How to Fire a Horrible Client

Felicia Sullivan

When you first started your small business, you were probably overjoyed when you landed your first customer. You were grateful for the work, and their belief in you validated the reason you became your own boss.

Then you got your first bad client — you know, the one that makes you cringe when they call. The Mr. Nothing’s Ever Good Enough or the one who believes shouting into the phone is a perfectly normal way of conducting business.

Soon, you realize that the customers who are causing you grief are also costing you money. For all the time you’re spending trying to fix the unfixable, you could be pursuing your dream clients. Everyone has the occasional bad customer, yet it’s important to recognize when they’re costing your small business big.

Before you decide that firing a client is the right step to take, do your due diligence and plan for the event in advance.

1. Determine whether your client is actually terrible or just challenging.

Although both may drive you to tear your hair out, the difference between terrible and challenging clients comes down to communication and collaboration. Bad clients don’t respect your expertise, time, or work ethic, while challenging customers might simply have a work style that clashes with your own, or they’re dealing with unnatural levels of bureaucracy, or they’re likely raising the bar for the work you’re able to produce. For example:

  • Terrible clients communicate on polar ends of a spectrum. You’re either dealing with the nonresponsive, disappearing artist or the clingy, nitpicking client who fires off 30 emails in an hour and phones, texts, and issues an APB wondering why you haven’t responded to their request to adjust a pixel on an image. Whereas challenging clients will respect your boundaries and give clear direction in terms of tasks and expectations, but perhaps their communication style might be lacking.
  • Problem clients believe that every project is “easy and quick” because they don’t understand the complexity of what you do. The know-it-all client requires constant education and a constant defense of your fee and the time needed to complete the project. Challenging clients, on the other hand, understand and respect that they’ve hired an expert, and they’ll push you outside of your comfort zone to get the best-ever work of which they know you’re capable.

You can adjust your style and process to the challenging client, but the horrible one will never be a true partner.

2. Evaluate whether this is the right time to fire.

It may be hard to fire a client if your income depends on them, or if firing your client would be either unethical (that is, you’d be leaving them in a bind without a replacement) or a breach of contract. As a small business owner, if you’re just starting out, or if your pipeline is not full, it may be difficult to decide if firing a client is the right decision.

If firing the client is not the goal, then, as a first step to address the situation, you can raise your rates to pay for the pain (and throw in some small extras to counter the sticker shock). Or, you can offer a transition period where you volunteer to find and train your replacement. However, if neither of these tactics works, realize that the situation is only temporarily sustainable and map out your exit strategy. Think about how you felt when you gave notice at your 9 to 5. Create and commit to an end date and then the day-to-day won’t feel as terrible.

After studying all your alternatives, if you determine that firing the client is your best solution, we’ll show you how to cut the cord with the right plan and three stress-free scripts.

3. Observe the client-firing ground rules.

  • Schedule a time to meet in person or chat via a video conference call. You met the client face-to-face, so it’s important that you give them the respect of ending the relationship face-to-face.
  • Don’t make it personal. This is a business decision. Show how ending the arrangement is beneficial to them.
  • Be calm and professional. Don’t engage their anger or play the blame game. No matter how heated the conversation gets, be polite and professional. Your industry is small and people talk. Let them remember you were the graceful one in the situation.
  • Set expectations for what comes next. Don’t leave them frantic and stranded, no matter how terrible they are. Remember, this is your reputation. Deliver all remaining work as defined by the terms in your contract and allow for a reasonable transition period.

4. Create the three scripts.

There are three routes you can take when firing a problem client. Customize the scripts when you speak with them, and always close with a solution and defined next steps.

  • Script #1: You’re Shifting Focus. In this scenario, you’re letting them know that you’ll no longer be working in your field. “Cathy, it’s been an honor to work with you. I’ve been evaluating my business over the past year and I’ve decided to pursue [new focus] rather than [current work]. As a result, I need to reshape my client base to have more of a work-life balance while I focus on my new business direction. Unfortunately, I’ll no longer be able to work with you as of Y date. Please know that it’s been amazing working with you and I appreciate your understanding as I enter this new phase of my life. I know you have a lot of work in the pipeline, so I’d be happy to help you find another partner who can give your business the attention it deserves.”
  • Script #2: You’re Raising Rates. In this scenario, you want to double (or more) your rate to guarantee you’ll price out your bad client. “Mike, it’s been a privilege to work with you and your team. I know you had other options on the table and when we learned you had chosen us as your partner, we were thrilled. Over the past [five years], we’ve achieved X and Y goals together. Recently, I’ve evaluated my pricing and have decided to change my rate structure. My business has grown astronomically over the past year and, to meet this demand, I’ll be changing my rates to X as of Y date. Let me know if this will work for you. If not, I’d be happy to refer someone who would be more in line with your budget. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make this transition period easier for you.”
  • Script #3: You’ve Had Enough. “Jim, I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you. I’ve given this a lot of thought, given our partnership and how long we’ve worked together. Over the past few [insert time], I’ve noticed issues in our working relationship, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not the best fit. This isn’t an easy thing to say, but it’s important that you have the best partner who will be able to be on the same page with your vision and expectations. I’d be happy to connect you with someone in my network.”

Regardless of the scenario, your close should be concrete and clear about what happens next. Present a list of next steps, including a hard end date, expectations re: deliverables, and the associated timing for completion. Communicate that you’ll outline your discussion in a follow-up email.

Firing a client should be your absolute last resort, and you should only do it when you know that the relationship is beyond repair, or if it’s hurting your team or other customers. If managed well, your professional reputation will remain intact. Being clear, direct, and honest about the arrangement and why it needs to come to an end may be less painful than you think. However, don’t waver on your decision, and don’t leave the door open for negotiation or discussion.

How have you handled a terrible or challenging client relationship? Tell us about your experience and how you handled it. Share your comments below.

17 Responses to "How to Fire a Horrible Client"

    • Suraj Tschand | June 5, 2018 at 6:47 pm

      We have been a customer of the Hartford for more than 20 years. We have been extremely happy on how they have handled our claims.
      Based on our experience with the Hartford, we read all the business posts. The “How to fire your horrible clients” article is excellent. Everyone should follow the information.

    • Lisa Lewis | June 5, 2018 at 8:28 pm

      This was good and helpful. like that it is a short, 1-2 min read. thanks. lisa

    • Carolyn Wispe Burns | June 5, 2018 at 9:23 pm

      This sentence is not worded correctly: “Or, you can offer a transition period where you volunteer to find and train your replacement.” My time is money and I would never volunteer to train a replacement. I would not charge for making a few phone calls or sending out quick e-mails.

      Otherwise I thought the article had very good approaches to dealing with problematic clients. Thanks

    • Wesley Castellanos AIA | June 5, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      This a very good article. I would have liked to see how I can add this to my terms and conditions or agreement to severe the relationship without major repercussions.

    • Yvonne May | June 5, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      My client knows how to make money but not how to run a business. He never follows tax rules and always wants free advise. He calls all hours of the day and night and wants instant work and results. He wants the “hookup”, argues about cost, goes online to find cheaper prices to compare without looking at content, and doesn’t want to pay the fees assessed. It’s like pulling teeth. He is an undesirable client and I told him I didn’t need his business because it costs me money and time. This had no room for fluffing.

    • Mitchell F Barnes | June 5, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      After 30 years in the public sector (law enforcement) we couldn’t always fire our clients. We still documented every encounter. Then went into business for myself in 1994 and learned fairly quickly that most of our clients knew what they wanted and a very small percentage raised the bar for consuming more time than was merited. We slowly raised our price and they went away. I’m happy to say we’ve had very few bad clients over the years as the majority are corporate clients. Never had to have that scripted conversation with anyone and I’m thankful for that.

    • Joel berman | June 5, 2018 at 10:54 pm

      Referring a terrible client to someone in your network is a terrible idea; it generates bad karma. My father-in-law gave me a great phrase that I use often: “I am very sorry, but I am not able to meet your expectations.”

