As a business owner, I am the first to be enthusiastic and hold my clients in high regard. Many of them bring value to the table, make interesting introductions to other like-minded people, and even make constructive suggestions that will push us to be a better company with better products and systems. Our company isn’t just a vendor to our clients. We are partners, friends, and trusted allies. Often, we develop life-long relationships!
AND although I speak highly of my clients, I can assure you that a tiny percentage makes life miserable. Do you remember the phrase “the customer is always right”? If one of our clients is unhappy with something we have done or haven’t done, we do our best to fix the issue immediately. If this isn’t enough, and it leads to argumentative, unsatisfied, difficult, cynical clients, or worse, if they chose to hold back funds for something we provided, or spend more time accusing than trying to work together to rectify the problem. I have one piece of wisdom to share: fire them.
I know what you are likely thinking. “Oh dear, AARON! I can’t fire my client!”. I know it takes a little intestinal fortitude to let go of a client. But I can assure you; you will be so much happier with them gone. You are likely spending money trying to make them happy, and I know you are spending precious energy and time to do so also.
If you have a client that feels like a bad dream, it is a total myth that you have to suck up the abuse, dread, and nausea they are causing. It is not just par for the course. Not all paying customers are created equal.
I’m sensing some cringing still.
I may not be popular while imparting my experience with clients causing you misery, but I can assure you, not only will you feel relieved, but you will save so much money by just saying goodbye.
Typically, although not always, these clients from the shadows try to negotiate every last penny, withholding payment or questioning every line item on our quotes. What type of client do I consider part of the nightmare? They are typically needy, calling at all different hours of the day- not respecting professional hours or common courtesies. They ask questions upon questions, using us for educating them on the industry as a whole, and are energy and time vampires.
But wait, there’s more.
Many times these clients also think they know best. Often they ask questions but ultimately do not take our advice. When they aren’t successful, they blame us or the product, even though we set very different expectations.
With newbies in the industry, it tends to be less impactful on our business. Still, it tends to hurt our business with kingpins because they have more influence and ability to steer their audience in a different direction that uses our product or services.
Sometimes, you just can’t put your finger on it. Sometimes your intuition and gut feeling speaks more clear and louder than any logic can. If you only have a client that makes you cringe when they call, it could be time to part ways.
If you consult your sales team, and they all relate to that “one” client, there is often more than meets the eye. The client could be abusing your team without you even knowing it. Teach your team to be healthy and trust their intuition too. If your team is stressed out or worn thin, the culture will crash quickly. If the culture stays strong, something else will hit. It may mean the team will start to be less engaged or less successful at closing the deal. It might mean they are losing confidence or enthusiasm for the company. Trust me. It would be best if your is enthusiastic about the company they represent. They should feel like they are part of a family. If they think the nightmare client is worth more than their efforts, the morale will dip, and your business will suffer. It’s the domino effect, propelling the company into misery.
I know. This is heavy. Don’t grow weary.
I’m talking about the exceptions, not the rule. Most of your clients are going to be awesome! Don’t let a bad apple spoil the whole bunch, my friends. Sometimes, you need to reach in and toss that single rotten apple away.
Nightmare clients hurt your team, your culture, and your bottom line. It’s time to let them go.
In my business, my partners and I have a saying that has become part of our internal mission statement: ESPF. It must be Easy, Simple, Painless, and Fun for us to start a relationship.
Easy, because we set clear expectations with dignity and respect.
Simple because we are transparent with our contract and deliverables.
Painless because the clients we take on are people that we know are a good fit. The fun doesn’t have to mean you only take on comedians or clowns. It means you enjoy your business because you are doing something you love. When nightmare clients are involved, usually the fun meter is at zero.
“I want it now.” If Queen’s hit song is their theme song, they might be a nightmare client. Typically these types wanted it yesterday, not now. They are impatient and have unrealistic timeline expectations. They feel everything is an urgent matter, no matter what. They tend to think they know better than you and the expectations you set. Often they threaten to change to a company that can get it done faster. Call their bluff. Say bye-bye.
“Put it on my tab.” Often, this type of client has all of the components of appearing put together and thriving. Still, when it comes to paying the bills, they analyze every line item and negotiate pennies while also wanting a line of credit. This type of client thinks their potential is worth imposing financial risk to you and makes you feel like a fool for not going along with these terms. They tend to be needy and want all of your attention too. Often you will find yourself trying to give them a significant discount that makes the sale barely worth it. Please don’t do it.
“Chatty and Arrogant.” These types of clients love to hear themselves talk. They want to tell you everything about themselves and their company. They feel they know everything, and if anything goes wrong, they never take fault. They blame others for their mistakes. They might be-little their employees or coworkers, or they might talk behind people’s backs, making you feel uncomfortable. You will be one of those people they blame eventually. You will be one of the companies they bad mouth eventually. Please do yourself a favor and opt-out before they sign the dotted line.
