You Are Fired!

Don’t worry about the title of this blog post: this is not about the linguist getting fired, but about the linguist firing a client. In general, we are not big fans of the term firing clients, but it does make for a catchy title. Now that we've got your attention, let’s talk about a problem that every small business owner, regardless of the business sector, faces sooner or later: clients who are simply, well, not worth it. If this has never happened to you, consider yourself lucky.

It's all about business strategy. Photo by Judy.
It’s a well-known reality of the marketplace that some clients will be more difficult and will take up more of your time than others. We’d say that 99% of our clients are absolutely lovely, but some require more work and more hand-holding than others. Some have completely preventable emergencies that they expect us to solve. That’s not to say that they aren’t nice people or that we don’t like them, but as the owners of a small business, our only resource is our time, so we have to make choices about how we use that resource to benefit our bottom line. We run a business, and we need to always behave like one. For better or for worse, that includes making some difficult decisions about whom we want to work with. Since we work for ourselves, we are under no obligation to continue any working relationship that simply isn’t fruitful, and sometimes you have to walk away.

For instance, let’s say you have a client who is responsible for 2% of your annual revenue, but who is so high-maintenance that you spend hours and hours of the phone and sending e-mails about all sorts of minutiae. It doesn’t matter if the client is right or wrong, what matters is that you use your time efficiently. We ran into this situation recently, when we realized that a small customer, who happens to be quite disorganized, was taking up a lot of our time. We totaled up our earnings from this particular customer for  the previous year, and they were negligible. We treat all customers – small or large – the same, but at some point, it makes sense to allocate more time to your largest customers, and we decided to do so. 

Now, the question is: how do you break this news to the client? Remember that we are not employees, indentured servants and have no moral or ethical obligation to continue a working relationship that doesn’t work for both sides, but it’s still important to be polite. The less direct way is to simply decline work from the client in question. After a while, the client might or might not get the message, but our preferred way of communication is to be honest with the client. Be sure you write a kind message or have a frank, but friendly phone or in-person conversation and simply say that you’ve decided to focus your attention on other projects. If you want to tell the client the whole truth, we suggest wearing kid gloves and perhaps consider saying that your client’s goals and yours are not exactly aligned (or something similar).

On the other hand, you might have customers who are responsible for a good portion of your income, but who might so challenging to work with that the business relationship takes up too much energy. If your customer makes your stomach turn, you are losing sleep or can’t talk about anything else, perhaps it’s time to prioritize your mental health over your business bottom line, as your health is always more important than any client. In our case, we realized that our difficult client was taking up a lot of unnecessary mental space. Since this client is small, this relationship was neither lucrative nor healthy, and that combination sealed the deal: we walked away.  

How do you handle these tricky situations, dear colleagues? We'd love to hear your experiences!


Anonymous said...

I quite agree - there are some clients who are just not worth working with - either because they send fiddly little jobs, or have your work proof-read by non-native proofreaders, and you then have to spend ages unpicking the changes they've made and explaining why your (native) version is actually what we say.... I must admit I've been too cowardly to try the direct approach, but I usually say I'm too busy or raise my prices (especially for minimum jobs), and then they do usually get the message - eventually.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 14, 2014 at 3:06 PM said...

@Claire: Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. Agreed: having to invest significant amounts time to undo mistakes is not a smart business strategy, and you might be better off without that client! It's totally fine to not use the direct approach (it's scary indeed) and to be a bit more passive about it. As you correctly point out: eventually, the message becomes clear. Raising your prices is always a solid strategy!

Thierry Lafaye on April 16, 2014 at 5:03 AM said...

Thank you so much for this nice post. I actually use the coward approach for the time being with a couple of tiny income clients, which didn't proved effective just yet. As I tried the bolder one last year with a big client but who was needing too much energy but where my health had to come first, I am quite reluctant to try again as he took it quite bad I was "abandoning him".

There is a nice trick I haven't tried and Claire mentions in comment: raising rates, particularly for minimum jobs. Stating that my other clients accepted them (which is true) could help free myself from those remaining harder-to-handle clients :)

Thank you for all your tips.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 16, 2014 at 2:49 PM said...

