Ways to Tell When It's Time to Fire a Client

Take Action When a Client Relationship Goes Bad

Middle aged woman at desk with computer.
••• Image (c) Maskot/ Getty Images

In a competitive business environment it is more important than ever to nurture client relationships. Unfortunately some clients are not worth nurturing, and life is too short to invest your energy in maintaining a client relationship with a client who is bad for your bottom line and/or your mental health. If any of the situations in this article apply, it's time to fire a client.

Let's take the most obvious cases first.

You know it's time to fire a client when:

1) The client is physically or mentally abusive.

Such abuse might consist of :

  • Threats
  • Sexual harrassment
  • Continually belittling you or making disparaging remarks about your gender, race or appearance – even if the comments were reportedly made to someone else. If "She did a great job for a (fill in insult here)" isn't acceptable to your face, it’s not acceptable behind your back either.
  • Being excessively rude or demanding to you our your employees

2) The client is dishonest.

Having a client relationship implies a certain level of trust between the parties, and you just can't trust a dishonest client. Occasional misunderstandings are common with clients, but when clearly articulated written or verbal understandings are constantly "misinterpreted" by clients, it is time to cut them loose.

3) The client makes unreasonable demands.

Everyone business person sets their own personal bar for what's unreasonable and what's not, and expectations of such should be made clear to clients. It may not be unreasonable for a criminal lawyer to be called or texted at 3:00 a.m. by a client who is ensconced in the local jail, but if your client is continually phoning, texting, or emailing you outside of the agreed upon hours then it may be time to part ways.

The same goes for clients who cannot make timely decisions and then expect work to be completed on time (or ahead of time). For example, if you are a builder and the homeowner cannot decide on the carpet colors until the day before the supposed move in date it is not reasonable to expect the job to be completed as originally scheduled.

All right; those are huge red flags that cue you instantly (or should) that you're not going to be able to have, let alone maintain, a good client relationship with this person. But there are less obvious situations that call for action too.

You should also fire a client when:

4) The client is consistently slow to pay.

Clients that don't pay on time are more than just annoying; they interfere with your business's cash flow. You simply can't afford them. (If cash flow is a regular problem for you, here are 5 Quick Ways to Improve Your Cash Flow.)

5) The client constantly nitpicks at or disputes your invoices.

The client who is agreeable up front and then tries to "cheap out" and cut down the cost of the project is particularly aggravating. One such experience with such an individual is enough. Stay stern, go after them for the money and then cut them loose.

6) The client keeps changing his mind.

If you're charging by the hour, of course, you might not mind this - if you can handle the frustration of having to redo things time after time and you have a clear understanding with the client that the constant changes are adding to the bill. Otherwise, this is another case where you need to decide where your personal cut-off is.

7) The client doesn't follow your advice – and then expects you to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.

This is the classic "so-what-did-you-hire-me-for?" hair-tearing client experience. The professional way to handle it is to help solve the client's predicament, if possible. And then be smart enough not to repeat the experience by moving on.

8) The client plays you off against the competition.

People getting quotes for work they want done is an excellent practice. But trying to use competitors' prices or timelines to renege on or get a lower fee on work that's already been agreed on or is in progress is not.

(Need to bone up on the competition? Read 6 Ways to Find Out What Your Competition Is Up To.)

9) A continued relationship with a client could embroil you in legal difficulties.

For instance, suppose you're a cement contractor supplying cement to a construction firm that you learn is performing shoddy work. The possibility of legal liability makes terminating this kind of client relationship a no-brainer.

Don't Wait to Fire a Client

If you're suffering through a bad client relationship, give your head a shake and dislodge that old adage, one in the hand is worth two in the bush. For all you know, the two in the bush could both become your clients and be a whole lot less trouble and more lucrative than the pain-in-the-pants you're dealing with now.

Review your troublesome client's history and decide if what you have to go through to maintain a client relationship with them is worth it. And if the answer is "No", fire him or her. You will be glad you did.