Is Your Client a Problem Child?

3 steps for setting boundaries and knowing when to say goodbye

Back Web Only Jun 29, 2015 By Kelly Azevedo

Every service business has had one: the dreaded problem client. These clients seem to bring more trouble than their business is worth, and dealing with them can quickly become a time sink. When dealing with a problem child, you need to implement solutions and be prepared to sever the relationship if those solutions don’t pan out. Here’s how:

Step 1: Identify Your Problem Child

It’s important that you be able to easily identify high-maintenance clients in your industry — hopefully before you sign the contract. Think back to those clients who gave you the most headaches, and try to remember if there were warning signs. Were they late to the first meeting? Did they have trouble making payments on time? Were they overly demanding and focused on the smallest of details?

In my experience, bad-seed clients fall into two categories: those who are never satisfied, and those who are simply not a good fit due either to personality conflicts or scope of work. Not all difficult clients fall into these categories. Often a client that challenges your business is simply pushing you toward better service and accountability. Don’t conflate high standards with unnecessary headaches.

Action Step: Make a list identifying the common factors of problematic clients in your practice, past and present. If you’re having trouble, start with the positive traits of your favorite clients and identify the opposite behaviors. For example, if your ideal client is warm and appreciative of your time, the bad-seed client is probably dismissive and makes unreasonable demands.

Step 2: Create an Assessment Process

Before you make the decision to sever a business relationship, it’s advisable to consider both your budget and client contract to ensure that you make the right decisions. While you might not have any of these clients in your business today, it’s better to create this checklist ahead of time, when you’re clear headed and unemotional.

Consult your team about issues that arise with problematic clients. Based on their feedback, you can set boundaries ahead of time. Things to consider:

  • Time spent on customer service
  • The number of iterations required by the client during the project approval process
  • The client’s treatment of your staff

If you know ahead of time what you are and are not willing to put up with, it will be easier to assess how much trouble a client is worth when the time comes

Action Step: Create a checklist that includes how to identify as well as respond to a problematic client. Consider what access, notifications and action steps you’d need to take to separate with a client if the circumstance arises.

Step 3: Severing Ties

Letting go is the hardest part, but much like a romantic relationship, it’s hard to move on to bigger and better things when something negative is holding you back. Once you have decided to sever ties, you’ll need to do a couple of important things before making it official.

First, determine the financial outcome, such as a final payment owed by the client or a partial refund owed to them. Be prepared to address this directly and with a backup of invoices.

Then, notify the client with a simple email or letter — get it in writing. Include the date your relationship will end, payment arrangements and any additional next steps.

After you’ve addressed it with the client, announce this change to your team, if necessary, and remove the former client from appropriate mailing lists, email broadcasts and updates.

Action Step: End the relationship.

“It’s not me, it’s you…”

The biggest challenge in such a circumstance is preserving your reputation when telling the soon-to-be-ex-client that you’re parting ways. While it might be tempting to take the blame, it can also reflect poorly on your business if you insinuate that you’re not up for the work.

Instead, it’s best to simply state that the relationship isn’t working out, and you’ve made the tough decision to cancel or end the contract. Be clear and concise, and wish them the best. Chances are the client knows things are not going well and is unsure of how to make a clean break.

When it comes to finding the bad apple in the bunch, the key is to remove this negative influence quickly and efficiently so you can get back to work with your awesome clients. Bad clients aren’t necessarily bad people, but that doesn’t mean you need to stay in an unsatisfactory relationship.