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Saying Goodbye Gracefully to High Maintenance Clients

There are times in running your business when you have to make some very tough decisions, hiring or firing staff, reducing overhead, moving locations, expanding or even downsizing your business. Whatever decisions you make, the goal should be to produce the best quality product that promotes your brand and manages the stress level of yourself and your team.

Recently at a business support group, we had a lengthy discussion about how to fire (or prevent hiring) high maintenance clients. So this article will discuss the following common questions:

  1. What is a high maintenance or problem client?
  2. How can you determine if they are going to be high maintenance before you start?
  3. What are the disadvantages of taking on high maintenance clients?
  4. What are the benefits from actually turning down potential profits from these sources?
  5. How do you bow out gracefully?

I. First of all, what is a high maintenance client?  You know the ones … you took on their project even though you had a nagging feeling in your mind that you shouldn’t. You work just as hard as any other project but its never good enough, and when you do more than you originally estimated, they still feel that they deserve more.  They complain, are rude, demanding, and believe they are your only client. They often lack propriety and have no respect for boundaries, calling many times throughout the workday, in the evenings and weekends until they get a response. Generally, they are a drain of your time, positive energy and resources.

II. How do you know before you start working that they are going to be a problem client? Honestly in some instances, you will not know. It won’t be until you are beginning the approved project, that you will see issues beginning to erupt. Unfortunately in that situation, you will have to finish the work you committed to. After the approved project in the contract is complete, you can make steps to end the relationship.

But in most cases, initially you will see and hear things that will cause those red flags to pop up like flashing red warning signs. Listen carefully, watch their reaction as you explain your procedures, your deadlines and your budget and payment policies. Listen closely to past experiences with similar projects or subcontractors. Ask they what they liked or disliked about previous experiences. What are their expectations to time, budget and response time?

I had one prospect recently call and told me that his previous web designer had a restraining order against the business owner for himself and his wife, and then he asked if I thought it was a big deal if he paid 30 days past the due date. Alert, red flags and warning signals were going off loudly! Usually though, they’re not that easy to interpret, so listen, ask questions and encourage face-to-face meetings as much as possible.  It’s much easier for them to hide their idiosyncrasies over the phone or through email (at first).

III. If you ignore your survival instincts and go forward thinking only of lost profits, what are some of the disadvantages of taking on such high maintenance customers?  

First of all, their negative energy will deplete your positive one, cause you undue stress and reduce the joy of running your business.

“Some people are just high maintenance. They operate out of their ‘woundedness,’ to borrow a phrase from John Eldredge. I am never going to please them. I will only deplete myself trying.” – Michael Hyatt, author of Wall Street Journal best seller, Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want


Second, they are a distraction from the positive projects and goals you and your team have. Your most valuable resource as an entrepreneur is your time. And high maintenance clients will suck you and your team dry of it. They are not happy people, you will never make them happy and you cannot take on their unhappiness as your burden. The majority of clients and prospects that you and your team work with will provide satisfaction, loyal returns, positive reviews and ongoing referrals. Don’t risk taking time away from your good clients in your efforts to please someone who is never going to be satisfied, no matter the time and energy you invest.

Third, problem clients do not promote your brand. If not happy, they will complain about their experience to their friends, colleagues and all that will listen. And unfortunately you’ll have no way to defend yourself if comments are made in person. If they post negative reviews, ALWAYS respond by sharing your side of the story in a respectful but honest way. Stick to the facts and do your best to make peace. Responding to negative reviews usually doesn’t win over those who posted it but your responses do make a substantial and positive effect for all those that read that review.

IV. The benefits to turning down high maintenance projects are plentiful. First of all, you will increase your joy in running your business, working with your team and walking away from your workday feeling satisfied and accomplished. You will actually save money by turning down these types of jobs. Instead of wasting time, giving away free services or reducing costs to satisfy disgruntled clients, you can be making putting your time towards clients or non-profits* that appreciate your services. Reduce your stress and avoid the headaches that can affect you emotionally, physically and professionally.

V. Okay, so how do you bow out gracefully without hurting your brand?  Business Coach, Nick Reese provides three sample scripts to Free Yourself from Problem Clients. Basically though, take the blame if possible, that its your decision and a brief explanation of why you are not the best fit for their project. Offer a solution, with either a list of competitors (which you should have ready) or ways they can manage on their own. Thank them for their interest in your company and always wish them success in their business goals. Easy and effective.

*All of the above can be applied to pro-bono clients such as non-profit groups you volunteer with, boards or committees you’ve been selected to chair, or even relationships professionally or personally. If you are being treated unfairly, expending an excessive amount of energy and resources, and not being appreciated or heard, take stock of what those connections really mean to you. In the end, you may be surprised the freedom, stress reduction and expanding joy will experience by peacefully walking away. After you walk away, you will be surprised at the doors that may open to you and the support you will receive that have witnessed your struggle.



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