Firing a Client – Respectfully

“The customer/client is always right.”

Like most, I heard this over and over from company leaders while employed at various businesses, from food catering to driving a brown truck to digital marketing.

But I called BS on this adage back in 2017 – about eight months into launching ContentMender. At that time I had two clients that were driving me bizerk and causing me to question why I started an agency. 

All the hard work of entrepreneurship – the constant studying, the romance of the chase, the experimenting with “Lean Startup” methods for service creations – was all dragged down by these two clients.

One was small, and the other not so small. I was afraid of losing the revenue because all I wanted was to scale, and thought that would begin a spiraling effect throughout the business and ultimately me going back to working for another agency (miserably working, I should add). 

I was reading Perry Marshall’s The 80/20 Principle at the time, and everything clicked. Yes – 20% of my efforts are responsible for 80% of the results. And sadly these two clients were taking 80% of my efforts, but only accounting for about 20% of my business. 

What gives?

I decided that I had to drop a client. Well, not one, but two. Luckily my entrepreneurial training so far taught me the principle of having a minimal viable product or audience, and I went to work firing the first client. 

How to Respectfully Drop a Client: Digital Agency Guidelines for Firing

I wasn’t overly aggressive, though I did allow some anger to surface that didn’t need to surface. Things went much, much smoother with the second client. Within a few months of dropping those two clients my business began scaling smoothly, and my stress went down.

While scaling I also fired another client that caused more stress than good. I believe in constant transformation within anything in life, and this includes cleansing the toxicity of bad client relationships – the theme of this piece. 

What I learned allowed me to save a few other clients that were bothersome. And it was all done respectfully and with complete honesty. 

Following are some guidelines so your agency and your agency’s partners/staff can live a less stressful business life, and scale with happiness.

But first, what makes a bad client?

In one word, toxicity.

Bad clients take up much more time than they’re worth. 

Let’s keep it simple. If a client is worth $1000 in revenue, but taking up $1500 in company time across various employees. You can do the math.

The bulk of this time robbing involves:

  • Unscheduled Calls
  • Unscheduled Meetings

Many of these clients – the ones you get the proverbial chills when you see their number or email – are relentless, and can sometimes repulsively email you four or five times within minutes. This is a clear sign that they are not thinking proactively and responding reactively. 

As any successful business person knows, proactive thinking out rules reactive thinking at just about anything.

The total opposite exists also – the ones who lack communication, sometimes responding to an email or call much too late to proactively resolve an issue. 

This happened with one of my aftermarket parts clients within the motorcycle industry. They had a huge marketing push – thousands in ad spend from Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads – and got us all the information for the actual product pages a week in advance.

Once we received the information and went to create the pages, we couldn’t get to the backend of their website. Well, they changed hosting and numerous passwords, including ours, and we couldn’t get access. 

After numerous emails and calls, the marketing department got back to us the DAY of the launch and asked us to rush and get the pages completed because they were losing ad dollars quickly. I had them pause the campaign, and diverted some pre-planned work to reactively jump on this. 

This was a mistake because going forward to this company expected us to stop everything whenever they needed anything. 

This lasted for a few months, and then I fired them. We’re still respectful of each other, and the company has sent me a few leads, but I had to recommend another agency to them because I wasted more time than the client was worth. 

 

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This leads me to another warning sign of bad times ahead – a client not listening or implementing recommendations. This goes for consulting work such as a strategy for clients to amplify their blog material via a social or newsletter team that they have in-house, or completing a super expensive technical SEO audit for their web team and about 25 percent gets implemented. 

Months later when they ask why their site speed is slow or some old pages of dead products are still in search results (not redirected), you’ll be baffled – especially after you waste time revisiting the technical audit you previously submitted. 

Finally, another sign is a pure lack of respect. If a client doesn’t believe in what you’re doing and is downright impatient and harsh while waiting for immediately ROI on a strategy that takes sometimes months – aka, a blogging strategy – flee. And flee quickly. 

With any of the above, you don’t want to react stupidly and simply fire them. Provide yourself a timeline or x amount of interactions to save them. 

How to Save a Client You Want to Fire

No smart business person wants to walk away from revenue. But if that revenue is turning negative due to everything explained above, it’s time to step back, assess the situation, create a plan, and intervene. 

