When you start out in business it’s easy to feel grateful to have clients at all, never mind to consider vetting them and possibly turning prospects down. However, we all know that not all clients are equal. I also suspect we all have – or have had in the past – the kind of client that is not an asset to the business.
Some clients simply aren’t worth your time. No matter what you do, they will never be happy. They constantly overstep professional boundaries. They drain your energy and suck the joy out of your work.
But how do you spot them? And how do you turn them down with dignity and grace? Even trickier, how do you ‘sack’ them, if they’ve already signed up?
The wrong clients
First up, let’s think about who the wrong clients are.
Cheapskate Charlie: to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Charlie knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He doesn’t seem to realise that what you gave was a quote at a professional rate for a professional service; instead he considers it to be the starting point for a round of haggling, like he was buying a cheap rug at a market.
Needy Nora: Nora thinks that you should be available at the drop of a hat, on call 24/7. Emails are too easily avoided; Nora will aim to get your mobile number and will have no qualms about ringing you about the slightest little thing, whatever the day or the hour.
Freebie Freddie: Freddie always wants to know what’s in it for him, for free. He doesn’t like to pay – at all, if he can help it. Even if you eventually agree a job and a price, Freddie will start with, ‘Can you also just …?’; and ‘It’ll only take you a minute to …’ and so your rate goes down and down.
Picky Pauline: Pauline finds fault with everything, from a tiny typo in an email that makes no odds to the meaning, to the tone of voice that was used when her call was answered. Pauline is the sort of person who enjoys feeling superior; she always knows best – and she certainly knows better than you!
So now we have the lie of the land, what’s the best strategy to adopt?
Just say ‘no’
If alarm bells sound before you sign one of these people up as a client, then you need a strategy to avoid them becoming one. This isn’t being nasty, by the way; this is a sound business strategy aimed at protecting your profits and maintaining your sanity.
Have one or more set answers prepared that you can use when this crops up. Depending on the stage of negotiations, you can use: ‘We don’t have the capacity to take on new clients right now’; ‘I don’t think we are able to offer the service you’re looking for’; or even, ‘I don’t think we’re a good fit, so I’m going to step away to allow you to find a more suitable practice to work with’.
Be clear in your client contract, service level agreement or whatever else you use as to what will be done, how, when, by whom and for what fee. Make it watertight.
It’s not you, it’s me …
If they’re already a client, then it’s a little trickier. If they’re on an annual service contract you have more scope. When it comes up for renewal, use one of the ‘Just say no’ lines to avoid having them for another year.
If they’re on a rolling contract, you have to take proactive action to cut the cord. This can feel awkward, but it has to be tackled. Consider what approach would work best: are you ‘consolidating your client base’, perhaps, or ‘focusing on a specific sector’?
The Pareto Principle would suggest that 80% of the hassle came from 20% of your clients; however, Ramsay’s Rule suggests it’s more like 95% of the hassle coming from 5% of your clients. The trick is in keeping the wrong prospects from becoming clients in the first place. And while it’s never pleasant to weed them out after the event, if you stay alert to the warning signals in initial negotiation and set clear boundaries, it’s not something you’ll need to do too very often.
However – and I can tell you this from experience – while it might feel uncomfortable to tackle the problem, it feels fantastic once it’s done.