If you’re just getting started with your business, you probably can’t imagine what a significant challenge it can be to get rid of clients. Starved for revenue and eager to build a testimonial bank, you’re probably willing to all but give away your services to any interested party. (Or maybe you are!)
But, as any established person will tell you, not every client relationship or every project is a good one—or even worth your time. In the best-case scenario, you see these less-than-ideal clients coming and decline those projects before even getting started. But even the best of us seem to get ensnared with unsavory people and bad projects from time to time. And when you find yourself in this position, it’s time to break up and move on.
Of course, firing clients is easier said than done, which is why people often avoid it for far too long. But it’s an important skill to have—and, once you’re comfortable with the idea, it’ll keep your business much healthier in the long run.
The first step is, of course, knowing when it’s time to part ways. Read on for a few telltale signs that it’s time to break up, plus tips on avoiding similar situations in the future.
1. You’re Not Doing What You Want to Be Known For
It’s easy to get involved with work that you “can” do, but don’t necessarily want to be doing. A client asks, you say yes—it’s the path of least resistance (and it probably pays).
But, instead of accepting every project, it’s important to consider what you want to be known for, and how you can do as much work related to that as possible. After all, most all businesses grow through word-of-mouth referrals, so undesirable work tends to beget more undesirable work. And working on those prized projects will do just the opposite!
That said, it’s not a great idea to leave clients in a lurch the second you determine the work to be less than ideal. It’s important to fulfill the commitments you’ve already made—but that doesn’t mean you need to sign up for the long haul. When you see that your client’s needs are and will continue to be out of your sweet spot, that’s a good sign it’s time to use that “it’s not you, it’s me” line.
When new or existing client asks you about a project, take note of whether or not you’re excited about the initial inquiry. If you find yourself saying, “Well, I guess I can do this,” it’s probably a good idea to pass.
2. You’re Over-Accommodating Them
Part of your job as an entrepreneur is to establish a set of systems, rules, and policies that help you to produce the best work you can—that’s what sets you up for success. However, some clients don’t care how you do business—they want things done their way, on their time, on their budget, thank you very much.
While the occasional favor that pushes your boundaries shouldn’t wreak too much havoc, you need to be careful about consistently yielding to pushy or over-demanding clients. Lots of seemingly small accommodations—pulling all-nighters to meet their deadlines, for example—can actually get in the way of your doing a good job for this client and for your others.
If you’ve had to ask yourself if the client is really worth the trouble they cause more than once, it’s probably worth planning an exit strategy and freeing yourself up for potential clients who are a better match for your style.
Be wary of those clients who always seem to have a “special” request or those who put undue pressure on others to meet their needs. Also take the time to educate new and prospective clients about your policies and the rationale behind them. Once you’ve done that, be honest with yourself about which of your policies really matter and impact the way you work (your non-negotiables), and be consistent in how you handle “exceptions to the rule” among your clients.
3. You’re Not Earning What You’re Worth
It’s important to audit your clients from time to time. Think about how much time you spend on them proportional to how much they pay you. Is it in alignment? You’ll probably find for at least one or two, it’s not. For some reason, the least lucrative work seems to take a disproportionate amount of time—but that shouldn’t be the case. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s time to raise your prices, off-load time-hungry clients, streamline your operations, or do all three.
Be sure to scale your deliverables in accordance with the budget. If a client can only pay for half of your proposal, then they only get half of your proposal. Also make sure to put limits on the total percentage of your time that less-lucrative clients can take, so you’re not putting your whole business at risk.
4. You’re Being Treated Poorly
There’s no excuse for bad behavior. If a client is treating you poorly, it’s time to move on. Fear of bad word-of-mouth can tempt a lot of entrepreneurs try to dig themselves out of a no-win situation, even when they’re dealing with a meanie. Instead, the best course of action is almost always to cut your losses, refund according to your contract terms, and find someone else to work with.
Put a couple “personality” screening practices in place. Depending on how extensive, involved, and long-term the work you’re planning to do is, you may want to take prospective clients to lunch or at least set up a “get to know you” phone call before giving them a proposal. Consider their behavior in scheduling the appointment and during the meeting to be telling of their working style.
5. You’re Too Close for Comfort
Working with people you know, like friends or family, is tricky. Yet, since most entrepreneurs turn to those close to them for support, they end up fielding a good number of business requests from their personal Rolodex. Some people can handle it and some relationships continue on unfazed, but mixing business with pleasure is tough, and many of these arrangements wind up in trouble.
If you find yourself in this situation, take the high road and exit as quickly as possible. Bend over backward to make sure that the clients who you’re personally connected with get what they want, but don’t extend your work with them a day longer than necessary.
Establish a clear friends and family business policy for yourself and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to have a go-to line, like, “in my experience, working with friends has proven to be difficult, and I care too much about our friendship.” Be particularly aware of ongoing relationships where you are also a patron of their business. That doesn’t mean you can’t help them out, though—this is a great opportunity to make use of your referral network and send them to a stellar colleague of yours.
You don’t have to get in the trap of accepting all business that comes your way—and in fact, you shouldn’t. In the long run, you and your business will be better off if you stay focused on the right client relationships and steer clear of the wrong ones.