Project Management optimize

Eight reasons why it's time to fire a client

No IT consultant ever wants to tell a client, "You're fired." However, sometimes the relationship reaches a point where that is your best course of action. Chip Camden outlines eight scenarios that may lead you to terminate a client relationship.

 To an IT consultant, nothing is more valuable than having good clients with recurring business, especially in these times of economic distress. We should, therefore, always do our best to correct any problems in the client relationship before throwing in the towel. Nevertheless, some business is just bad, and some clients hurt you more than they're worth. Here are eight scenarios that (if you can't remedy) may require you to fire your client:

#1: They insist that you do something that's unethical or illegal. Sure, you both might be able to get away with it, but if you compromise your integrity for your client, then your client won't be able to trust you. If you'd cheat for them, why wouldn't you cheat against them? More importantly, you would degrade yourself in your own eyes. Have some self-respect and bid the client adieu. #2: They always pay you late. You can never allow late payments to become the status quo; clients will only get later with their payments. Naturally, you should take steps to improve your client's payment habits first, but if they refuse to reform, say au revoir. #3: They repeatedly angle for a reduced fee. Your rate is clearly stated in your contract -- which they signed -- yet on every project they ask you for a reduction for one of a number of fabricated reasons. They all translate to one real message: The client doesn't think you're worth what you charge. If you can't convince the client of your value, and you have other clients who clearly get the picture, it's hasta la vista. #4: They try to get you to work for free. There are good reasons for working for no money, and then there are bad reasons. The number one bad reason in my experience is that the software doesn't do everything the client needs, even though those features were not included in the original agreement. I'm not clairvoyant, and I don't work for free; if the client can't comprehend those points, then arrivederci. #5: Their organization is structured to prevent success. Policies, procedures, and the channels of communication are either poorly designed or abused to the point where your failure is guaranteed. It's your duty to point out these flaws and help your client try to correct them. If they just don't get that there's a problem here, auf Wiedersehen. #6: The personalities involved are incompatible. I'm a likable guy -- just ask my wife (oh, forget I said that). Really, though, I try to get along with everyone. But it's just hard to work with some people. When the only reason why you would ever subject yourself to the tortures of being in their acquaintance is the money, you either need to get a lot of money or say sayonara. #7: They demean or insult you. In any relationship, insults are the first step in a plan (conscious or not) to lower your status. Insults can often be rendered ineffective by repaying them in kind, establishing your right to respect. But it's a bad way to start a client relationship, where mutual respect should be a given. And if it continues to be a useless battle you have to fight every day, it might be time to retreat from the field. #8: They require that you do things the wrong way. In any long-term engagement, there will inevitably be some disagreements over technical approaches. Sometimes you just have to do what the customer wants, even if you vehemently disagree. But that should not become an everyday thing, or you'll just hate your work. Perhaps you and your client are not a good fit. Dosvidanya.

How do you pull the plug?

If your work consists of a series of small projects, you may be able to complete your current task and then politely say "no, thanks" to whatever else they offer. Or you could change your terms to be so lucrative for yourself that even if they don't get your not-so-subtle message, you won't mind.

I prefer honestly telling the client about the reasons why I no longer want to work with them. It can be tricky because you don't want to burn more bridges than strictly necessary. Keep emotions out of it, and stick to the facts. It's more useful than concealing your complaint because it might help the client to improve, and it might help you, too. By putting your reasons into a dispassionate explanation, you might reveal some shortcomings of your own that contributed to the problem. Or best of all, it might help you both to fix whatever you considered beyond hope.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

65 comments
JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...raise your rates through the roof, until they get tired of paying, or you decide that they're now worth the trouble.

biancaluna
biancaluna

Chip, it is uncanny how timely this thread is for me. I am firing a client today, due to repeated breaches of rule number 7. A particular problem employee who is running a key department has crossed a line last week that cannot be uncrossed and despite escallations to the leadership, this is not addressed to my satisfaction. It became personal and that is a risky time in a client relationship. The danger of staying too long in these sorts of situations is that your reputation is discredited, without fail. For some people the hoarding of power and self is more important than the right thing. Time to hit the road, even in a somewhat diminished market, I am not willing to sacrifice my integrity and self respect for a consulting gig. Some clients treat you like a prostitute (excusez le french), they believe they bought you and can therefore treat you as they see fit. I will be honest, yet fair in the dialogue today. I will talk about maturity of the organisation, about the need to improve collaboration, about not having the conditions to do my job. But I will also raise the topic of the bullying, at the end of the day there are very clear guidelines what is acceptable and professional behavior and what is not. I tend to be quite philosophical, someone needs me elsewhere. The universe is sending a message, I run a very small shop, a one man band. As such, I need to make choices at times that might mean I am between gigs for a while. That is okay. The client might always be right, but does not always do the right thing. big difference, my friend.

reisen55
reisen55

Illegal practices and non payment. Everything should be managed by a consulting or sales professional. Unethical can get you in hot water fast and hey, how many of us here WOULD HAVE KILLED TO MANAGE THOSE NETWORKED COMPUTERS FOR BERNARD MADOFF????? Oh yeah, that was a good paying client indeed..... Non payment is also a problem and a relationship should be terminated only after every single resource has been exhausted. This takes time and patience but I would never go beyond 90 days before crashing an account and then be prepared for small claims court. Everything else can be managed to a degree.

