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Advocate VI Advocate VI
Advocate VI

How do you fire a client?

I try to be a good judge of people before I accept them as a client, but even so... sometimes people just don't work out. Too much drama, too many late payments, too many snide political comments in their emails... etc.

I'd be interested to know any tips from other web pros about how they fire clients -- or if "fire" is too strong of a word, how do you have a layoff? How do you make a graceful exit from that client who is just a PITA?

Sometimes I can pull the "it's not you, it's me" card (just like a regular ol' breakup) but that can't always work. The challenge for me is compounded because so many clients are local and many know each other. So I can't make up an excuse like "I'm dropping a lot of clients to lessen my workload" because they will know that others of their peers were not dropped (probably becaues those clients were much better behaved...).

Any suggestions would be welcomed!

26 REPLIES 26
Advocate II Advocate II
Advocate II

Re: How do you fire a client?

I was never very good at this, Im usually a gentle speaker. Ill send out a short e-mail that basically states the client would be better off elsewhere and thats it. I send a confirmation that all future payments will not be charged for my monthly clients and stuff.

 

Most of the time I dont get a reply or I get a simple "Ok thank you" 

 

There was this one time though...

 

I had a client call me about 11 times at 3AM to tell me his site went down - it was obviously just some sort of scheduled maintenance on the server, it came back up about 20 minutes later.

 

Lets just say I wasnt very nice when I "fired" him.

CEO of Antbuilt, LLC
Advocate I Advocate I
Advocate I

Re: How do you fire a client?

I just changed my business model from WordPress hosting & support to WordPress support & training, so I moved clients to hosts matching their needs. One client was not a fit and had not generated any business on top of the simple support plan, as they had been sitting on a brochure site with no changes ever. Also, they ignore emails and then get upset with a followup phone call, rather unprofessional.

 

I worked with another provider working with the client to coordinate changes and I suggested an associate who could provide a support plan that was a cheaper, better match. 

 

On the other hand I had a client who walked without making a past due payment nor giving proper notice. Her new vendor was not very professional and ate up some time with endless questions on how to handle her account.

 

In both cases, I wanted to have a graceful exit, as these clients are in my professional community. With the client I fired, I want to maintain the relationship, in case additional work that's a match comes up. With the latter, I was terse but civil, as I'd never work with the client nor recommend their vendor--still, I don't want them to have a bad opinion of me.

 

So, your exit strategy matters, if you need to maintain reputation.

The web never sleeps
Advocate VI Advocate VI
Advocate VI

Re: How do you fire a client?

You are so right, about maintaining a good reputation, even if the person will not be your client any longer. Since so much of my business is all local (or at least local to this major metro area), I really do NOT want anyone to later say something negative about me.  And for this reason, I am probably too much of a softie and sometimes keep clients that I really should drop, because I want to avoid confrontation and fall-out <sigh>. 

Bummer about the client who switched vendors and had not paid you. Do you have any kind of strategy to chase them for payment or was it just not worth the hassle? I'm not sure I would have been so gracious to answer questions from the new person under those circumstances!

Super User I Super User I
Super User I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Wow, this is a great question.

 

What I do for clients I "fire" is let them know that I am upgrading their service at no charge to them and give them to one of my sub-resellers. I am fortunate enough to have knowlegeble sub-resellers who are wonderful people. Typically it really is a "it's not you, it's me" type of thing, I'm not a fit for every client and not every client is a fit for me. Passing them along is sometimes best for everyone.

 

Keep in mind, you don't want to pass a bad client to anyone. The client you want to pass along to someone else is a client that isn't compatible with you. In there rare case that it really is them then what we call the band-aid method. Sometimes this method is pay some attention to the issue, kiss the wound, maybe but a bit of antiseptic on and give it some time to heal. If a suitable amount of time has passed and the client is still a "bad patient" then just rip off the band-aid quickly.

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

Advocate VI Advocate VI
Advocate VI

Re: How do you fire a client?

Oh my, you just happened to hit on one of my FAVORITE topics... that of "finding a good fit." 

