Seven business leaders explain why they fired clients

Margaret Paton

Perhaps it’s a mark of maturity. Sacking a client is like ditching a friend who’s no good for you. It’s that time when you cut your losses, dust yourself off and move on with a clearer grasp of your boundaries. But as a small business, it’s not such an easy decision – firing a client could have an impact on your vital cash flow. Despite that, here’s a few business leaders who knew when the time had come to chop off the dead wood.

Michelle Peppler, mentor and founder of Within Without Coaching and Events

Peppler says sacking clients has enabled her to become more selective with whom she works.

Early on she says she used to give so much more and “take on responsibility for trying to ‘fix’ people.”

“I had this woman who used to tell me how long our sessions should be to get through everything she wanted to get through, but would only see me fortnightly instead of weekly, then she’d call me at all hours for different things. One time I wasn’t able to get back to her within a couple days and she chastised me. It was my first experience of firing a client,” says Peppler.

“I took the opportunity to remind her of all the amazing breakthroughs she’d had and then referred her to three other coaches who I knew all charged double what I did. I also suggested one of them might be able to offer her the around the clock type service she was after, but that I wasn’t able to continue working with her.”

Other clients she’s fired had told her they want multi-faceted changes in their life but “refused to do the work or wanted to make someone else responsible.”

“The problem lies in people thinking they want to sort their life out, come to someone like me but it turns out they actually want someone to enable their b*****t story and excuses about why their life isn’t how they want it and just have you listen to their lot in life. But, that’s not how I work because nothing changes.”

Peppler’s set her boundaries with new clients. She says they need to show some level of self-responsibility, accountability, commitment and willingness to do their part in their own life.

"She says she used to give so much more and “take on responsibility for trying to ‘fix’ people.”

Melvyn Lubega, Head of Strategic Partnerships, GO1

Have you ever been tempted to align your key product to a single client’s requirements over the market and current clients? This happened to GO1, who were recently named as one of three Australian businesses in the top 100 world’s most disruptive start-ups.

Lubega says: “We on-boarded a client that evolved as a business in a way that required something very specific and, after lengthy discussions, we recommended a vendor outside of the learning space specifically to suited their needs. 

“We’ve digressed from the roadmap before, but only when it was something that benefited the whole rather than the one.”

Prosper Taruvina, Digital Marketing Consultant, Livelong Digital

Taruvina says going into business means ideally working with people you like and who value your product. He helps coaches and consultants to “market scale and grow their businesses”. Taruvina says he “encounters a lot of egos”.

“I had a client ring me up at 1am. The reason was one of their customers had told them their advert was offensive and it had to be taken down. I told him, mate, who is running your business? And the fact that he was not true to what he wanted. So because of that, I fired him for his indecisiveness and lack of oomph to run his business.”

"Because of that, I fired him for his indecisiveness and lack of oomph to run his business.”

Judy Sahay, Founder and MD of Crowd Media Group

For Sahay, the cash flow was coming in, but she had to look beyond that to a client who was wasting her and her team’s time; eating into morale and puncturing productivity. Now, before her firm takes on a client, they check first their goals, mission and strategies are aligned.

“We did have an instance a few months back where we had to fire a client after two years of servicing them. This client was bringing in a decent amount of revenue for the company, but it was not worth it,” she says.

Their client had strayed from the initial goals and strategy based on personal assumption. In short, they wanted to run the digital strategy despite not having any “prior knowledge in the field” – actually a common problem, she says, where clients try to get involved in others’ areas of expertise.

Lachlan Wells, online marketing agency, Optimising

Boutique agency Optimising hinges its success on good consultation and collaboration – a lot of it.

“Most people understand and like this when it’s explained to them, but this particular client was heavily set on a hands-off relationship. Whenever I asked him a question or requested information, I got no response, which made our progress extremely slow. When it was time to report our progress each month, suddenly he had plenty of questions, but none of them were about the work itself. It was always ‘why are things taking so long?’” says Wells, a digital content marketer.

“After six months repeating the same conversation, I realised I was spending all of my budgeted hours (and more) trying to explain how we work. There was no time left over to actually do the tasks we were hired to do.”

Optimising didn’t fire the client, more diverted him. They recommended he hire a freelancer.

“It was 100 per cent the right decision. We’re less stressed and have far more time to give to clients who trust us.”

“It was 100 per cent the right decision. We’re less stressed and have far more time to give to clients who trust us.”

Jacob Aldridge, International Business Coach and co-founder of Real Estate Grow

Here’s an admission. Over the past decade, Alridge has worked with more than 300 business and says he’s fired a few clients, but probably should have “fired a few more”. The tagline on his website says “if your annual revenue of $1.5M to $17M let’s chat”.

“I prefer to say that I ‘wrap them in love and send them on their way’,” he says.

“Thinking about some of my most painful clients, it’s still hard to refuse future work when you know they need guidance. However, the reason they are painful clients is that they’re not listening to or implementing the business advice I’m giving them.

“One of my clients, a medical practitioner with a small practice, refused to believe our expert advice would help them. They still wanted to work with me, just in a manner where they would argue with me rather than work together. Rather than flatly firing them and other similar clients over the years, I tend to give them some specific actions they need to implement in their business before we can proceed. These clients never do the work, which means they don’t achieve the change they want, but also absolves me from having to fight with them.

“Now I have learnt my lesson and there are some triggers I identify during the sales process that indicate this particular client is not a match for me and my team. As tempting as it is sometimes to win the work, when you know it’s not sustainable it’s much easier to say no.”

"The reason they are painful clients is that they’re not listening to or implementing the business advice I’m giving them.”

John Rosato, Digital Marketing Manager, Wolf Interactive

Rosato agrees, consulting is more than just giving advice – the relationship with clients hinges on action and results.

“Unimplemented recommendations leave a sour taste in the client’s mouth and my own. After three months of working with a client, little to no implementation was happening. Given it was a waste of my time – and their money – I thought it would be best to cut our losses which allowed me to focus on better and more fulfilling projects.”

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe.