Project Management

Why You Should Have Fired That Client a Month Ago

Daniel Threlfall
February 2, 2015
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Every project manager faces this experience. It’s starts as a gnawing pain in the back of the brain. It buzzes into a full-fledged, eye-popping epiphany. And then it explodes into a full face-palm."We should have fired that client a long time ago!!!!"

This client-firing attitude is tough. Not many people are brave enough to fire clients. In today’s digital agency marketplace, clients are  hard to get. Clients are money! You should seek them, grovel before them, honor them, and do all they they want you to do. Clients are your life line!

Ah, but clients can also drain the life from you. I lay no claim to being the world’s best client-firing kind of guy. I'm as hesitant as anyone to fire a client.

The only reason I can write this article is because I’ve learned, often too late, that I should have fired that client a month ago. What I want to share with you are some of the reasons why you might want to fire your client, too.

First, a little story.

I used to hang on to clients like a bad habit. My first experience in firing clients was while working in a tech startup based in Seattle. (I worked remote.)

We managed to attract some really good clients — strong companies with smart people doing good things.

And then some other clients...not so much.

As client manager, I was tasked with direct communication to our point of contacts. Often, these were other startups consisting with one or two employees. One of our clients insisted that our company do something that was completely unethical. We had a history with the client — a history of hand-holding, unreasonable demands, spite-filled emails, all-caps emails, and whine whine whine. That should have been a sign to us.

But now he wanted me to do something that violated the company’s ethical pursuits.

He asked, and I said “no.”

He demanded, and I said “no.”

He raged, and I said “no.”

I discussed the issue with my CEO. My CEO had a simple response, “Fire him.”

I was thinking, "Fire him?! But he’s paying us $X a month!"

But I fired him.

Immediately, my life got 82 times better. I couldn’t believe the difference. My own internal compass was realigned, my priorities got straightened out, the quality of my work improved, and the company regained its solid footing. All because we fired an odious client.

That scenario, described above, repeated itself several times over the course of my tenure as client manager. I ended up firing three more clients in just a few months.

One client wanted us to create him a new website and check his email for him. Another client had a habit of sending cuss-you-out emails whenever he was having a bad day (which was every day.)

At first, it was hard — firing a paying client. But then it got easier. I realized that firing these clients made us more profitable. Productivity soared, morale was boosted, and we were able to work with the clients who really mattered for the long term.

Hello, Pareto. Good to see you here!

I’m horrible at math and economics, but one of my favorite little math gems is from a guy named Pareto. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

Pareto came up with the Pareto principle (no surprise), often called the 80-20 rule. The 80-20 rule states that 80% of your results are a product of 20% of your effort. In other words, 20% of what you do accomplishes 80% of your results.

If you’re struggling with problem clients, you’re probably not in the Pareto zone. In fact, you may actually be expending 80% of your time and effort on a paltry 20% of your clients — the problem ones! That is not the recipe for a successful company!

Take a look and see if this is true about your company — are 20% of your clients bringing in 80% of the revenue? Is it close?

But where are you spending the majority of your time? If you’re wasting valuable time on not valuable clients, then you are probably a victim of onerous clients.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Hang on to your clients! (Or not.)

Clinging to your clients is like grabbing on to a cactus for dear life. It hurts. And why in the world do you keep doing it?!

Clinging to a problem client simply because they’re bringing in some revenue each month is not the way to do your best work. They drain you psychologically and emotionally. They leach your energy and harm your wellbeing. That’s not worth the extra bucks.

The sooner you fire these clients, the sooner you can restore your mental equilibrium and  well being.

A few days ago, I received a text from my friend who is a front end developer with web development agency. He creates award winning websites. He makes good money. He has nice coworkers.

But he has horrible clients. That simple truth makes the entire difference. My friend is looking for a new job. His only complaint? The clients.

It makes a difference. However, it's in your control. You get to decide whether you'll keep holding on to the cactus or not.

Ready, aim, fire.

Okay, now to close out this hardball article, I’m going to shoot straight with 8 tips on spotting that life-sucking vampire of a client.