Here's an article I wrote a few months ago about this very topic: https://www.godaddy.com/garage/webpro/clients/finding-web-design-clients-who-are-the-right-fit/

And it is definitely true that in the earlier days of my business, I took clients who were most assuredly NOT a good fit. But I was young(er) and felt I needed to take every project, for fear of not having any work. 

I'm older and wiser (and much more selective) now, and despite my best pre-screening efforts, some clients have slowly evolved into "not a good fit" so I'm having the challenge of letting them down easy, or helping them find another solution -- if only to preserve my own sanity!

Love the band-aid analogy, that definitely is the right approach in some cases. 

Advocate V Advocate V
Advocate V

Re: How do you fire a client?

First thing is, I always (always always) finish the job I contracted for.  Then when they come back to me for new work my stock response is:

"Thank you for the opportunity but I'm going to pass."

It doesn't have to be any more complex than that.  I don't feel the need to instruct them in the proper treatment of freelancers or point out their faults as a client.  There's a ton of work for people with our skills and I'm not going to spend my time trying to educate them or change them.

Eight times out of ten, they come back to me in three to six months with a new appreciation for what they had.  When that happens, I may, without assigning blame or finding fault, I lay out some new ground rules or I might simply say "Thank you for the opportunity but I'm going to pass".

Keep on Coding!
Mark Cicchetti - There are 10 kinds of people... those who understand binary and those who don't.
Super User I Super User I
Super User I

Re: How do you fire a client?

What about an ongoing client that purchases a renewals product like hosting or support @D3? Reading the example @webdiva gave seems as though it was an ongoing relationship rather than a one time design project.

 As a side note we now do not offer website design unless a client commits to an ongoing maintenance plan. This client commitment makes selecting the proper client upfront really important because our client relationships tend to be measured in years not months. The commitment also means that our client perhaps looks at us more carefully to insure that we are a fit for them? Typically we can tell during the design process if we are a good fit and I have the benefit of having other people that may be a better fit for the client.

@webdiva I went back and read that article (I vaguely remember it from before) that is some good reading. Thank you for bringing my attention back to that. 

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

Advocate VI Advocate VI
Advocate VI

Re: How do you fire a client?

I do always finish a project I start, the issue is that after I build a website, I am usually also the one maintaining it. And usually that is great, and reliable long-term work. Sometimes things change with their staffing, or I start to see signs of bad behavior (late payments, etc.). But sometimes I'm just tired of their drama, or I see that they are sucking up a lot of bandwidth answering questions but sending me very little billable work. Then it's not so clear-cut.

There have been times where I fired the client after the initial site was built, if it became apparent that a long-term relationship was not going to work out based on their bad behavior. Those are easy... For example, a non-profit whose new CEO was abusive in her expectations. Or people I've had to repeatedly chase for late payments (once, OK. two strikes, you're out).

Then there was the guy who asked if I could come to his office to pick up the check. I said "no problem, just put it in the mail to me, it's not that much of a rush." The check arrived with the cost of the stamp deducted. I cashed that one and told him good-bye. Life is too short to deal with that kind of nonsense.

But even with good cause, I'm miserable at confronting people and telling them that it is THEIR fault I'm leaving. 

@D3 The fact that they come back to you later with new-found appreciation is fantastic! I've had it happen where people leave me because they think they will get a better/cheaper deal elsewhere. And they do sometimes come back when they realize it was a bad move. And usually I say "Sorry, I can't do it." -- but I'm going to start using your line of "Thank you for the opportunity but I'm going to pass". That's perfect!

 

Super User I Super User I
Super User I

Re: How do you fire a client?


@webdiva wrote:
Then there was the guy who asked if I could come to his office to pick up the check. I said "no problem, just put it in the mail to me, it's not that much of a rush." The check arrived with the cost of the stamp deducted. I cashed that one and told him good-bye. Life is too short to deal with that kind of nonsense.

WOW! That is cRAzy! You didn't fire that client, they fired themselves.

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

Advocate IV
Advocate IV

Re: How do you fire a client?

I like that line, too - "Thank you, but I have to pass." 

