We all face them from time to time. A once-amiable client becomes a difficult client who causes so much stress that you take your eye off your purpose: the successful management of your business.
Of all the difficulties professionals face in their day-to-day practice, few can top the challenge of dealing with a difficult client -- a fact of life for professionals who make their living guiding people through some of life's most trying and anxiety-provoking experiences. A divorce, root canal, or a home renovation gone wrong are stressors that can be as intense as indulging or keeping a difficult client.
Given the intense nature of some of your client relationships, cutting ties with a client can be one of the most difficult business decisions you can make, depending on your situation.
When you first take on a client, it's usually cause for celebration. You enter the relationship full of optimism and resolve to do your part in helping the relationship grow to your mutual benefit.
Unexpected events beyond either party's control can negatively affect the relationships between both colleagues and clients. Personality conflicts that have been simmering on the back burner can suddenly bubble up, causing stress and ill-feeling that affects the business and all its stakeholders.
The challenge becomes knowing when it's right to cut ties. Here are five major factors confirming it is time to consider firing a client:
1. Bullying or verbal abuse of your team members
The client or others within the client's organization have become verbally abusive or repeatedly rude to you and/or your employees. Despite several conversations with your client expressing your concerns, nothing has changed, and incivility towards you and your team is escalating.
Incivility may be quite subtle or flagrant, and can involve anything from not returning calls regarding important timelines and decisions; lateness or no-shows at meetings; rudeness in meetings such as taking calls or repeatedly interrupting others; lack of preparedness for important meetings; and a generally patronizing approach that causes you or your team members embarrassment.
Remember that this is a management issue and should not be left to employees (established or junior) to deal with. You would be tempting the fates of high and costly turnover.
2. Distorting the facts (lying)
If you catch your client in a lie (or worse) he or she cannot be trusted, and continuing the association could be toxic to you, your team and your business. Once you are certain you have been lied to, document the event and present it to the client, confirming trust has been lost and cannot be regained.
3. Attempts to resolve issues are met with indifference or complete lack of collaboration
If you document and calmly present your concerns that illustrate poor behaviour on the part of the client and you get no (or a hostile response), it is time to cut ties.
4. Spreading rumours about your integrity or quality of work
If you have proof that your client has been maligning your professional reputation for reasons unknown to you, you are wise to confront the client and ask why. He or she may be trying to sabotage the relationship by placing you and your business in an untenable position rather than attempt to negotiate a more civil termination of your business relationship.
5. Ongoing payment delays
If after repeated requests for payment over several weeks (or months) your calls or emails go unheeded or your client maintains he or she can do nothing about it, you need to put your cash flow needs before all else.
Regardless of the duration or your financial dependency on the relationship, the effects of not getting paid in a timely manner could destroy your business. Hope is not a strategy when it comes to getting paid and it's best to terminate the relationship when slow payment becomes the rule rather than the exception.
While you may feel "better late than never" is a reality you must accept, think of the long-term toll this will take on you and the energy you need to grow your business versus running it on life support.
Minor Red Flags Can Turn Into a Larger Issue
In addition to the above factors, here are a few red flags that you should also track in case they turn into a bigger issue.
- Client-initiated tardiness
- Control issues or insecurity
- Reluctance or refusal to work with junior employees
- Approaching your employees to work for them without discussing it with you first
- One-upmanship or inability to listen
- Not returning emails or phone calls in a timely manner
- Missing deadlines that affect your business and performance on behalf of the client
- You sense that the client wants to end the relationship and is actively looking to replace you without saying so
The stress generated by unhealthy client relationships may eventually cause you to question your ability to run a business. If you don't value your skills, you may lose your resilience in the face of undue criticism, which can make you more vulnerable to being exploited. (It's often been said that if we don't believe in ourselves, who will?)
Your ability to assess the facts, then calmly and decisively fire that problematic client will yield tangible benefits -- perhaps sooner than you think.
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"Whether it's to get food on the table, or to buy a Ferrari, the most successful entrepreneurs have some real fire in the gut."
"The powerful idea is that if you know the environment well, if you yourself are the customer or the client, and you yourself have gone through it, you know what resources are available and you know what's going to work and what's not. That tends to be a key to a successful enterprise."
"Having access to advisors or people who can provide you with resources, people who can give you a key bit of advice at the right moment that's going to be the difference between going down a path that would lead to failure and one that's going to lead to success because they have been through it before -- that's critical," Harries said.
"Surround yourself with good people, and be transparent about what you are trying to accomplish and how," Harries said. "Do not be afraid to share control."
"Even entrepreneurs who are poised for success can get caught in a survival trap," he said. "They can be working really hard and not moving; not growing." This is when it's important to "pull back from things that aren't working, and from work that isn't of their core competencies."
Many people assume that financing must come first. Henning cautioned that the strongest financing options are available to entrepreneurs who already have key strengths in place.
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