How to Know When It’s Time to Turn the Tables—and Fire Your Client

Is it ever okay to fire a client? And how do you know when the time has come? Read about our early warning signs and recommendations for your business

Every business has clients they’ve thought about firing, about turning the tables and reminding them that they’re not always right, regardless of what clichés suggest. And certainly, early in your business or in some desperate stages, you may have to play the part of punching bag for a client that doesn’t understand your work or is projecting their frustrations onto your efforts.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a time to tell a client goodbye, to push them out the door so that you can get back to being your best. If you have a great track record of happy clients and well-reviewed work yet still have a client or two that, no matter what, is never pleased, it might be time to consider letting that client go. After all, one client shouldn’t ruin the design-build business you love and in which you excel.

There are warning signs that should help let you know when it’s time to fire your client. It’s never an easy decision, especially as a small business owner. It seems like letting money walk out the door. You’ll find that the client ready to be fired is one that is never satisfied and constantly demanding his work be pushed to the front of your schedule. Often, these not-so-subtle reminders come via late night email or phone call. And they come often enough never to never leave you in peace.

The danger this can pose to your long-term business success becomes only more evident when these demands start impacting your ability to get work done for other clients. One danger to keep an eye out for is a request to offer a full assessment before receiving a commitment. Often, a client might want you to jump through all the hoops of organizing the process on an impossible deadline, just to get you one step closer to agreeing to the project.

Don’t put yourself in a situation in which you’re meeting an impossible deadline. Only walk into projects for which there has been an honest and realistic commitment from your client. If you return to the same site again and again, eventually agreeing to a near-impossible deadline, you’re setting yourself up for a difficult encounter. In fact, you may have just hired the client you’ll soon have to fire.

Signing on to impossible deadlines to appease a client can quickly flood your inbox and voicemail with increasingly hostile and unfair demands. Suddenly, you may find a passive aggressive email in your inbox suggesting that your four-week proposal be squeezed into three. Or you may receive a call about why you weren’t able to move up a scheduled visit from a contractor from next week to this one.

The process can become even more complicated as you begin to work with intermediaries and employees. This can lead to a third-party putting you in a bind—making impossible promises on your behalf without your consent. This could include scheduling contractors unbeknownst to you, then letting you know that you can cancel or reschedule appointments if they don’t work. If your client has a project manager, it can also mean getting stuck with a project manager who makes promises to a client but relies on your extra effort to make them happen.

Remember: Even if you know you’re the best at your job in your market, there’s always competition. Your client always has choice. And if she chose you knowing your proposed schedule wouldn’t work, it means she should’ve chosen someone else. There are always hiccups, but total disregard for your pre-existing schedule and other clients is simply unacceptable. To take on another cliché, poor planning on her part does not constitute an emergency on yours.

Deadlines always cause some amount of stress. They also help everyone stay on track and remain productive, even when the going gets tough. If you’re wondering if it’s ever right to fire your client, consider the scenarios we presented above. Each suggests a warning sign that could be trending in that direction. To ignore these signs and comply with every request can be a path of destruction. You might burn through the goodwill of all your customers just to gain the grudging satisfaction of another.

Should you still be flexible? Yes. Should you still expect to manage difficult clients? Yes. But are there exceptional patterns that provide clear-cut reasons to fire your client? Yes. After years of working—and pleasing—dozens of clients, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s reasonable and what’s impossible. If at all possible, abide by the early warnings and simply refuse to take on a project. If you find yourself already in a quagmire, consider the long-term implications. Some clients just aren’t worth saving.

Debbe Daley is the designer of choice for residential and commercial interior design in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and coastal Maine.  Learn more about Debbe in the following, The Huffington PostThe Lowell Sun and WCAP - 980 AM Lowell, MA.