How (and When) To Fire Your Client

Any business person with a client to cater to has more than likely fantasized about firing their client on occasion. Damning the money and charging away from the aggravation with a one-finger salute. Usually those fantasies come when you are being yelled out on the phone or by biting email or maybe being shamed publicly. Despite the fantasy the usual response is to bite your lip, apologize then hold your tongue save asking how you can make it right. Ouch!!

Yeah, sucks to be you when that happens but a client means billing and we need money. Maybe we get lucky and they decide to fire you so you can say, “I respect your decision.” Then you hang up the phone or hit reply on the email crack a big smile, shout a “good riddance,” or maybe a fist pump and team high five. So, if you hated working for the client, you can survive the loss, why didn’t you fire him? Well, it’s just not done!

No, it’s not done very often. Besides forsaking billing there may be a sense of martyrdom or an acceptance. In The Big Chill the “square” advertising guy expounding his befuddlement at a suicide rationalizes, “You have to put up with some crap at work or with a client, but you try and minimize that stuff and do the best you can. Nobody said it was going to be fun…at least no one ever said it  to me.”

Fair to say it is cliché to expect that having a client inherently means you have to put up with crap. To some extent that may be true but there are limits, some obvious and some more subjective. Sometimes communication can smooth out a rough start or sometimes actions or consistency informs you need to fire your client…

WHEN: (Definitely)

  • You are asked to do something illegal and the client is aware of the illegality
  • You are asked to violate your moral or ethical standards and after explaining why you can’t you get insistence
  • You discover your client is involved with illegal, immoral or unethical practices regardless whether your work is directly linked

WHEN: (Probably)

  • The work you provide is not aligned with your strategy, whether as a legacy or an outlier
  • After analysis you aren’t profiting from the work, the client won’t accept appropriate rates and your affiliation is not providing a referral stream or other financial worth
  • The money you are making is not worth the stress you are enduring
  • Whatever the money you just don’t feel right and commit to replacing the billing with better fit client(s)

Sure, not everyone has the luxury to choose stress-free clients, maybe they don’t exist, but just as a business needs great employees who are aligned on message and giving quality effort so too does it require clients that align with the mission, help forward the goals, provide mutual benefit, and is not destructive to morale, morality…or sanity.


Forget the Apprentice board room fantasy of surrounding the client with judges and opinions and issuing a Trump-ian “You’re fired!” or standing before the mob and turning a Caesar-like thumbs down. As the wicked witch of the west suggested, “These things must be done delicately,” never in anger and never without an explanation.

  • A high level, peer-to-peer, discussion of the circumstances and the suggestion, “Maybe we’re not the best fit” is as aggressive as you should go a need to disengage
  • If the discussion leads the client to believe they are firing you, swallow the ego and take the win
  • Come to the “firing” with some suggestions on alternatives for them (maybe referring a competitor you don’t like…or honestly thinking of a better fit).
  • Keep the bridge from being burned down, the win for you is getting away from the work not gloating in lancing a professional boil

Your reputation is on the line with how you fire as much as it is with how you work. Doing this on behalf of your staff can, and should, be presented to them as a supporting gesture. However, make it clear that having to fire a client is also a failure on your part and you need to take lessons from it. Maybe that is in doing a better job of vetting opportunities, maybe more clarity in pursuing strategy over dollars, maybe in better recognizing your strengths to exploit and your weaknesses to either develop or keep disengaged.

Bottom line about every bottom line is that you, and all employees, should be allowed to work and have the opportunity to grow and prosper in an environment of growth, partnerships, reciprocal value, ethical practices and the pursuit of success without a toll that negates that joy.

© 2018 MyEureka Solutions LLC.  Follow Tom on Twitter @TomFoxTrainer or for more business therapy articles

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