Joel Hughes, the Director of Glass Mountains, had a nightmarish experience with a client, and it ended up with him firing the client.
Just fired a client mid-project.
Will refund all monies.
In 15 years, first time I have ever done that.
My bad: I ignored my own red flags.
Feel *much* better for it.
— Joel Hughes (@Joel_Hughes) January 13, 2021
I’ll talk about Joel’s experience on how to fire a client throughout this article, but he’s by no means isolated in his experience. As a freelancer or digital agency owner, you’ll have to deal with all sorts of clients. Some companies even create dedicated client profiles and personas. Most of these clients will probably be fantastic partners, or at least manageable. The best ones won’t just listen to your recommendations, but will also bring interesting projects your way from other prospective clients (or more of their own!).
- Possible Reasons for Firing a Client
Most clients don’t just approach digital agencies or consultants just for website development or help with their marketing strategies. They also want your recommendations on how they can improve business processes. It’s all about adding value. The ones that listen to your advice might stick with you for the long term, and they’ll bring a litany of projects that challenge you professionally. Some will even become partners over time.
But as your business continues to grow, you are going to come across clients who are more difficult to deal with. They will haggle over prices, argue with your suggestions, and continuously overrule your recommendations. But, most agency owners don’t know how to let a client go. For growing agencies especially, this sort of stress isn’t just hard to deal with, but it cuts into the time and resources you need to spend on other projects.
Not only do these clients become a burden on your company’s resources, but they fail to acknowledge that you have other clients as well.
You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ve likely come across someone like this. We all have.
When you come to the conclusion that this person is simply not worth the trouble, it might be time for you to fire them.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done. After all, most people don’t particularly look forward to confrontation. And some of you might be apprehensive about the negative fallout biting back in the future.
But what if I told you that there’s a way to cut them loose without having to worry about all that blowback?
Before we talk about how to fire a client, let’s talk about some possible reasons due to which you might want to fire a client.
Possible Reasons for Firing a Client
The “why” of firing a client is a highly subjective topic, and varies dramatically from one person to another.
But in many cases, it can feel like flipping a switch. You reach the brink of your relationship with the client, and the client adds the last straw, at which point you have no option but to effectively end it.
As is obvious, the circumstances vary from one person to another. However, here are some of the most common reasons why you might fire a client.
The Ones Who Make Unreasonable Demands
This one’s fairly obvious. Most agency owners are generally willing to give their clients the benefit of the doubt. But when a client keeps making unreasonable demands, you will eventually reach the end of your tether.
We have all heard such nightmarish stories. A client throws a wild idea in an email to you outside of business hours, and wants it implemented in their product the next day (or as soon as you read it). They act like you are at their beck and call at all times!
Then, there are those who expect you to finish up a month’s worth of work in a few days. It’s why they are called unreasonable, after all.
While some agency owners might not mind the phone calls out of business hours, others are quite firm about this. If you feel that the client doesn’t respect your boundaries, consider letting them go.
Talking about his experience, Joel says, “So, in a good working relationship with a client, there is a joint voyage of discovery; you find out more about the client’s business – the client finds out more about what the web is capable of. That relationship, like all good relationships, requires trust. The client in question here had a lack of trust, and a lack of good faith.”
The Ones Who Want A Lot More for a Lot Less
As an agency owner, you have established pricing models to ensure that you do not undercut your profits. From time to time, you might not mind throwing in a few extra services to add value for a good client.
It’s a gesture of goodwill. However, some clients will take advantage of this. Many agency owners consider it a red flag when a client gets pushy straight from the get-go.
These clients will have issues with every single item listed on your invoice. They are also likely to ask for more work than was originally agreed upon.
You might be fine with doing it once or twice, but it won’t take long before such clients start getting on your case.
The amount of emotional energy you will expend on explaining the pricing is simply too steep a price to pay. If you know that your pricing is competitive and you have confidence in the work that you do, there’s no reason to undermine yourself.
The Ones Who Take Their Sweet Time With Payments
This one is a bit serious, and doesn’t just affect your emotional well-being. Clients that consistently delay payments impact your agency’s cash flow.
In most situations, these guys aren’t actively trying to cheat you out of your hard-earned money. They are simply disorganized. Unfortunately, this could cause problems for you, especially if you are just starting out. If you don’t get payments on time, it could impact your ability to pay your employees on time. As you can imagine, this leads to a cascading effect that could have dire consequences for your company.
If you have to constantly remind the client to clear your payments, it might be time to move away from them. After all, you can’t allocate a significant portion of your time to track payments.
The Ones Who Hardly Respond
Ah, the famous non-responder. They give you a job, they pay a small amount upfront, and then they vanish. If you need any information, you can’t get in touch with them. Emails, calls, whatever mode of communication you use, the only response you get is silence.
And then one day they return out of the blue with questions about the progress on their work. It can be incredibly frustrating, I know. It’s a difficult situation to have a client that forces you to just sit on the sidelines and then be accountable as their whims suit them.
Moving such projects along is a drag on your resources. It obviously affects your monthly revenue and makes things difficult. It often gets to the point where agency owners simply choose to let them go.
The Ones Who Are Just Disrespectful
This one doesn’t need much of an explanation. In your career, you might have come across a client or two who simply doesn’t just show good manners. You might let a few snide remarks slide, but when it starts piling up, it’s time to fire them.
You must expect respect from all your clients. This doesn’t just extend to remarks they make when communicating with you. They could be canceling meetings every now and then, signaling a lack of respect for your time. Or, they might ask you to prioritize them over other clients.
Alternatively, they might show a complete disrespect for your work. Their product might be testing in production, and they may ask you to roll back several steps to tweak things, which is obviously going to increase the workload.
When you have to let a client go, there’s also the small matter of refunding their initial deposit. Depending upon your agency’s pricing model, this might be a significant chunk of money.
For Joel, this put him in an uncommon situation. He says, “I have never fired a client before or had to refund, so this is a highly unusual situation. I am normally better at weeding out unsuitable clients before they ever get close. As I say on the podcast, I thought I was experienced enough to manage over the client’s issues – I was wrong, or, more to the poor, I realized there was no money in the world worthwhile putting up with this client.”
When such clients start getting to you, it’s time to let them go. I’ll show you how.
How to Fire a Client: 4 Steps to Ending a Bad Client Relationship
Ready to take the plunge? It’s a bit unnerving the first time, but you’ll get the hang of it once you’ve been through it. Remember, it’s not personal, it’s business. Right?
Let’s get into it.
Communicate Clearly and Professionally
Let’s start with the big one. I have met too many agency owners who simply fail to communicate to their client that they are fired. This leads to a bunch of confusing messages later on, and it often becomes a problem one way or another.
It’s tempting to fantasize about using heavy-handed language and telling your customer off. However, in the real world, this thing doesn’t bode well. Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give you when it comes to firing a customer is to not let your emotions get the best of you.
It’s imperative that you take a professional approach when firing a client and highlight all the important points. Be courteous about it; set up a meeting or go live on video and discuss everything with them.
The aim is to not play the blame game or get angry. It is to lay out your side in a clear and succinct manner, and let your client know just how their behavior has affected your company. Always be professional – never let personal feelings get in the way.
One way to do this is to take the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach. Spare them the lies, but don’t make it all negative. Just be very clear that you are not going to take them back in no uncertain terms.
There’s absolutely no reason to lie in this situation. Don’t tell them that you are “moving away from content marketing to ghostwriting books,” unless you actually are. What if they actually have a book for you to write on?
Think of it as a breakup. Try to make it an amicable one. Don’t spill the dirty truth about how you have been emotionally and financially hurt, but also don’t say that you are moving to Hong Kong and just can’t do long distance! (Besides, aren’t we all working remotely these days?)
Provide a Referral
Source: Referral Marketing
Your client is likely going to be indignant when they are fired. Some may take it well, but the chances of that are slim. In most cases, your clients will simply fail to acknowledge their mistake.
Acknowledge that the client is going to face some trouble because you’re leaving the project midway. Offer a few referrals, especially if you know another agency owner, to keep things cordial and give a direction for your client to move in.
No matter what industry you work in, people talk. And when you let them go, rest assured that they are going to voice their opinions on multiple platforms. Since word of mouth plays such a critical role for agency owners, it’s important that you provide them with a follow-up plan.
Consider this a professional courtesy. It’s a pretty basic way to protect your brand.
Prepare a Script Beforehand
Source: Film Trix
Don’t just walk into the meeting gung-ho thinking that you have everything down. Treat the meeting as professionally as possible. It’s best to write a script, or at least pointers that you take along with you in the meeting to shore up your reasoning behind the firing. Be direct, but also tactful.
Discuss the firing with your employees to ensure that you’re on board with everyone’s opinions before the final decision.
Many agency owners prefer taking a laissez-faire approach when running their business, so it’s best to discuss the problem with other stakeholders to have a clear idea before you walk into the meeting.
Finish the Contract (If You Can)
Before you decide to fire a client, consider completing the contract. Burning bridges while firing a client is very much a last ditch resort. Personally, I feel that you should try to honor the contract and finish it before you decide to fire a client.
It’s best to cross off everything on the project checklist before walking into that meeting to fire the client. This will improve your position when you start speaking.
Obviously, you should ignore this advice if the client is rude, abusive, or is simply uncooperative. If that’s the issue, don’t walk, run.
Just make sure you read the terms of the contract before you decide to fire a client. Be as descriptive as possible when writing the agency contract. Breaking the rules of the contract could cause you to return a deposit or lose some money in the process. Contracts are designed to protect both parties, so it’s important that you review the original terms and conditions.
Joel Hughes has some advice to share here. He says:
“Work out the client you love working with, work out the attributes those clients have. Also consider the clients you have not loved working with, what attributes do those clients share. In future, mark potential new clients against those attributes and,wherever possible, only work with clients who are a good fit for you.
Now I *know* working like this can be hard, bills have to be paid at the end of the day, but you also need to remember:
1) Bad clients drain you of the will to live, sap your energy, and generally make your life miserable.
2) Such clients rob you of time and energy to work with good clients.
3) Such clients never recommend you to good clients; they usually hang with a similar crowd.”
If you have to fire a client, you could just use the following letter to fire a client as an example to get the ball rolling:
How to Fire a Client: The Final Word is Yours
There’s no scenario in which firing a client is fun.
Most agency owners have had to do it though. Never make hasty decisions, but once you know what you have to do, don’t feel guilty about it. As long as you take the high road and give the client adequate recourse, there’s nothing to feel bad about.
When you let go of one client, you will definitely find another. It’s obviously difficult the first time around, but you have to take stock of where you stand.
These clients sap energy and become a burden on your company’s resources. Do you really want to continue with this? It often takes a mental toll on agency owners.
Once you fire a client, you will be able to focus your energy into new clients who will help fuel your business’ growth.