Why I fired my biggest client

This post is inspired by Marcus Sheridan who so eloquently put’s it ”the fact of the matter is this: No amount of money will make up for a client that makes your life a living H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.”As a small business owner I often dreamt of swimming with the big fish.

Landing a large company, or even better, a multinational client can really put a feather in your cap and make you feel on top of the world. But, as most things in life, bigger is not always better. So, what can go wrong and what do you do about it?

My breaking points

The first time I fired a client was when I was working with Deloitte. It had been a good relationship for a while, I excused the weekend phone calls as they were mostly good clients.

One project they kept changing the dates, the times, and the venue which was making my scheduling a nightmare. I called my client to explain that the changes had made it virtually impossible to do what was originally agreed and began to offer a solution to which he started screaming and said the one line I will never forget “I am paying you therefore you will do it”. I put the phone down. Took a deep breath and knew this was the last project I would ever do for them. To this day I still don’t know why I finished that project.

What I learned along the way:

  • Multinationals are often used to hearing “Yes” more than “No” and if you say No to them they will probably mention their company name several times and recommend you get your head checked.
  • They can affect YOUR performance. When a client becomes totally unmanageable by missing deadlines meaning you miss yours or keeps you waiting meaning you run late or is impossible to pin down. YOUR performance is affected.
    If they are your only client then you can wait but I’m sure you have better things to do with your time!
  • Their expectations are too high.I’ve had clients feel that I don’t need to do basic things like eat and sleep because I am a small business owner and things need to be done overnight. Or they want more than what was agreed as a freebie. When a client wants something NOW and you manage to deliver, defying all sense of time and rationality to then realise they SIT. ON. IT. FOR. 2. WEEKS. And, guess what, they still aren’t happy! The only person at fault was the person who didn’t say NO.
  • It’s important to remember that work is work, the minute it starts affecting you, your business and your personal life it’s time to send that client packing.

So what do you do?  Well, most will say FIRE the client but if that is not an option you could go with Gini Dietrich’s suggestion which is to outline your expectations of your client with them so they know what to expect and vice-versa.

This is a great solution BEFORE it reaches the point of no return when you just can’t stand the client’s voice on the other end of the phone.

Obviously the best approach would be to never hire the client, yes we hire clients just as much as they hire us and never enter a business relationship with them.

Just like Marcus did, give them back their deposit, if you took one and wave them goodbye.

Everyone has their own breaking point – the point where they say “Enough is enough” and turn round to the client and say “life is too short to deal with clients like you.”

Have your fired a client? What happened? What was your breaking point?

35 Responses to Why I fired my biggest client

  1. Great post and learning to say No! is a skill. I learned it the hard way. There are some people out there that we should never be working with.

    It’s tough because we usually learn this by working with ‘the wrong client’.

    • @John Falchetto Very true and unfortunately most business requires you going through the process of working with the wrong ones to inevitably find the right.

      • @MSchechter@John Falchetto I agree with you both here. But I also think it helps to know the type of customer you want in the first place and setting up all of your marketing and communications to attract them and repel the rest.

        • @Ameena Falchetto @RobertDempsey You took the words out of my mouth. Sadly this kind of knowledge requires a certain amount of experience.

  2. As cliché as it is, we often neglect the 80/20 rule and try to turn a blind eye to that 80% that does little but hold us back and weigh us down. Unfortunately, things often seem decent at the start and it isn’t until you start going down the rabbit hole that you realize how truly bad they are. Have a friend who is suffering from this right now. She needs to take a client out back and shoot them, but like you she wants to do the right thing and finish the unending project first.

    • @MSchechter Experience does count for a lot. You’ve got to kiss a few frogs to find your Prince. Once you’ve done it a few times it gets easier. I find it hard to play hardball sometimes but it has to be done.

      • @Ameena Falchetto Knowing when to put your foot down is both the hardest and most important thing to learn… how to learn it someday.

  3. Ameena, you’re too kind to mention me here like this…..but I’ll take it anyway. 😉

    My question is this: Why don’t they teach this in business school????

    My answer to my own question: Most business schools understand the real world about as well as I speak Chinese.



    • @Marcus_Sheridan hey now I resent that Marcus seeing that I have an MBA. Well okay you’re right – how to treat vendors and customers isn’t taught in business school, and yes it should be as it’s one of those “obvious” things that’s not so obvious.

      • @RobertDempsey I agree with @Marcus_Sheridan – I have a MSc in Marketing and client relationships were never discussed over and beyond the basics. Were any of your professors entrepreneurs before returning to academia? I think the school of life is a great compliment to any educational background but the qualification in it’s self doesn’t prepare you for the precarious world of complex client relationships.

        • @Ameena Falchetto @Marcus_Sheridan at my business school a majority of the teachers had consulted and/or been corporate executives at one point. A few were entrepreneurs and ran their own companies. Having said that though, we had one class that was entirely focused on internal and external “relations” with people. Outside of that, it was analysis, case studies, etc.

          It was interesting for me as I was on my second business at the time and had 9 employees working for me going into it. People wondered why I was there as I wasn’t looking to climb a corporate ladder.

          I can say though that I work with a lot of clients who like the fact that I have a degree, and it has come in very handy in the operating of my own businesses. We have very different conversations.

          Understanding finance, accounting, marketing, etc are all necessary knowledge for someone in business. We might not be running large enterprises producing widgets, but the math can be applied nonetheless.

          As you say though learning via experience is the best way. But I’m also have enough experience to know that schooling and education via reading can help avoid a metric ton of roadblocks.

        • @RobertDempsey@Marcus_Sheridan I can see the value of having a degree completely but I disagree that it’s a must. Case studies are often dated and chosen to illustrate a point. Sorry but if the teachers on your MBA were successful entrepreneurs then why were they back in the classroom? I understand giving a guest seminar but if they were teaching full time I don’t get it. My lecturers all worked in industry at some point but didn’t want to climb the corporate ladder so went back to academia. Personally, if I had a great business the last thing I’d do is drop it and go back to the classroom.

          I have to disagree that understanding all aspects of your business is necessary to being an entrepreneur – not at all. Outsourcing and playing on YOUR strengths is key.

          Keep learning, never sit back on your laurels but WHAT you read is more important than how much you read.

        • @Ameena Falchetto I didn’t say that having an MBA or a degree at all is a must, what I said is that having a foundation of the basics of business – finance, accounting, marketing, etc. – is. I’ve found them indispensable in building all of the ones I’ve built. I’m happy to see though that we can disagree in a friendly manner. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs turn to toast because they couldn’t keep their finances straight or keep the clients coming in.

          I did a Saturday MBA and none of my teachers were “full time” professors. They all had consulting practices or were involved in other businesses outside of academia.

          I can tell by your fervor that you’re very passionate about this topic Ameena. Did you have a negative experience in school, perhaps teachers giving you knowledge that had no relevance in the real world? I had that exact experience getting all of my Microsoft certifications when I was in IT. 50%+ of the answers to test questions would not be done in real life. To pass the test though, you had to know what they wanted you to say.

          It’s nice to have some friendly debate here as well. And to your last point, I would say that it’s more important to put what you read to work. Reading but now putting the knowledge to work seems like a waste of time to me.

        • @Ameena Falchetto also I did my MBA while I was running my business. Fun side story – my daughter was born two-and-a-half hours before I started my first day. It made for quite a story when we went around the room and introduced ourselves.

        • @RobertDempsey Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

          Yes, having a basic understanding of basic business principles is very important. I too have seen entrepreneurs let their passion, enthusiasm and flair to limited aspects of their business work themselves into the ground due to the lack of awareness of other areas.

          As far as my personal experience academically is concerned I did a very theoretical pure Marketing masters – there was very little real life examples. Case studies came from the 90s and the principles we were taught were very much driven to grooming us for PhD’s or graduate recruitment programmes. It was fairly prestigious school but the real life application was lacking. I struggled with giving them what they wanted to hear and would often have stand off’s with my lecturers. It paid off in the end though!

          I must say it WAS useful because, by turning the principles on their head, I was able to look at things in a different way and come to the same conclusion in a different way. The analytical thought has definitely helped me wrestle through the corporate environment and become self employed at a youngish age.

    • @Marcus_Sheridan 🙂 They don’t teach this in business school because most of the stuff they teach is theoretical and many of the professors haven’t worked a day in their life. End of.