I currently have one client whose relationship I may have to end. The job has just about run out, and she has a lot of empty promises about billable work in the future, but I don't see any of that work coming to pass. That call will be difficult; I'd love to continue our contract, but I don't want to be strung along.

I have fired two clients based on abusive expectations - ones where it's very much their fault. I try not to make it personal, and tell them that I no longer believe we are a good fit, or that I no longer feel our business relationship is mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to "coach" the clients on how to treat their next partner better, few will listen.

Advocate V Advocate V
Advocate V

Re: How do you fire a client?

What about an ongoing client that purchases a renewals product like hosting or support @D3? Reading the example @webdiva gave seems as though it was an ongoing relationship rather than a one time design project.

As a side note we now do not offer website design unless a client commits to an ongoing maintenance plan.


@rd, I do ongoing a little differently.  For one thing, I'm a developer, not a designer.  I don't like design and I find that my designs are clunky and unimaginative.  Development on the other hand; I try and try for genius and always end up merely brilliant (such is life!).  I also tend to spend a lot of time hunting for whales and filling in the gaps in my personal economy with site tweaks and improvements.  So each time I get approached by a client is a new opportunity for me to decide if I want to continue the relationship.

I guess if you look at it a certain way, all my clients are ongoing relationships and they're all one time projects Cat Embarassed.

But even for ongoing the idea is still the same.  Short and sweet without preamble, blame or accusations.

Let me 'splain.  My sainted father helped put a man on the moon.  If you go to Cape Canaveral, you'll see his name on the plaque dedicated to that crew.  Afterwards he put in 20 years as a senior engineer with IBM.  His crew designed the modular power supply PCs still use (much improved albeit).  I was once resigning from a position where I felt I was getting a raw deal.  I wrote a scathing resignation letter.  Three paragraphs with a detailed explanation of why I had to resign and what the company could have done to prevent it.  I took it to my dad and showed it to him.  he rewrote it thusly:

 

"Bob,

  I resign from my position as yada yada

 

Mark"

Problem clients will not be TOLD they're wrong.  Certainly not by someone they consider a pilot fish and hired help.  It might be that after having to replace that position five or ten (or 15 or 20) times, they'll get the hint but it's not my job to educate them.  I'm already gone fishing for whale!

I guess for an ongoing, (and this is just speculation.  I've never actually done this) I would retranslate to something along the lines of 

"In reviewing our history, I find it necessary to terminate our relationship."  End of story.  Something like that gives the client nothing to hook into to make it my fault and leaves them with a big mystery that just might get them thinking.  And, of course, the professional thing to do would be to set a termination date to give them time to replace you.

Keep on Coding!
Mark Cicchetti - There are 10 kinds of people... those who understand binary and those who don't.
Super User I Super User I
Super User I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Look at us with our fist thread going to multiple pages. Yay Community! Thank you for the polarizing topic @webdiva

@D3 How do you handle ongoing support?

...turns out that my two cents is worth less or more depending on the current exchange rate.

roy darling *my posts seem a lot shorter in my head

Rockstar I Rockstar I
Rockstar I

Re: How do you fire a client?

You might want to be sure that you have a simple, clear contract with measurable goals and waypoints.  With a contract in place you do not have to make anything personal, just focus on the outcome of what is/isn't happening.  The contract gives you a firm basis for a direct conversation.  It may not be one that you want to have, but one that's not antagonistic. Here is a link to the one that I base my work on.

 

https://stuffandnonsense.co.uk/projects/contract-killer/

 

If you are not getting what you need from your client to complete your obligations, the agreement provides a foundation for a conversation about solutions, rather than finger-pointing and accusations. 

 

Don't be afraid to send someone who is a bad client for you to a different company, especially if it happens to be a recognized name.  You may not want to recommend a client to a "friendly company" that you may use or work with on occassion. 

-------------------------------------------

Hope this helps.

James

www.videowebsystems.net

 

 

 

Not Just Pretty Sites, Pretty Doggone Smart Sites
Advocate V Advocate V
Advocate V

Re: How do you fire a client?


@rd wrote:

Look at us with our fist thread going to multiple pages. Yay Community! Thank you for the polarizing topic @webdiva

@D3 How do you handle ongoing support?


Same as the original project but without the preamble.  If it's just a 10 minute edit, I'll often just take care of it and drop them an email with the word "done".  If it's more involved, I'll set up a time to call and go through the questions necessary to hammer out the requirements then send an email with my understanding of the requirements and the estimated cost.  When they respond in the affirmative, that sets the project boundaries and an approximate cost.  Helps prevent unremitted scope creep.  If it amounts to a major modification, same thing but I will usually tell them I have X number of projects on the boards and their project is Y days/weeks out.

 

For the few clients I have that are constantly updating/improving/adding on, I have PHPCollab installed on my server.  I make them a project manager and they can just go in and add a task.  I get notified there's a new task.  If it's clear what's needed, I work it into my work flow.  Otherwise, I enter notes asking for clarifications.  If the task will amount to more than a few hours, I'll call and let them know that, give them a few options, explain the pros and cons.  Generally by the time they get into PHPCollab, there's a certain amount of trust.

Keep on Coding!
Mark Cicchetti - There are 10 kinds of people... those who understand binary and those who don't.
Helper IV Helper IV
Helper IV

Re: How do you fire a client?


I had a client call me about 11 times at 3AM to tell me his site went down - it was obviously just some sort of scheduled maintenance on the server, it came back up about 20 minutes later. 

I'm wondering though what you were doing answering your phone at 3am in the morning? I would have just let it go to voicemail Smiley Happy

 

Setting boundaries is so important with human beings. We do that with children, so why not customers. Especially if those boundaries help you deliver better service because we know who does what to whom when and how.



Alex Sirota, PMP - NewPath Consulting - Schedule some time with Alex
"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Helper IV Helper IV
Helper IV

Re: How do you fire a client?

This is truly a fantastic topic, but I think of this question in a different light altogether.

 

Instead of firing the customer, why not ask:

 

"Why not just hire the right customers, so you never have to fire customers?"

 

The act of firing a customer implies that the relationship has gotten to a point where it is impossible to continue. Customers don't fire their vendors, they just leave the relationship. So why do we think of it as firing our customers? I don't think the act of firing a customer should ever be in the vocabulary of a professional. Heck even employers don't like to use that word, there are too many negative (and even legally actionable) connotations.

 

One thing we do that helps us get the right customers is we have a qualifying questionnaire that helps us vet the prospect before they become a hire. In that 10 minute questionnaire  we ask a simple question:

 

What is the most important thing to a small business owner?

1. Time

2. Money

3. Idea

4. Customer

 

If our prospect answers anything other than "a customer" we have a red flag. Customers who don't value their own customers and are rather constrained by time, money or enamored with their awesome "idea" are problems to being with.

 

Next time as your prospective customer what is most important to them. If they don't answer "customer" you should ask them why they chose time, money or idea. You will be surprised by the answers they give you, and if you take them on you will also be surprised by the quality of the relationship.

 

We have found only customer-centric customers are worth dealing with, and the rest are problems that are best left until they realize on their own that customers are the most important thing -- even more important than their wonderful "idea".

 



Alex Sirota, PMP - NewPath Consulting - Schedule some time with Alex
"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Helper IV Helper IV
Helper IV

Re: How do you fire a client?


 

"In reviewing our history, I find it necessary to terminate our relationship."  End of story.  Something like that gives the client nothing to hook into to make it my fault and leaves them with a big mystery that just might get them thinking.  And, of course, the professional thing to do would be to set a termination date to give them time to replace you.


I agree with everything @D3 said in his excellent reply. 

 

We deal with recurring customers and we find it much easier to let the customer terminate the relationship on our terms, or when they cease recurring payment of more than 3 subsequent bills. Short and sweet is always best!



Alex Sirota, PMP - NewPath Consulting - Schedule some time with Alex
"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
New

Re: How do you fire a client?

