Whether you're a business owner, self-employed, or just like to pick up some freelance work on the side, chances are you've worked with great clients and not-so-great clients. There’s nothing like connecting with motivated, inspired clients who are committed to your working relationship.
There's also nothing quite like the clients who aren't. The ones that don’t pay their invoices. The ones whose demands go well beyond a project’s agreed-upon scope. The ones that expect you to bend over backward without being compensated for it.
This isn't to say that bad client relationships can’t be turned around. Often, a direct conversation clarifies expectations and sets better ground rules so the engagement can eventually become a success. Other times, there’s simply nothing to be done but cut ties, but it can be tough to know where the line falls between a client relationship that's worth the effort trying to improve and one that isn't.
Here are a few of the most common signals—in clients' own words—that it's time to fire a problem client.
This is something I’ve seen several times working with marketing clients. They seek out an agency to help them change their approach, only to feel threatened when the agency proposes actually changing their approach.
At first, you’re naturally excited about landing the new business. You work yourself up about all the great things you could do for them, and about all the changes you’d like to make. Then the client comes back and shoots down all your ideas—not just once but every single time you propose something new. As a consultant or freelancer or company hired to help a business do something differently, this can quickly get frustrating.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s rare for these situations to turn themselves around. Clients aren’t going to magically wake up one morning and be receptive to your suggestions. In these cases, terminating the arrangement early saves you time, energy, and heartache over trying to force through changes that your client just isn't receptive to.
In business as in life, things get delayed. It's only an issue when promises like these are said over and over again—and tomorrow never comes.
Throughout my career, I’ve encountered plenty of clients who fail to understand that hiring a marketing agency isn’t a "hands off" thing. To do my job, I need access to your analytics. I need information about the approaches you’ve tried, what the results have been, and what you’d like them to be in the future. I need to know who your target customers are and how you feel your brand connects with them. I can’t do any of that if you won’t make the time to help me make our engagement successful.
No matter your role, field, or the type of client relationship you may be working under, there's no way you can do your job without the proper information or input—delivered on time, most of the time. After all, your time is money, too. Clients who waste your time with their unresponsiveness create needless stress and prevent you from taking on other projects with more potential.
Fire them, and move on.
Scope creep. Freelancers, consultants, and agency owners know this one all too well—the client who’s paid for one thing, and then asks for seven other things on top.
In my experience, the only way to handle scope creep is to state, from the very first incident, that the work they’re requesting goes above and beyond the terms of your agreement, and will be billed accordingly. This helps set expectations from the get-go, and reasonable clients will respect these boundaries; habitual scope-creepers will not. End those relationships. Clients who continually demand something for nothing are never going to change their tune.
This is a classic stalling technique. Hear it once, and there’s a legitimate chance that payment for your most recent invoice really did fall through the cracks. It's fine to give a client the benefit of the doubt. But hear this over and over again, and you’ve got a problem client on your hands.
Without payment, there’s simply no client-consultant relationship. Even regular delays that are ultimately reconciled can seriously diminish the trust you have in your client, causing you to resent future work done on their behalf.
Here, too, the context matters. One or even a few instances may be forgivable, but clients that routinely miss meetings and make themselves hard to communicate with usually aren't keepers. They may not do it deliberately, but insulting you or behaving rudely can poison your relationship to the point where it’s unsalvageable. In order to work effectively on their behalf, a client needs to respect your time and keep their commitments.
So go with your gut: Does it feel like the client’s rudeness is completely unintentional? Perhaps the client is too busy for pleasantries or facing a language barrier that prevents niceties? If so, that’s one thing. If the rudeness seems conscious, careless, or even deliberate, that’s another thing altogether.
A client that doesn’t respect you is never going to be happy with the work you do. Look elsewhere for work—you'll be glad you did.
Aaron Agius is an experienced search, content and social marketer. He has worked with some of the world’s largest brands, including Salesforce, Coca-Cola, Target and others, to build their online presence. See more from Aaron at Louder Online, his blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn.