you to do something you’re uncomfortable with?)
It’s always felt wrong, even counterintuitive to growing a company to turn down new business. But in reality, the skill of client discernment is one of the most important things a company can learn and implement. In my experience, it has seemed that our ability to turn the corner and grow significantly was intertwined with our client selection. It makes sense in hindsight. It’s the same with so many other aspects of our lives. The company we work with, our spouse, or friends, the food we eat, or the type of toilet paper we use. Being choosy, making a wise and thoughtful selection, is everything. Anything less is just asking for trouble.
2. Identify Whether You Have a Bad Client On Your Hands
If you have mistakenly taken on a new client that turns out to be a wrecking ball, you’ve got to have a conversation with that client as fast as you can. You’ve got to determine whether or not you can resolve the issues quickly and move forward into a good working relationship. If that conversation in any way goes south, you’ll want to find a way to make it a good situation for everyone involved… even if you’re dealing with the biggest jerks in the world. Talk with your team, come to a resolution, and then come up with a plan to move the client away from you without dropping them on their face. Each situation is going to be different of course, depending on how much they’re paying you and what financial situation the company is in. But if they are a lower paying client and are taking up a majority of your time and energy, then you shouldn’t hesitate to migrate them away from you. Don’t continue to think that “everything will be alright,” or that they’ll calm down. Most likely, they won’t. It will just keep on going until you put a stop to it. People are like dogs on leashes… they’ll go as far as that leash will allow them to go.
3. Gather Your Thoughts Before Reacting
I still remember the day. I was driving down one of our city streets on the way back to work. One of these clients that I should have fired months ago kept calling me, circumventing our support process because he thought he was special, and verbally laying into me for things that were completely out of our control. The guy wouldn’t listen to reason. Just talked over me, yelled, and made insane accusations. This client was in the lowest 25% of our monthly recurring revenue of clients. Finally, while I was being reamed on the phone in my car, I said, “Look, I can’t take listening to you anymore. I’m going to shut all your services down TODAY!” And then I hung up.
I don’t normally react like this, but I was pushed to my boiling point. But regardless of how this man was acting, I responded poorly. “Blood begets blood like dog begets dog.” My reaction did nothing to improve the situation. What I should have done was gather my thoughts, let him know I’d have to call him back, and then respond when I had cooled down. If I was going to fire him, I didn’t have to do it while I was mad and backed into a corner. I didn’t have to threaten to shut down all of his services.
What I should have done was create a plan to move him away from us in a way that was calm and collected.
4. Make It A Good Situation For Everyone
Calm and collected is always the way to go. Don’t ever let them see you sweat. If you’re going to lose the client or fire the client, you might as well try and make it the best situation you can for everyone involved. You’d rather the client tell their friends that you were respectful and professional on the way out, rather than provoking them to demolish you, your company, and your reputation in word and deed. “Sticking it to someone,” or “Making them pay,” will only come back to bite you in the long run. Which leads me to…
5. Try Not To Burn Bridges
If there is one thing that has manifested itself to me over and over again, it is this. NEVER burn bridges. Bridgeburners never get far in life. Eventually, word gets out. Regardless of what happens with a client, it’s important that you try to keep that bridge in tact. If you need to get rid of a client for business reasons, it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to make it personal. Have an honest conversation with the person and try to find a way to separate the business from the personal. They are a drain on your company and it’s resources so you need to help them get setup with another vendor that might be a better fit for them. It doesn’t mean that they are the devil incarnate… so don’t treat them that way.
So… if you’re looking for a summary on how to fire a bad client, the answer is to do it with grace and professionalism. To help them move to another provider the best you can. To not drop them on their face. To not villainize them regardless of how you’re feeling about them. And to do it the minute you know that they are going to be a persistent drain on the company.