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!