I've had a few undesirable clients that I struggled to manage and was looking for an out for some time. Letting a client know you would prefer not to do business with them could easily turn into a messy affair. If that client were unprofessional they could leave bad reviews around the internet. One client in particular was a slow payer and occasionally made statements like "Oh, I don't pay for this or why would you charge for that?" After announcing if I charged for a particular service (1.5 hrs. and 80 miles travel) she would pay but not use me again. I simply replied "that's agreeable". I think you have to be mindful of the clients perception of their contributions to your business, thank them and ultimately do what's right by you. Wrap up any loose ends and a short hand written note explaining a change in the dynamics of your business would probably satisfy most.

Helper I
Helper I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Hello Diva!

 

Same effect, but I 'encourage people to leave'.

 

Sometimes they don't even realize the subtle effective, until later down the road.

 

BTW - this is the first time I am seeing someone else use PITA.

 

I worked with a guy in '91-93. His name was Peter. His behavior was that of a PITA.

 

Keep on!

Helper I
Helper I

Re: How do you fire a client?

I've had to drop my share of clients over the years, for various reasons.  Ultimately, I've found that the best way to weed them out is to increase prices to a point where it's either tolerable for you to work with them, or prohibitively expensive for them to continue working with you.  It can also be helpful to lay down some firm ground rules to help smooth out some of the issues you're running into with them.

 

Taking that approach might be a bit more passive than some would like, and a more direct approach may be appropriate in some cases, but I find that increasing the price point is an effective route for me, though.  More often than not, it's just prohibitively expensive for them and it becomes a simple case of "sorry, but your services are too expensive for me now and I'll have to find someone else."  Rarely any hard feelings with that route.

Mike
Web Developer at BOLDelite.com
Helper I
Helper I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Let me share something brief that should have a significant impact on how you do what you do going forward:

 

"If you don't tell someone they can't do something, can you get upset with them when they do it?"

These problems almost always come from failure by the supplier (you) to set a strong agreement at the beginning of how you and the customer (them) will work together.

 

Most people want to avoid this and try to sweep things under the rug--even if they have noted the prospect saying or doing things that remind them of their "Client From Hell." This is clearly a bad idea--if you're going to fight with someone, it's best to fight up front. Now, not later...after money has changed hands.

 

Setting expectations of behavior up front is critical in a new client relationship.

 

You need to make them aware of what is acceptable and what is not--otherwise, you can't get upset at them when they do something you don't appreciate, can you?

 

Anything you want to cover can be on this list. You should grow the list as you become more experienced, and go over it personally with each new client. They are not going to read a document if you send it to them that way.

 

As a prospect is about to become a client, that is the correct point to introduce these requirements. "I think we agree we'd like to work together. Can we go over one more thing before we start?" (Wait for the response) "I have a few points about how I work. Let's make sure you're OK with them, and you might have some requirements yourself we haven't covered. Let's get these out of the way before we begin, so there isn't any confusion later. Sound good?"

 

This way, you can train your clients before you start. If you only look at emails twice a day, and they shouldn't expect an instant response, you can let them know that. If you take their input, and then go bugger off for a few days thinking your way though the solution, and they shouldn't be expecting micromanaged updates, you can educate them about that.

 

If there's a mismatch, ie. client wants to micromanage, and you don't want to be, then you'll discover it now. Much better than a few days from now, after money has changed hands and commitment given.

 

And if they have some requirements you should know about, you find out about them at the beginning...not later on when it's upsetting.

 

"Good fences make good neighbors." Remember that saying? This is right in line with that idea.

Re: How do you fire a client?

^ This is fantastic input.

Helper IV Helper IV
Helper IV

Re: How do you fire a client?

This is great insight. Unfortunately sometimes people change their view depending on how the relationship is going, or how their investment is bearing fruit. People aren't perfect and it's hard to get all the understanding up front. In fact it is nearly impossible.

 

That's why we don't do fixed fee contracts anymore. A customer's understanding of their problems evolve as they see clearer the issues at hand and what it will take to be successful. People underestimate how much work is required for success, almost always.