Begin with honesty. Explain exactly why the business relationship is not working. If that client is doing any of the above, recognize those signs and speak up – the sooner the better. 

In my previous years working for other agencies, I witnessed many good clients turn bad. But it wasn’t the client’s fault; rather, it was the agency’s fault due to lack of transparency. 

Although I’m starting to hate that word transparency, it’s imperative for open and honest client relationships. The client should know exactly what work is being done and why. 

Some could care less about the exact logistics, but make sure they are shared at least on a  project management sheet – such as timelines of an SEO audit and implementation of best practices, or a content calendar and what step of the journey your agency is in (to writer, edited, SEO enhancements, to client, approved, etc.).

But sometimes things simply don’t work, which results in firing a client. 

Major Benefits of Firing a Client

Less Stress

Yes – less stress. Especially for those in direct contact with that client. 

When a horrible client is continually driving you nuts, it weighs not only on the leadership team but anyone who has contact with them or the project. 

Earlier this year I had a client confirm a set of topics for a quarterly blog strategy that took a few hours, and my writers start the work. After we submitted the first title, the client forgot to explain to us the huge change in strategy and the combination of a few other companies. 

This resulted in much negative ROI, and loads of stress for not just me, but team members. 

We let it slide. Then it happened again, along with some unrespectful words about us not knowing. 

The stress just wasn’t worth it. So goodbye to bad clients and, more importantly, the stress of dealing with that bad client. 

More time to Focus on Other Priorities

When you get rid of a client, the drop in revenue may scare you. The flip side is this provides additional time for business development that can lead to a stronger and faster-growing business, such as:

  • Restructure your policies for dealing with clients
  • Restructure/Experiment with your current agency service offerings
  • Create new services or packages of services (e.g. combining an amplification service of newsletters/social media with current blog campaign clients)
  • Experiment with price differences and sales pitches
  • Block off time from added hours of a dead client for more education/training, whether SEO training for writers, sales training, etc. 
  • Upsell existing clients by introducing them to new services or a combination of existing services
  • Write guest posts for other publications for added brand growth, and/or blogs for an agency website

When the two above combine, this all leads to the most lucrative portion of firing a client…

Higher ROI

Yes. With added time to focus on the business development and a clear head from lack of stress, you’ll soon upsell existing ones and add more clients. It’s all about a sharp focus and continually learning, and nothing provides better education then dealing with a bad client – especially one you were forced to fire. 

 

Firing a client - how and why ContentMender guidelines

How to Drop a Client Respectably

If you’re stuck, and can’t figure out how to respectably fire a client, here are a few tactics that had worked for my agency. 

Honesty

Again, honesty always reigns, especially when situations are super negative. Be open with the client about exactly why the current situation sucks. Give them time to respond, but be true to your word that if they can’t change, it shouldn’t equate to a negative relationship, but rather one that just doesn’t work. 

Hell, I have a few friends I love dearly but can’t do business with. It’s the same way with business relationships – some are great out of the business spotlight but totally toxic within that spotlight. 

Raise Prices

Yes. If they don’t want to go, raise your prices. To get rid of one client with respect – one that I proved ROI to over and over – I simply raised prices by 50 percent. 

Recommend Another Agency

Never let anyone go, from clients to employees, without a recommendation of where to go. I have multiple agency partners that I trust, and they all love for me to send business their way. But remember to also be openly honest with them. When I introduced the few clients I split with, I simply said in the email to the other agency that my agency and the client were not a good fit. 

Concluding Thoughts:

Part of any business – especially digital marketing agencies – is dealing with bad clients – the ones who are toxic to the overall well being of the agency staff and revenue. 

The key is proactivity vs reactivity. Bad clients are easy to recognize because they disrupt the positive flow of an agency. The goal is to recognize these signs, remain calm, and react with pure kindness and respect. Try a few techniques to keep the relationship going, such as being honest about the situation and providing time for some healing. 

But if that doesn’t work, and the toxicity continues, it’s time to consider firing that client. Toxic clients bring more baggage than just stress; they also waste the only thing we can’t get back in life, time, and of course revenue. 

Remember – there are 1000s of clients who are looking for a reputable and honest agency. Once you get rid of that bad client, you can start focusing on landing more of these positive clients, and of course, put more time into catering to your truly positive clients. 


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