    • @Marcus_Sheridan You speak Chinese?!? HAHAHAHA! The reason they don’t teach this stuff in business school is because most professors have never worked in the real world. They can teach theory, but not practicality.

  4. Hi Ameena – sounds like some additional pre-qualification of clients is in order as well. Expectations, as you’ve pointed out, can make or break a relationship, be it business or personal. Our job is to tell a *potential* customer what they can expect when they work with us. If they won’t be able to handle it, then they shouldn’t work with us.

    I’ve found that one thing that hold many business owners back (and I’m not pointing at you when I say this as we’re very new to each other) is that they are afraid to lay it on the line and tell a customer how the relationship will go. These fears are unfounded. The clients I’ve worked with the best know what my expectations of them are, and what happens when they fail to meet them – they get reprimanded or fired.

    This past week I fired a client for going too far off track of the expectations I had of them. I’m finishing up their project but once complete that’s it for us. They are very nice people, but the fit just isn’t there. And it isn’t right of me to keep them on when I am unable to deliver a high amount of value. They had already had a warning, but in this game it’s two strikes and you’re out.

    That may sound a bit harsh to some, but ask my wife how she felt about hearing about the situation for a few hours the past night – not good.

    • @RobertDempsey I agree that it can be hard to lay it on the line what your expectations are. Especially when you are just starting out and trying to figure things out. I learnt the hard way but the trick is to come away from the experience having learned something. Asking a spouse or a family member how they feel is actually very insightful. If it becomes all too consuming and affects your private life then that’s a sure sign that there is something wrong. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hey Ameena

    Coming over from your hubby’s blog and he “ordered” us to give a shout here! So I shout!

    I loved this post and though I come from a different field altogether (psychology); and haven’t had the courage to “fire” clients… some might call it ethical. But when I was doing my internship, I saw my supervisor fire a client away because he was becoming dependent on her. Though he had mild issues that could have been resolved in the time he had already come for therapy, he preferred to come back again and again “just to talk”. And that’s when she “fired him”, gave him a reference list where he could “just talk” and just got over with it. Sometimes, it needs to be done the hard way, but moving on is the way to go about it! 🙂

    Have a great day!

  6. Came to this post through @John Falchetto on twitter. Absolutely love what you’ve written here and can relate to it having recently parted way with a really big Middle Eastern e-commerce player. Besides the point of saying no, I hate being told that I’m only supposed to do the work because I’m paid to do it. I like to think of my agency as an extension of the team that can offer insightful comments and support.

    Definitely subscribing to your feed!



    • @JoeAkkawi Hi Joe, I know exactly what you mean.

      We have a choice and being treated like we have to do the work because the client pays. Well, let’s just say that isn’t a way to speak to people, let alone do business with them.

    • Thanks so much @JoeAkkawi

      I wonder if it’s a Middle Eastern syndrome to expect you to do as the client says because you are paid to do it and explicitly say so! I found it so incredibly offensive.

  7. Ha, so this must be the new site and yes, I love it too……………:). Of course, you probably knew I was a dork by now.

    Sometimes it’s harder for someone just starting out, but you really have to have ‘walk away power’ and don’t allow yourself to get into a bad deal, regardless what you are getting paid. The other is to establish the level of expectations early and if you can’t get on the same page, see option # 1 (WAP).

    The problem is, we the sales/service people enable the bad behavior people. We will all dance around like a monkey on a string just because the client says ‘jump’. That’s why you have to differentiate yourself and let them know that’s not how you work. If they don’t value what you do or offer, then find someone who does.

    At the end of the day, it really is not worth it.

    • @bdorman264 Ah ha you made it! Thanks for stopping by! “Dance monkey, dance” is always the thing that drives me nuts … at the end of the day a monkey will dance for peanuts – nothing less.

  8. After I wrote the blog post that you linked to here (thank you), we created a client code of conduct. We present it to every client, with the contract, so they know what we expect of them. We even have them sign it so that, if we have to refer back to it later, we can. So far we’ve had zero problems with it, but it’s a great thing to have so clients know they aren’t hiring you to be at their beck and call nor are they hiring you so they don’t have to be involved.

  9. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently. I am quite certain I will learn many new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

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