Alex Sirota, PMP - NewPath Consulting - Schedule some time with Alex
"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Helper I
Helper I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Very interesting observations. What you shared is quite prevalent especially in the world of IT and IT change projects.

 

Often the supplier is forced to go through a bid or tender process, which means they have to look like the experts without being able to have any dialogue with the customer. So that's how suppliers frequently get locked into a scope and payment structure that doesn't match with reality later on--and that leads to friction.

Even if you do have a customer who allows you to have a dialogue with them before they buy, as you say the scope can evolve as the project does...and the customer has increasing realizations of what is possible and how you can help!

This has everything to do with the customer's understanding of reality VS your (the supplier's) understanding of reality. As the supplier, you have probably gone through this process many times. You know what to expect. You also know what is possible. The customer almost always has a much lower understanding of these factors. This project is also probably the one and only time they will do this thing! This gap is what leads to trouble.

Customers also come in different commitment levels. Some want to throw the project over the wall, to you, and leave it 100% your responsibility to implement successfully. This may be even set up to fail. On the other end of the continuum are customers who are fully involved and committed to the project's successful outcome--they will do whatever it takes to get there. This is another massive factor in the success or failure of projects.

So the key to protecting yourself as a supplier, and ensuring you have great customers who become true reference installations for you (big problem--with an estimated 70% of IT projects failing worldwide, how many can really be left as legit reference installations and case studies to brag about?!) is to:

- qualify for potential customers who are willing to have a genuine, in-depth, and *time-consuming* conversation with you, rather than direct you to the bid process

- take the time to "give them the tour" and show them what is possible, thereby elevating their reality

- build slack into the implementation process, both on your side and theirs, because you know unexpected things will pop up...and if your and their key people and other resources are already 100% tied up, you're screwed

 

- get agreement to a "back end" to the project, with ongoing check-ups every 3-6 months that will lead to further projects with these customers who have already seen the great value in working with you.

The world is plenty big enough to get these kinds of customers, instead of duking it out in the tender process for customers who will never really "get it."

One other important think I think your response pointed out is this:

It's not you, the supplier, who determines how long the project goes on for, is it? The duration is really set by the customer...and when the customer is waffling, uncommitted, or changing their expectations mid-stream, that spells trouble, doesn't it.

Helper IV Helper IV
Helper IV

Re: How do you fire a client?


@TheJason wrote:


One other important think I think your response pointed out is this:

It's not you, the supplier, who determines how long the project goes on for, is it? The duration is really set by the customer...and when the customer is waffling, uncommitted, or changing their expectations mid-stream, that spells trouble, doesn't it.


That's exactly correct. And this is why the world of vendors setting time/materials on IT projects is ending, I think. If the duration is really set by the customer, then their payment schedule should reflect the same, a fixed regular, recurring fee. As they continue to pay and derive value from the engagement, they continue to invest from a time and financial perspective. As soon as they do not they stop.

 

That's why the return on investment for IT projects is more critical than ever. A regular investment, operating expense (rather than capital), means that the investment must bear fruit in cost savings and/or revenue generation at some point. We are finding that customers that pay in the hundreds to the low thousands per month, need a compound annual growth rate of at least 5%, closer to 10% to achieve a reasonable multi year return (over say 5 years). Reasonable being 15-20% over 5 years on their investment.



Alex Sirota, PMP - NewPath Consulting - Schedule some time with Alex
"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Rockstar I Rockstar I
Rockstar I

Re: How do you fire a client?

Good point on the ROI!  However, in many cases clients are not even looking past 6 months (or even weeks) for the ROI. 

 

As they continue to pay and derive value from the engagement, they continue to invest from a time and financial perspective. As soon as they do not they stop.

 

I often refer to a web site as "web property" so I can communicate in terms of "investing, listing your property, adding value to your property", etc. I always have a conversation concerning the time that it takes  to develop the value of the site and maintain its presence. It often falls on deaf ears.   During the course of the project, defining the value of the site is often as critical as some of the technical design. 

 

Great conversation!

James

Not Just Pretty Sites, Pretty Doggone Smart Sites