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Why Firing Clients Is Sometimes A Good Idea

Sarah WelsteadGuest Post by Sarah Welstead, the longer Sarah works in marketing, the more convinced she becomes that most of the world’s problems could be solved by better communication. And maybe a larger font size.   You can connect with Sarah on LinkedIn or Twitter.
Bad clients can ruin your business.
But only if you let them.

Dear John

A few years ago, I won some new business: A branding and promotional project with a huge, very well-known multinational cosmetics company – the kind of client whose very logo in your portfolio would give you almost instant credibility. I was thrilled.

But the project quickly went downhill. The overall goals, seemingly so clear at the outset, suddenly got suspiciously murky; the client team changed personnel every two weeks, whereupon the whole project would shift in another direction; I kept having to fly halfway across the country for meetings which never made anything any clearer; and their head office, located in France, took 3 weeks, 10 emails, and 4 phone calls just to approve a URL for the promotion-related microsite.

The project was making me crazy, and I started to think that ‘success’ was going to be impossible. But it was a name-brand client, they were paying their bills, and it wasn’t like I was rolling in clients. I couldn’t afford not to do it – could I?

Sometimes, a bad client is costing you more than you think.

At first glance, I wasn’t losing money.

But between all the flying back and forth, the endless meetings, the wheel-spinning engendered by long approval times, and the fact that the goals had turned into unknowable quantum particles, I was losing more than I realized:

  • I was getting reimbursed for the cost of flights and hotels, but hadn’t included a travel-related per-diem in the project fee. So there was a lot of unbillable ‘downtime’ spent in airports and hotels
  • The revolving cast of characters on the client side meant that it was virtually impossible to build the kind of long-term relationships required for additional business
  • The increasing improbability of anything resembling success meant that my dreamed-of, name-brand case study was going to be anaemic at best (and non-existent at worst)
  • The whole thing was sucking the momentum and enthusiasm out of other projects
  • I didn’t have time (or, honestly, the mental energy) to take on other clients

So one day, after yet another pointless meeting, I called the client and told them, politely, that I couldn’t work with them any more. They seemed surprised – I don’t think anyone had ever fired them before.

You’ll agonize about it. But 99% of the time, you won’t regret it.

In the 13+ years that I’ve worked for myself, I’ve broken up with a handful of clients. In every case, I’ve struggled with the decision; in every case, it’s been exactly the right thing to do.

Of course, firing a client can seem – on the surface – about as dumb as quitting one job before you have another job lined up (which, by the way, I’ve also done). But done properly – which is to say, after thoughtful consideration, and communicated politely so as to minimize the burned bridges – you’ll find it’s the best thing you could have done for your business. When you’re able to focus on more successful, profitable and enjoyable projects, you’ll find the bottom line will take care of itself.