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How to Fire a Difficult Client

The first time I had to fire a difficult client, my pits sweated right through my shirt as I was composing, backspacing, and rewording that email.

Look, we’re gonna to do our best to make sure we don’t ever end up in this position, but sometimes you have to fire a difficult client.

I encourage you to do this at the second sign of inappropriate behavior. For the most part, I’ll give people grace on their first asshole comment, late payment, or questionable Zoom background.

But the second time?

Cut your losses and get out.

You don’t necessarily even need to have a clear egregious error. Sometimes you just drift apart. You’ve got a 5 year contract and 2 years in you’ve decided you want to shift your business focus.

Instead of providing a full suite of graphic design services, you’re pivoting into the niche of writing each wedding guest’s name in calligraphy on individual grains of rice that they’ll chuck at the happy couple. Totally cool.

Pivots happen all the time.

The bottom line is don’t do this:

Angela Bassett Revenge GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Even if you really really really want to.

When you recognize it’s time to part ways your first stop is your contract. Whip that baby out.

It’s gonna have a section on cancellation. The most common clause I see says that the contract can be cancelled by either party with 30 days’ notice.

Ok, cool.

Email your client and say… whatever you want. But not too much. Unless you want to.

Crystal clear?

My point is you aren’t obligated to say much but if you’ve had a good relationship and want to preserve it, you can provide some detail.

How to fire a difficult client:

You can be as efficient as “Hey there – It breaks my heart to do this but I need to sever our partnership. Our contract asks for 30 days’ notice – please consider this the notice. I’ll continue to give my best on this project in that time and I have someone in mind I’d like to transition you to if you want a recommendation.”

You don’t have to mention calligraphy on wedding rice.

You also don’t need to provide a recommendation if your client is a jerk. Because the colleague you’re recommending doesn’t deserve that behavior either.

If they’ve specifically breached the contract in some way, you don’t have to wait the 30 days either. You just need to point to that clause in the contract, like “Todd, when you commented on the size of my butt at last week’s meeting, it was a breach of the sexual harassment clause of the contract, which is cause for immediate cancellation. I’ll be sending my final invoice over shortly.”

I’ve been in less clear situations where I had to say something like “The ongoing reshuffling of my scope and responsibilities is making it impossible for me to fulfill the obligations laid out in our contract. Further, I need to be able to trust a partnership – that’s how we plan out our business strategy. This partnership is not working for our business model any more.”

Copy/paste these as much as you need.

Take a deep breath and hit send.

And if you’ve loved these folks, consider shipping them a parting gift of wedding rice.

Do not forget to send the final invoice.

Sometimes we don’t review our contracts very carefully before signing and end up agreeing to a clause that’s less fair, like one that says only your client is allowed to cancel. If that’s you, still try one of these options listed above. Chances are that once you convey that you’re unhappy, they’ll also want to part ways.

If you’re screening your prospective clients well, firing a difficult client will be rare (so bookmark this page for when you need it). I have to do it once every other year.

When it happens to you, it sucks but I’m here for ya. Email me and tell me what happened and how they reacted. We’ll get through it together.

Business Boundaries

I live a couple blocks from the world’s best pizzeria. I count it among my many blessings. The owner, Rich, has perfected red sauce. He hires neighborhood kids. He’ll donate a dozen pies to any local charity that asks.

So why does he have reviews like this, from Lauren C who lives in the “theater district” in Manhattan:

“I have never been treated so poorly by the owner of a restaurant or any employee. I will never be back and recommend you avoid this restaurant at all cost.  

“The food does not compensate for the horrible attitude and hostility of a mean man.”

I have a pretty good guess, because here’s what happened to me, many moons ago.

I asked for my salad dressing on the side. My server said, “I can give you no dressing. I can give you a ~whisper~ of dressing. But I can’t put your dressing on the side.”

Um what? I’m feeling kinda Lauren C right now.

My server explained that the chef carefully constructs each dish, which is meant to be consumed as a whole, not as individual parts. It’s like a piece of art. You wouldn’t ask an artist to put all the yellow in a pot on the side of the painting.

In other words, this restaurant has integrity. They know their food is amazing. They know what makes it amazing. And they don’t mess with the magic.

That’s called having boundaries (and I suspect Lauren C isn’t used to facing boundaries).

Boundaries are how you maintain the integrity of your work.

Most of us don’t even consider business boundaries. That’s how we get scope creep and asshole clients.

You can recognize missing boundaries when you put together a proposal for a client and the client comes back with a list of tweaks they want to make to your package and you say yes.

You say yes because you want the money and the client and the opportunity. What you trade for the yes is the integrity of your plan.

