When To Fire A Client

Recent events have me thinking about the pros and cons of when to fire a client. It is often a difficult decision to make and even more complicated than accepting a contract or customer. The challenge in accepting a customer includes questions such as whether you can take on the additional work or the profitability of the work. Once you land a customer, you are used to that revenue and level of work. Yes, even if that work includes headaches.

Unprofitable? Fire A Client

While there are challenges to it, a client that is not profitable is the easiest to get rid of. There is a bottom line to consider and a black or white decision. The larger obstacle is deciding to get rid of a profitable client but a pain. We all know a customer like this. They do the ‘right” thing and pay bills on time. However, they constantly disrupt plans, cause us to stress, or give us steady fodder for complaints. First, let’s assume we are not merely whining. That is not only possible but is something I see more often than I want to admit. Yes, even when I am the none doing the whining. Next, we need to evaluate the cost of the stress or other negative impact.

Is This self-inflicted?

Once we have decided this is not about profit or paying bills, we need to assess the source of the stress honestly. In IT, there are many reasons for us to experience stress in a project. These include timeframes, deadlines, technology platforms, version hell, and normal interpersonal challenges. In my experience, the technology challenges are worth working through. You will see these with other customers. Better yet, a solution that reduces obstacles inherent to a technology platform is re-usable and can win future clients. The steps required for these solutions can be painful. However, the reward can be substantial and worth the temporary stress.

While it takes two to tango, I have found that we can often place the majority of interpersonal challenges among customers and vendors on one side or the other. Let’s start with the case where we are the problem. This situation can arise when a project is outside of our skillset, goes beyond our resources, or is generally not to our liking. The quick solution in these cases might be termed as “suck it up, buttercup.” However, that may not be the best approach. While we all have some level of ‘grunt work” or other unpleasantness to handle as part of our job, that is not always required. When we have a customer taking us in a direction that does not suit us, it is worthwhile to send them to another vendor. Happy workers are more productive. Why waste our good workers on things that drain them without due cause. Profit is not enough. Make sure the overall benefit is there for any given project.

They Are A Toxic Client

The heading for this section is a bit harsh. A bad client is not necessarily toxic. Nevertheless, most bad clients have some toxicity in their company that makes them a challenge. The flaw may be in their communication, culture, or just an individual. We will leave the last option for last. When this problem is the client, it is worthwhile to assess how much pain and suffering they cause. Likewise, we need to assess any positives that may come from a successful project. Sometimes success in a bad situation can be a game-changer for our company’s success. On the other hand, a doomed project can sink an enterprise. We need to make sure we can overcome the challenges and be legitimately successful if we move forward.

Do Not Be A Quitter

I have known people to give up on marriages and long-term friendships over minor things, but not customers. It almost goes unsaid that we should not fire a client too hastily. In my experience, a customer is held on to longer than they should instead of the other extreme. That being said, a difficult project or situation is not enough to turn them away once we have started. The focus should be on whether or not the customer relationship can be successful. Likewise, there is some point where it has to be profitable to both parties. When you take a loss with a customer for no sound reason, then it is simply charity. Nevertheless, we should not walk away abruptly. Even a bad relationship deserves closure. Please find a way to transition them to self-sufficiency or another vendor that has a (preferably better) chance of success. You will not regret it.

The Value Of Loyalty

Before we wrap up these thoughts, I feel loyalty is worth a mention. Some situations go sour or bad over time, and those that experience bumpy roads or obstacles. A vendor that takes on those periods of challenge and sticks with their customers even in the bad times will often find rewards at the end. These rewards may not come from that difficult customer, but they do come. There are lessons learned and “brownie points” that we earn when we are known to be a vendor that cares about our customers. Think of major brands, and you will often find that sentiment buried somewhere in the branding. People buy from those they know, like, and trust. Trust is earned in the trenches, not through the easy times.

A Way Forward

All of these thoughts boil down to some steps you can take to assess whether to fire a client.

  • Is it us or them?
  • Can a solution be found that benefits both parties?
  • What are the benefits of staying as opposed to firing them?
  • How do we extract ourselves from the relationship with a minimum of damage and ill will?

These may seem simple. However, each of the above bullet points can be very nuanced and complex.

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