Firing clients: Knowing when it’s time to say goodbye

A phrase came up in conversation last week that I find infinitely wise. Someone mentioned to me that perhaps it was time for her to “fire a client.”  Yes, consultants do fire clients, at least the smart ones do. The not-so-smart consultants cling to every piece of business no matter how torturous or unproductive the relationship may be.

I’ve fired a number of clients over the years. It always produces a feeling of exhilaration and freedom. And I’ve always known instantly that I had done the right thing. It just feels right.

Signs a client needs firing

How do you know when it’s time to cut a client loose? Here are surefire signs that this person’s business is more trouble than it’s worth:

• The person doesn’t respect any boundaries. If you’re getting client calls any hour of the day and weekends, too–even when you’ve explained that you don’t work on Sundays or that you prefer not to be called after a specific hour–then you’re dealing with someone who is not respectful of your personal time….and thus not respectful of you. This behavior usually accompanies unreasonable demands for project turnarounds since a person who would call you at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning (yes, that has happened to me) probably is positive that whatever you’re working on for him/her is THE most important thing in the world and needs to be done immediately.

• Every budget discussion is preceded by a description of just how bad the client’s business is and about how little money they have on hand. This person is just setting you up for a negotiation in which they will try to talk you down on your price. If you let this happen, their money problems will become your money problems once you agree to a price that is below what you should be charging.

• You have to chase your money. This one often goes hand-in-hand with having a client who always cries poor mouth when it comes time to set a budget. First they talk your price down and then they are slow to pay that price.

Wondering when you’re going to get paid and even if you’re going to get paid is such a tiring exercise. If you have to chase you’re money once, that’s one thing, but if you’re constantly having to make dunning calls and if you’re told the check will be mailed today and it isn’t, then it’s time to cut ties. (Of course, you don’t do this until all your money is in your pocket because the type of person who would constantly be late in paying is also a person who will decide not to pay that last bill if you tell them you’re no longer going to work with them.)

• No project ever goes smoothly, mainly because the client is unable to make decisions and stick to them or doesn’t meet their own commitments for the project. Sure, things do come up unexpectedly that require changes midstream, but if this always happens with a client, something is wrong. If you consistently feel more frustrated than fulfilled in your work for a client, it may be time to call it quits. Also, if these unexpected shifts mean that you lose money because you’re working on a project basis instead of hourly, this is definitely a sign that something is wrong.

• You hear plenty of complaints but nary an apology or a thank you. Clients who hand out verbal abuse but never any kudos are the worst. Why put yourself through this? Sure, anyone can fly off the handle now and then under the pressures of business, but if no apology follows when the person has calmed down and if this is a constant fixture of the relationship, it’s time to say adios.

Sometimes you can spot problems even before taking on a prospective client. At such times, it’s important to go with your gut and gracefully decline the business. Of course, this isn’t always easy to do if your bank account is looking anemic, but experience has shown me that once you say no to a piece of business, sometime better almost invariably shows up. So trust your instincts on this and on when to fire a client.

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