@Thierry: Many thanks for your lovely comment -- we very much appreciate it! Either approach (direct or not direct) works just fine, as long as the end result is the same (severing the perhaps difficult/toxic relationship). Sorry to hear that your client was affecting your health, but it sure looks like you were able to make the change. Sometimes it is challenging to see when clients take it badly, as seems to have been the case with your client, but let's make sure to keep the "free" in freelance! Of course, perhaps your client could see it from the other point of view: you wouldn't be leaving that working relationship if it were better/more positive for you, but the client probably did not consider that he/she was the root cause!

And yes, Claire's tip is fantastic. :)

Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz on April 21, 2014 at 9:59 AM said...

Hi. :) I'd like to call your attention to one fact. Well, it's either frank or kid gloves. If it's kid gloves, it may still be honest, of course, but it isn't frank and probably not too open, either. So perhaps you're thinking about having a frank conversation with a high-maintenance client but not quite ready to go there yet?

Next, since we're freelancers and don't operate under rigid rules, and since you mention people we actually may like working with, perhaps there could be a third way? Termination is a drastic step and possibly not necessary even when the current modus vivendi is no longer sustainable.

So we could basically try and look at it from a negotiation perspective: what kind of give or take we need to introduce into the existing give and take to make the balance good.

This we can sometimes do without identifying anything in the client's behaviour
as a source of trouble, e.g. by simply billing the client for any consultation time, especially on small jobs. Double on a Saturday or outside normal business hours.

Any special requirements concerning the job could merit a surcharge, and the reason that such a surcharge has not been required so far may very well be that it simply hasn't been identified as necessary until now. Again, just making the time billable — or applying a flat surcharge (akin to a minimum fee which corresponds to some things you always do no matter how small the job is) — could make it easier for a client to understand than unilaterally increasing the per-word rate.

On a human level, I think it's important to give people a chance, especially if they wouldn't mind making the balance good for you if they got the chance. :)

Also, if you give them the chance but they don't want it, it takes away some of the odium of termination by making it less of a drastic unilateral decision.

The next thing you can do is pass them down to a colleague to whom the existing setup would mean a more favourable balance, for financial reasons, such as costs of living, or subjective mental reasons such as not being particularly bothered by something, or more need or desire for what the client does offer, e.g. referrals in a field.

Finally, if the annoyance relates only to some of the client's projects, I guess it could be feasible to include another freelancer in the relationship, such as a field specialist, a non-translator consultant, a DTP person and so on (or even a cheaper translator who will still be enough if money somehow factors in). I'm sure you know more about that than I do. :) Alternatively, there's always the option of asking the client to do some things inhouse, especially if they don't require translation skills (or pretty much anything you feel overqualified for).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 21, 2014 at 11:44 AM said...

@Lukasz: Many, many thanks for your very thoughtful and lovely comment. We completely agree -- severing the relationship is the last resort, and one should certainly try to salvage the relationship before if at all possible -- but it's simply not always possible. Just like attorneys withdraw from cases, linguists have to sometimes do it, too. But of course the first option is always to work things out with the client, as without clients, are are nothing. However, when the client's expectations are unrealistic, when he/she does not treat you well, when the issue affects you physically -- that's when it's time to walk away.

We hear your point about referring a colleague, but we've stayed away from that, as we don't want a dear colleague inheriting a clearly very difficult client. Good observation, though, that some colleaegues might just have a different disposition and might be more suited for a particular client.

Luckily, this has only happened once or twice in 15 years or so, and 99.99999% of the time, our clients are absolutely lovely.

This is a very interesting topic and we are grateful for all the fantastic food for thought you have contributed here. Keep it coming, Lukasz! The idea of charging for consultation time is also fantastic.

Unknown on April 21, 2014 at 11:29 PM said...

Thanks for writing about this sensitive matter! I always feel bad declining jobs - and I had to do this a lot last months. As for 'firing' clients completely, it's really close to leaving a full-time job when you do not move to another city or have other more or less serious excuses) Clients accept it differently...
But it has to be done if you want to develop and improve your business and your life.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 22, 2014 at 2:50 PM said...

@Collegue (sorry, we cannot read your name; different alphabet!): Many thanks for your lovely comment. We really appreciate it. Well, we don't think parting ways with one client is similar to leaving a full-time job, unless, of course that client is your only client, which is quite unlikely in our humble opinion. While it is important to take care of our clients, at some point, we have to make good decisions about how to allocate our time, as you correctly point out. :) Thanks for reading! And yes, this is an important and sensitive subject indeed. We might write a bit more about this in the future.

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