5 Signs That It’s Time to Drop Your Client

As all established business owners know, some clients are just no good for you.

When you’re just starting out in business you’re eager to build your reputation and earn some money as quickly as possible, and in the initial excitement that ensues, any project or client seems viable so you wind up agreeing to whatever work is offered. This can result in becoming saddled with long-term clients that don’t fit the ‘ideal client’ mold you create and perfect as your business grows.

Knowing which clients are worth the time and effort partly comes with instinct and partly from experience. At some point it is inevitable that you will become involved with a nightmare client or embroiled in a project that is such a headache it’s simply not worth pursuing. By regularly assessing your client base you can examine which of them best suit your current work ethos and make decisions about those that no longer sit as well with your plans.

This will be the time when you will have to consider firing your client. It’s not an easy decision to make, nor an easy action to implement, but once you accept the notion that you are as much in control of the situation as they are it will ensure your business will function much more effectively in the future.

So how do you know when it is time to move on? In this post I’ll discuss five indicators that it could be the right time to consider getting rid of your client. I’ll also suggest some of the ways you can avoid potential dud projects and difficult clients in the future.

1. You’re Not Being Treated with Respect

Any client you work with should treat you with respect. It forms the basis for an equal, honest, and open working relationship. When you first start out in business it can take a while to adapt to the transition from employee to business owner mindset, and as a result there can be uncertainty in how you expect your client to behave.

There is no excuse for your client treating you poorly. If a client is disrespectful, rude, or overly-critical of your work then it’s time to cut your losses and terminate your contract agreement. You may worry about damaging your reputation, but trust me, if you are unhappy and/or being treated unfairly this will subconsciously affect the quality of your work which will ultimately lead to the loss of clients anyway.

In the future be mindful to approach projects as professionally as possible. A client’s initial perception of you is lasting and if you are confident in presenting your service or product you will automatically command a level of respect. There will always be clients who don’t value your worth or respect your skills and experience but as you grow they will become much easier to weed out and avoid.

2. You’re Not Enjoying the Work

If I’m not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, then I say no. ~ Derek Sivers

It’s easy to end up taking on projects that are relatively ‘simple’ but unenjoyable. Usually this happens as the result of not wanting to rock the boat with an existing client, or because it pays well for the amount of effort required. As I’ve discussed before, if possible, money should not wholly dictate your decisions.

If you don’t have a buzz of excitement when you get an initial enquiry then maybe you should consider turning the work down. After all, most businesses grow through reputation and word-of-mouth recommendations, so you should take care to fill your portfolio with the kind of work you want to be known for and would like to be offered in the future.

3. You’ve Crossed Professional Boundaries

Professionalism: it’s not the job you do; it’s how you do the job. ~ Anon

Maintaining a successful and professional relationship with a client can be challenging. Striking the right balance can mean the difference between being perceived as friendly and personable, and coming across as amateur and inexperienced.

It is important that you establish the ground rules and any notions of personal/professional boundaries before commencing work. Your client might not be your boss in the traditional sense, but you should still afford them the same level of respect to ensure they approach you in the same way. While running your own business does allow you to approach working relationships in a more relaxed manner, there is still a line you shouldn’t cross.

Being over-friendly with a client could end up backfiring if one of you needs to be critical about an aspect of the project. Similarly, becoming friends through social media sites is also probably best avoided. Would a client really want to see photographs of you at a party or on vacation? And vice versa? Personal and professional spheres should remain separate; this is a business transaction after all. Ultimately, if you want be viewed as a professional then act professionally at all times.

4. You’re Not Being Paid Enough

As I’ve discussed before, negotiating the best rates you can achieve is vital to the success of your business. Having just one or two clients who underpay will bring down your equivalent hourly rate overall. Once you’ve determined your Minimum Acceptable Rate (MAR) it is essential you stick to it.

Having a sense of self-worth and valuing your own time correctly will transfer to potential clients as you have confidence and belief in the service you are providing. If you accept low-paying work it will subconsciously make you care less and will likely have a negative impact on the quality of your work. You’ll also get fed up pretty quickly and lose the zest and motivation required to change your situation and seek out new clients.

Basing your MAR on a combination of what you need to earn, the scope of project works, and the level of service, skills and value you can bring to the contract will ensure you don’t end up feeling like you’re working for nothing.

5. You’re Not Being Paid At All

At some point everyone in business will experience the client who doesn’t pay. The scenario of an invoice being two, three, even four weeks overdue is unfortunately not uncommon.

More often than not, late payment is an oversight, or typical of the pace your client works at, rather than a blatant attempt to avoid payment. To some extent these are issues that any self-employed person has to expect as part of the territory and usually patience and a polite email reminder are enough to chivvy up payment.

You may find yourself in a situation where you are working on multiple projects for one client and despite one or more outstanding payments, they continue to pass you work and set deadlines. In this case you do have some leverage in that you can slow down (or stop) progress on things until your invoices are settled. It is then up to you whether you continue to work with the client. However, once trust is broken it is difficult to regain the working relationship you once had.

Clients who point blank refuse to pay are a completely different matter. Hopefully you will have set out a contract stating your payment terms before you commenced work, and if a polite reminder hasn’t worked you can proceed to write a formal letter stating your terms and conditions.

If payment is way overdue and you believe your client has no intention of paying you have the option of letting it go and chalking it up to experience, or taking steps to recover what you are owed and reporting the client to the relevant organizations.

Summing Up

As a self-employed professional, you have to consider all consequences of ending a client relationship in order to make the correct, informed decision that is right for you.

It’s important to remember that you can’t be all things to all people, and that not every client will be the perfect fit for your business. Inevitably you’ll get a few bad apples but with time and experience you’ll know how to spot the projects and clients you want to avoid and have the confidence to turn work away.

Photo Credit: Kristian Bjornard

About Tom Ewer

Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.

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This email has come at the best timing. I’m working with a trouble client that I’ve been pondering to let go for a couple of months now. Consistently late with payments and yet continues to demand more work and sets deadlines. So I’m already ahead of what you said by “slowing” down since he hasn’t paid up yet for the previous month’s work.

Vance Crowe

I think you really hit the nail on the head on this one- it is just too expensive for small businesses to take on work that isn’t paying your worth. I think all too often business are lured into thinking – I would rather have a client that is willing to pay me a little bit then no client at all. But over the medium to long term you pain yourself into a corner.

One additional note I would suggest is that if you are unhappy with a client, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns– it is a lot more expensive to locate a new client then it is to fix (a fixable) situation… know when to hold em – and know when to fire them!

Stephen Little

A couple of points there that i have had to deal with. As most self employed people i have had late payments, and had some not pay at all.
It does get to a point where when a client is paying late over and over again it makes you think that do not value your or your work, so also point to sign number 1, lack of respect..
Great Article 🙂

Patrick Barnes

Really good post and it helps to know it’s not just us!

We’ve recently fired a couple of clients and one in particular caused us a lot of grief by failing to treat us with respect, being overly critical etc. As a relatively new business we agonised over whether it was the right thing to do but with hindsight it definitely was.

One thing I would add is that it seems to be the ones who want to pay the least who demand the most and become the most critical.

That said, most our our clients are a pleasure to deal with and a bad one makes you appreciate the good ones more. And you learn the most from the bad ones!

Coral Cashes

I agree with Patrick. In the 12 years I’ve been freelancing, the cheapos are definitely the most problematic client–in more ways than one. Initially, I would take on whoever needed something done. I think the first 5 clients I had didn’t pay a dime even though I attempted to bill them. I’ve written up contracts that were ignored, had to file lawsuits to regain thousands of dollars from one client. And, here I am, 12 years later sending out a reminder to one client that she has 3 unpaid invoices that are over a month past due, and that (should she not pay them within 1 week), she will be required to pay 100% of the estimated cost upfront before work begins. This was VERY hard to do because it was a personal friend who I’ve done work for over the past 6 years. But, she has consistently paid late, tried to barter, not paid at all, etc during that duration. This was the final straw for me. Not only because she was my friend, but also because she does supply the type of work I want and enjoy doing, as well as showering me with compliments. But, those 2 things don’t pay the bills, so “bye-bye” bad client who wastes my time!

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