    • michelle | June 6, 2018 at 1:32 am

      Always #3. It is more honest. If #1 is really true, you might be firing more than one client that doesn’t fit the new focus, and if you do not do that, you run the risk that the client you do fire will find out you really did not change focus. Number two just might not work. Alternatively, if you didn’t raise prices for everyone, the client you are firing might find out. Not good.

    • Marie Barger | June 6, 2018 at 2:20 am

      Thank you! This article was so well written and applies to many dynamics for human work / life balance. I agree with your positive outlook and teaching a graceful way / technique to build stronger community around us. Respecting all walks of life, yet setting your boundaries is fundamental to your unique personality and integrity. Law of attraction, birds of a feather – flock together… Do not let what you cannot control lurk for long on your path in life. God Bless every person ✌💚

    • Sanjeev Siwach | June 6, 2018 at 5:02 am

      Thanks for the article and appreciate.

    • Thann Massaro | June 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

      As an IT consultant I have run into this situation a few times. Raising our rate to a level that makes me feel like the extra hassle is worth it has worked for us in the past. Great article!

    • Marvin Waldman | June 6, 2018 at 10:20 am

      I agree with Mr. Berman. Excellent article, but my experience has been that if I don’t want to take on a new client or deal with a difficult client or situation, I do not want to foist that on someone else. I have always felt bad when a client leaves. That bad feeling disappears in a day or so, and I am much happier without the life shortener.

    • Bruce Meyer | June 6, 2018 at 10:55 am

      The Firing a horrible client article was good. Over last few years we have shifted to looking much harder at evaluating prospective clients in advance to try to determine if they will be poor clients when they come on. There are a surprising number of “tells” that you can find in common with your current or past horrible clients, as well as other sources, that will let you know what prospects might be like in the future. Quite a few bad ones will let you know in advance, look at them during the meet, greet, setup stages and avoid them before you have to fire them.

    • Jason Grubbs | June 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      This was an interesting article, particularly as I recently had the experience of turning away a prospective client who wanted to do business with our insurance agency, but had quickly demonstrated a lack of respect for our time with numerous phone calls, texts, and emails for what should have been a simple and quick transaction. I went with option 3 and hopefully did so in a courteous and respectful manner.
      One difficulty as an insurance agent is we don’t have the option of changing rates, although I agree with some of the earlier comments indicating if the problem is really a particular client it’s best to be straightforward in indicating the relationship isn’t a good fit, rather than simply trying to price out or foist a problem client off on someone else.
      It’s also prudent to reflect whether you are someone else’s problem client: Having been on the receiving end of a few clients who have been impatient, discourteous, or lack respect for my time I carry that with me and try to think of that when I’m in the role of the client to make sure professionals who work with me view the relationship positively and are motivated to provide good service, rather than dreading hearing from me.

    • Jane MIlardo | June 6, 2018 at 5:34 pm

      Excellent advice, but I would add one thing. If the client is prone to threatening to “report” people to whatever agency that may be, be sure to make them believe that you are not the expert in their particular problem, and that you must refer them to someone with more expertise. That way they leave, thinking you’re helping them. Then refer them to a bigger company, with more people to handle their problematic behavior. Such a client can be litigious, and you don’t need the headaches.

    • Linda Byrne | June 6, 2018 at 10:36 pm

      In my business I have had difficult clients, to say the least. I have learned to fire early and save myself grief. If the client kills a deal due to their bad behavior, then it is time to cancel the contract an move on. Waiting, or trying to bring in another deal, only prolongs the problem and makes matters worse. Exiting early will let them think about their actions and be more accountable. By waiting and hoping they only start to blame you.

    • Martina | March 13, 2019 at 12:34 am

      As a small business owner, I have been so lucky. I rarely have to deal with a terrible client – over the years, our vetting process has been carefully developed to catch clients that may not be ideal to work with.

      But every now and then, it happens and we are often at a loss.

      Thank you so much for this brilliant article. I am copying it for future reference.

      Sadly, I wish I never needed it again but I might!

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