1. They are inordinately high maintenance.

When I worked as a client manager, I used to receive 150-200 emails a day. Most of these were from clients. Usually, they were short emails — ”Thanks for the report.” “Could you send me the ranking from last month?” “Webinar on Tuesday at 3pm.” — stuff like that. Easy. Quick. No problem.

The most time consuming emails were the emails that complained and whined about everything. These were demanding clients, and they took up my time and my colleagues’ time in a way that was compromising the profitability of the company.

To put it in raw business terms, high maintenance clients don’t have positive ROI. For the effort you expend on a client in work hours, you should be getting some return. Are you?

These are the customers who demand uncustomary and inordinate attention. They are oblivious to the fact that your business serves more than just one client.

This is a client that needs a sober reminder, and if the problems continue then give them the ax.

2. They don’t pay.

A customer that doesn’t pay should be dropped as soon as they miss their second payment due date.

Maybe I have a cruel streak about this from my past experience. I consulted for a mobile application developer. Some of my lingering memories from my consulting stint was watching the CFO make phone calls all day long, asking clients to pay up.

It must have been exhausting. Sadly, the company had a track record of retaining no-pay clients. They had to lay off staff and scale back operations because their clients had IOUs from months and years of deliverables.

Don’t let this happen. Dismiss clients who don’t pay.

3. They ask for insane price cuts, which will cannibalize you.

As managers, we want to serve clients with the occasional discount here and there. But some people don’t know when to stop asking for discounts.

If you have a client who constantly asks for a lower price, then it’s time to refuse. Repeated price drops or unfair “legacy pricing” will cannibalize the company and ruin profits.

Say no. The client will either pay the fair price, or they will seek another service provider. Don't be their victim.

4. They break the contract and want to be reinstated.

If a company breaches the contract, then you should consider firing them immediately.

I generally provide clients with a warning. Maybe it was a mistake. Okay. Fine. But if the mistake happens again, we must part ways.

All clients should receive a written and signed agreement that outlines what is expected, the scope of deliverables, a Gantt chart of workflow, confidentiality agreements, and any other pertinent documents.

A client who violates the terms of that agreement is proving their untrustworthiness. Early problems in breaching a contract can mushroom into worse problems later.

5. They threaten you with legal action.

Have you ever had a client who threatened legal action against you?

If you are deserving of the legal action, then I’m sorry. Please do better next time.

Sometimes, however, power-hungry clients use this as leverage. They think that by throwing around terms like “litigation” and “my lawyer” they will cow you into a position of submission — doing all their bidding and giving them superior treatment.

Clients who do this are almost always a bad idea to keep around.

6. The individuals in charge of the contract have a known history of abusive behavior and/or legal culpability.

I hope you’re doing a little bit of client screening. A little due diligence can go a long way. All it takes is Googling the individual or company’s name. If you come up with less-than-savory news about their behavior or past actions, I would be extremely careful about accepting them as a client.

But if you do accept them, be on your guard against any repeat performance of their unpleasant deeds.

I’m all about giving people a second chance. But if the clients you’re dealing with are known to be harsh, litigious, dishonest, or brutal, then do yourself a favor and fire them at the first sign of trouble.

7. They exemplify abusive behavior.

If a client is abusive, fire them. Abuse can take the form of harsh or demeaning emails, phone calls, or in-person meetings.

The minute someone cusses out one of my team members, I will pick up the phone and fire the client on the spot. No one deserves to be cussed out. Everyone deserves respect.

Doing business is about being respectful. Both parties must respect one another in order for the relationship to be successful.

8. They lied.

And you know it. And you can prove it. Get them out.

You do not want to continue working with dishonest clients. Dishonesty will cripple your business and compromise your principles


A fair word of warning. There will be some clients that you’ll want to fire, but you probably shouldn’t. I’m not suggesting that you go on a free-for-all firing spree. Just because you don’t like the way that he dresses, or the perfume that she wears, or his accent doesn’t mean that you should ditch them.

Think hard before you pull the trigger.

But by all means, pull the trigger on some of these clients. There is simply no good reason that these clients should keep draining your vitality and progress.

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