The thoughtfulness and experience you put into the creation of a package of services that you know will serve this client the best.

You lose your voice of wisdom – which, as a consultant, is one of your most valuable assets. It’s why you attracted this client in the first place.

How successful will this project really be if your voice of wisdom can be pushed back and questioned?

Of course – partnership is important and that will always require some discussion and collaboration and the lovely unfolding of new ideas. It’s your job to recognize when your client is treading into your area of expertise and crossing a boundary.

When you let your boundaries get crossed, you’re not a consultant, you’re a freelancer.

Rich’s expertise is Italian food. Lauren C’s expertise is not Italian food. Rich has every single right – and I would even say *responsibility* – as the expert to say what can and cannot be changed to maintain the integrity of his food.

And so do you.

Granted, Rich is a white dude, which comes with a level of privilege that likely makes it easier for him to tell a customer no, to risk a bad review on Yelp.

But Rich can also bet on the fact that his work is so flippin good that all of the 5 star reviews saying this is the best pizza on the planet will overshadow the Lauren Cs of the world.

And so can you.

Focus on constructing amazing packages for your services. Produce extraordinary results for clients. And your reputation takes care of itself.

Business boundaries start like this:

I don’t….

We only…

Our focus is on…

My policy is…

Finish one of these sentences and email me with your business boundary.

Being Strung Along

The thing about being strung along by a “potential client” is that you often don’t know it til it’s too late. Let’s look at what happened to a couple of my students and let their hindsight become your foresight.

No work without a contract.

Sometimes we make it easy to string us along. Like when we agree to work we wouldn’t normally do, for the promise of a future contract.

One of my previous mentees (let’s call her Trudy) accidentally set herself up for being strung along. She realllllllllly wanted to partner with this organization. It woulda been a big fish to add to her portfolio.

In her early conversations with her point of contact at this org, they seemed super eager to work together. So much so, that the client asked Trudy if she’d be willing to jump in on some small tasks (warning sign #1) at a low (warning sign #2) hourly rate (warning sign #3).

Trudy didn’t know me then, so she said yes. The client said it would just be temporary while they write up the bigger contract and get it in place.

Did Trudy ever advance beyond low wage task labor?

No my friend she did not.

And she was too embarrassed about the scope of her work there to ever include this client in her portfolio.

The client doesn’t know what they want.

Another student of mine (code name: Blanche) got stuck in a months-long string-along with a potential client because of “decision by committee.”

Similar to having too many cooks in the kitchen, decision by committee is an excellent way of slowing progress to a casual stroll through I Don’t Know What Do You Think Land. Have you and your partner ever entered into starvation because neither of you could decide what you wanted to eat for dinner? Like that. But with ten partners.

Blanche had a typical initial meeting with this client to lay out the possible solutions she could offer to the problems they were experiencing. They seemed to have come to agreement about the way forward. Blanche went home and waited for a contract.

And waited.

Blanche checked in but by this point, the finer details of the conversation had been lost, so the potential client asked Blanche to write up the plan in a proposal (note to Future Blanche: Write and send the proposal immediately after the initial meeting.)

Blanche sent the proposal and waited.

And waited.

When she checked in again, the potential client said the team needed to really think about whether the proposed solution would solve the right problem. Could Blanche meet with the whole team and help them talk through their problems?

I’m gonna skip to the end of Blanche’s tale: Blanche dealt with so much waffling you’d think she could open an IHOP franchise. This client liked the idea of working with Blanche (or, at least, of having a consultant) but couldn’t ever make a decision about where to start.

I actually suspect they didn’t have the funds to invest in the right solutions but didn’t want to say that to Blanche’s face, so they just let it playyyyyyy out.

Look, some clients really do take months of nurture before the project comes to fruition and you get that sweet contract in your hands. You’ve gotta relationship build. They’ve gotta convince some team members to swipe right on you. Procurement processes and vendor onboarding – the creepy evil twins staring at you blankly at the end of the hallway of consulting life – can take a long, long time.

You’ve gotta learn how to tell the difference between when they really do need time and when they’re stringing you along. Here’s how I tell:

Check-ins should advance the plot.

If you’re not hearing a reply after you send a check-in email, wait a week and send another. We all have those weeks from hell where we can barely breathe. But if you don’t hear anything after the second check-in, move on with your life.

When you do get a reply, it should include some decision or action or next step with a date attached to it.

Like “My team and I have a meeting to discuss this project next Tuesday and I’ll get back to you then.”

or “I have a few more questions. Can we schedule a Zoom to discuss?”

These are check-ins that advance the plot.

If your check-in gets a reply like “Thank you for checking in!” or “We’re still thinking about it.” you’re being strung along and it’s time to walk on by.