“See-Saw”: You will feel like when you talk to this client that they have ups and downs with decisions. Every detail is a painstaking process, and they often have to think about things so much that deadlines come and go, and nothing tends to get done. Dragging feet every step of the way, this type of client almost seems to enjoy the see-saw game. Time wasting, and not worth your time, don’t get on the see-saw with this client.
“A Homerun” This client seems like everything and everyone you could dream up. They bring unique ideas and deals to the table, but the problem is they leave you hanging. When you thought it was over, they present something bigger, better, and more promising than the last deal. These “clients” often get you to do all the leg work for them without you even realizing it. The hope of this being the homerun you’ve been hoping for blinds you. Keep with the base-hits and send this “client” back to the dugout before you strikeout.
“Switcharoo”: This client starts just like any other client, eager to partner with you, asks questions- but not too many, and seems excited without coming across disingenuous. But behind the scenes, they take all the wisdom and experience you offer, and alters the recipe of success, changing fundamental and essential parts, and then points the finger at you when things don’t work out. Don’t waste your time. If you see a plot twist with your relationship, don’t let it drag on. They will be blaming you for things you never advised.
General Red Flags:
I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I have ways that work to fire them without making drama.
This one is a little bit of pre-work, but ensure you present reasonable terms, and both parties fully understand. When they breach the terms, you have grounds to fire them. It’s not a feeling; it’s factual.
Be cool as a cucumber. Don’t take a ride on the emotions rollercoaster. Be cordial and respectful, but explain you are ending the relationship. There’s no need to raise your voice, get emotional, or stoop to their level—take deep, long, regular breaths.
Face to face or over the phone works better than text or email. You’ll end up in a tennis match of texts/messages if you don’t just rip it off like a brave band-aid.
Don’t play their game. The client may treat your decision as an opportunity to play checkers. Don’t fall into any traps. Don’t say or do anything you will regret. You’ve been playing chess the whole time.
Offer an alternative to partnering with you. Suggest other companies or vendors that might work better for them.
You’ll likely be in the middle of the deal when you decide to break up. Get your end of the bargain done with respect and speed. Don’t get sloppy. Let them know that once the deliverable arrives, the relationship is over.
Open the conversation with straight talk. Be resolute.
Frank, I’m sorry to say we need to part ways as of the 5th. Our contract was clear about ____. Due to ____, I have concluded we are not a good fit for each other, as clearly, your expectations are beyond what we can deliver. Here are the name and contact info for the X company. They might be a better option for meeting your expectations, needs, and timeline. I do appreciate your business and wish you the best.
Shooting straight rips off the bandaid and makes it clear you are serious. Offering a referral shows you respect them enough to not leave them high & dry, and there are no hard feelings.
Blaming yourself is the “it’s not you, it’s me” line in the breakup world.
Some ways to blame yourself:
Open the conversation with straight talk, but soften the blow with the blame of yourself:
As of X date, I will no longer be able to be your vendor for X.
We are moving in a new direction, and unfortunately, this means we must part ways.
I understand this may be surprising and disappointing, but I am happy to refer you to X Company, who will likely meet your needs.
I do appreciate your business and wish you the best.
Blaming yourself needs to be clear and concrete. Don’t give the client a way to weasel in your ‘new direction’ or ‘requirements’. Offering a referral shows you respect them enough not to leave them high & dry, and there are no hard feelings.
I keep this one in my back pocket for that one client that is a bottom-line type person. Changing your pricing or fees is a great way to ensure you are not right for them anymore. *be sure in your contract/terms you list that your pricing can change anytime/at your discretion.
Sam, As of X date, our fees for our services/ X product will be increasing.
Our price change will be including current customers, and therefore see we are no longer a fit for you. I want to recommend X company who will likely meet your needs in a timely fashion.
Be sure that this type of client won’t agree to the new pricing. Worst case scenario, you make more money dealing with them, but the point is to fire them, not charge a PIA fee and keep their business.
Use your nightmare clients as a learning tool. Why weren’t you a good fit? How can you use this information to prevent it from happening again?
All of these tools will be in your toolbox for when you need them, but you shouldn’t need them that often. The majority of people are reasonable, easy to get along with, and kind. If you find yourself going on a firing spree, you might need to look in the mirror.
It’s a matter of numbers. If you have 100 customers, 95 of them, minimum should be dream-worthy. If 5 are nightmare clients, let them go. If 20 of them are nightmare clients, you need to do a recheck with yourself, your onboard process, the types of expectations you’re setting, and your stress levels.
Look, I know I’m not a perfect person or business owner. But what I can say is that when I mess up, I fess up. I don’t cover-up. The transparency is 99.9% enough to move forward with the relationship. If it’s not enough, nothing will be.
The best part of firing nightmare clients is it makes room for happy clients. Make room for your own happiness and more happy clients. It’s a win-win.
Have you ever had to fire a client? What did you say? How did it go? How did you feel afterward?