Sometimes the money isn't worth it. When to fire a horrible client.

Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Gifs circulated, music blared, and pizza was ordered. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the arrows pointing to the client with the word RUN propped above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Maybe I knew, but chose to ignore the warning signs that this boldface client would end up becoming a complete and utter nightmare.

It started with the creative director who OD’d on Gary V videos and read one too many Mashable articles. The creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic (e.g. a Tweet promoting our new launch) had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. However, that paled in comparison to the review process where we went through at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the SOW that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and then each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue including his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cared about sanity or hours burned (thus making the project unprofitable considering the boldface brand’s meager retainer), the days at a time when our client was unavailable or when he constantly pivoted when you’ve got a mortgage on a west village townhouse? #amirite?

After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and the staff to day-drinking, I walked into my our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?) and several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that you couldn’t fire lucrative-looking clients in an agency unless they were hurting the bottom line. The account in the red and the team screaming red were grounds for us to fire the boldface client. Simply put, the client took more time and grief than they were worth.

Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights aren’t worth it.

For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor and I pay attention to the signs during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.

A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, you want to do everything to salvage the relationship including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising because every battle doesn’t need to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if you’ve tried and the partnership continues to suffer. Sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that), and everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business not a non-profit. If a client is straining and draining, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play even more than ever when you’re a consultant.

Here are my top five reasons to fire:

  1. The “Why Are You So Expensive?” client: It’s perfectly normal for a client to ask how you came to an hourly fee or project rate, however, repeated questions are signs of red flags. Repeated requests to reduce your rate, work on spec (no way, no day), or promises of business referrals (if you do great work, you should be comfortable asking for referrals without having to work for less) for a reduced rate should be regarded with suspicion. There have been times when I’ve lowered my fee for a dream or cause client, but I do not compete on price. It’s a losing proposition. Someone will always underbid me and I have enough experience and confidence to know that my work is not a race to the bottom. Be wary of someone who nickel and dimes you every step of the way.
  2. The “This Can Be Done in 5 Minutes” client: Remember when I mentioned respect a paragraph or so ago? The client who believes that everything is so easy, or is baffled as to why something would take longer than ten minutes is a prospect that should send you running for the exits. A good client hires an expert who fills gaps in their business. They should trust that you know how long a task should take and that you would give honest implications of schedule changes and unreasonable timelines. If they don’t, they lack a basic respect for what you do and they will gaslight you every step of the way. I live by the Triple Constraint Concept in project management. You want something fast + high quality: it’ll cost you. You want something fast + cheap: it’ll be low quality. You want high quality + low cost: it’ll take time.
  3. The “I Flunked Communication 101” client: This is probably one of the most important aspects of a client-partner relationship. A lack of established lines of communication could put a project in jeopardy, and communication extremes are just as precarious. If you’re dealing with a ghosting client (do you really like sending 500 “just checking in” emails to then hear from a client that they need X deliverable by tomorrow, 2pm EST or ELSE) or an overly needy client (see #5) — both will get you no satisfaction, as the song goes. I had a client who could never properly articulate what they wanted, even when they were presented with examples, questioned, and coached. Hours and dollars were wasted even when they liked the finished product. Why? They were never quite satisfied with it. Their constant nitpicking on the small stuff took time away from the things that really mattered. They didn’t understand that done is often better than perfect, which leads me to their micromanager…
  4. The “Don’t Mind Me Stalking and Screaming Over Your Shoulder” client: Who feels empowered when they’re micromanaged? While your client may know their brand and business inside out, they hired you as an expert to help them with an aspect of their business. When they get too involved in the strategies and tactics for which they hired you, or if they constantly second-guess or question your judgment, fire them. Micromanaging represents a lack of respect, and it also demonstrates an unhealthy level of control. Micromanagers never grow into leaders because they don’t know how to trust and let go. As a result, your work will be inefficient and you’ll probably be blamed for every misstep and failure — even though the client did the equivalent of wearing earmuffs while you offered your expertise and recommendations.
  5. The “Why Haven’t You Responded to my 35 Emails in 10 Minutes” client: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. I used to tell my staff that they should take their work seriously but we’re not curing cancer. Not even close to it. While it’s important to be responsive to your client, you don’t need to be on a gurney answering emails. Set communication expectations from the onset. Now, I even bake into my contracts and remind them in my onboarding email series. I note the hours of my availability in time zone, when they should expect to hear from me, and communication protocol for emergencies. And by emergency I don’t mean, that pixel is off-center. You had better be on a gurney. You don’t have to act like a first-responder when it comes to emails in order to be an effective consultant. Sometimes a response requires time and thought, and it doesn’t always pay to be instantly available and immediately reactive. If a client fails to understand that and has a rage blackout that I’m not holding my phone at 3am, we have to part ways.

The last thing you want to do is cut the cord on a relationship, especially when your livelihood depends on it. In five years, I’ve only let two clients go and trust me, I took a lot before I decided I couldn’t take anymore. However, I’m now attuned to the warning signs in the proposal phase — how a client communicates, what kinds of questions they ask, etc. — so I can avoid the painful process of saying, it’s not me, it’s you.

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