l_creech
l_creech

I only have 2 reason that I will fire a client: 1 - Failure to pay per agreement. 2 - Asking me to be party to criminal activity. a - If I have knowledge of software piracy or other criminal activity and I do nothing about it, I am party to it and therefore equally liable. On that note, whenever I take on a new customer I require a full software and hardware audit so I know what I am walking into. If the audit turns up issues I require them to be rectified and will work with them to do so. For the ones that balk at the idea I carry around pamphlets of imformation from BSA, Microsoft, Apple, and many others about the harm piracy does. I also keep an up-to-date self booting antivirus scanner (usually ClamAV on bare bones Linux LiveCD) that I hand to prospects with instructions for it's use. Not many actually read the material or run the CD, but I have found that those that do usually call me back and either thank me or hire me.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

I had the unfortunate experience of having to "fire" a local professional client to protect my reputation. I was providing government funding to his business. One of his employees asked me to falsify the amount of training already delivered so they could get all the funding at one pop. I refused, and presented my client with the situation. He offered to ensure that his relative would no longer be part of the process, but at that point, I felt my reputation was already at risk, so I provided him with the name of another training consultant and thanked him for the business. This was a tough pill to swallow: I needed the money, and the client and I shared paths in our private lives. Looking back now, I'm glad I made the choice I did. News travels fast in a small community.

technicmaniac
technicmaniac

These "Clients" are tailor made for the competition!

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

A good list. A couple years ago the company for whom I worked started a regular review of customers and put together a customer performance chart. The whole purpose was to identify poor customers. That is customers who weren't worth the effort of doing business with them. As a result, we essentially "fired" a number of customers. Including some who were major, well known corporations, with very deep pockets and plenty of ready cash. One in particular I remember, but won't name. A highly profitable, multi-billion dollar a year corporation. But EGAD, trying to get them to actually pay their bills promptly was a major chore. And they'd nitpick you to death on every detail and try to get rock bottom pricing on absolutely everything. For instance, on contracts its typical to include a line for the expenses of "misc, incidental materials". Nobody itemizes such. But in the case of this customer they'd want that line item broken down to the point where yah might list how many staples yah used ... and then they'd argue that you were using too many staples and they weren't gonna pay for all of them. It went endlessly on and on. Add, that we have a spelled out warranty and guarantee policy. And they'd ALWAYS try to get free service, or service at actual cost to us, long after the warranty period. Would even get miffed and claim they shouldn't have to pay extra for the fix when one of THEIR people clearly screwed something up. Upshot was that over the years as we looked at their account in review, we figured out we were putting a LOT of effort into an account that paid us back next to nothing in profits. A big account, a very big one, a lot of money flowed through that account, but we got to keep precious little of it. So we finally told em, politely, to bug off and find someone else to do their work for them. There were a number of other customers like this, tho not any others so big. Some just wouldn't pay within reasonable periods. Some were just plain too difficult to deal with while at the same time paying little profit for us on the deal. I can deal with a difficult customer, one who is nitpicky or who makes a lot of additional demands or mid-project changes, etc ... IF they're willing to pay a reasonable amount for our efforts. We do have customers like this, and we keep them. Personality incompatibilities? We try to deal with such things in a professional manner. I deal with customers all the time whom I don't personally like. Who cares? As long as they keep things on a professional level so do I. I'm there to provide paid for services to the best of my ability. I don't need to like em. Not looking for a date, or fishing/drinking buddies, etc. My personal life and personal preferences are separate from my professional life. "Insults can often be rendered ineffective by repaying them in kind, establishing your right to respect." I do NOT agree. A customer can demean or insult me all day long and I will not knowingly and on purpose return the same. (We all have slips where we might say something we might regret from time to time. But I try to avoid this.) Mostly in such cases I just wonder how foolish a person can be, thinking of the person who is doing such things. If that person is so smart or superior ... why isn't he or she doing whatever instead of hiring me? Or why didn't they hire someone else? In short, I just think to myself ... privately ... "What an idiot!" and keep on doing my thing and ignore the snide comments. Of course, in some cases, the customer's comments were triggered by poor performance on the part of whomever preceded me. Maybe the former folks the customer dealt with WERE what the customer claims? If I get that impression, I just try harder to show the customer that I and the company I work for are different and will do a better job for them. Or sometimes insults or demeaning comments are triggered by customer ignorance of how things really work, or what it takes to get this or that done. In which case, without being argumentative or trading insults I'll try to educate the customer. But I'm sure as heck not gonna return insults or demeaning comments. NOT professional. As far as the illegal or unethical thing. I have a simple answer to that. "No, I don't do such things."

Parrish S. Knight
Parrish S. Knight

This one has been quite a "bug-a-boo" in my experience. I had one client, for example, who insisted that their email marketing procedures did not constitute "spamming", even after I spelled it out to them repeatedly by quoting the pertinent language from their contract with their ISP and even after I kept warning them they were going to get disconnected if they didn't knock it off. (Ultimately, they did get disconnected, and even that didn't get them to change their procedures.) I had another client, an employee of the federal government, no less, who asked me to install Photoshop on multiple machines in her division using a single-user license. I declined, explaining the terms of the license, and she actually asked me to "try it anyway to see whether it would work", which really startled me. I raised my eyebrows and said it wasn't a question of whether it would work, because it would -- it was a question of her asking me to commit a crime for the federal government.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

of numbers 2, 4, 6, 7, and 8 in one client caused me to dump him. He was a barter client, he swapped garden work for computer work. He became overly friendly, needy, and began to take advantage of what he perceived as friendship. The insult came when he began bringing trash here and leaving it on my back porch. Ain't takin' on any new ones, either.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

about a client today for unstated but overarching reason number 0, can't even break even with them. If you can't at least make your costs, they aren't a customer....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Money may not buy everything, but it sure can make a lot of things more pleasant.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... in formulating your own. Good luck. As my Dad used to say, "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Something like that can put you on the hook for more illegal activities in the future.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, the big guys often play hardball, and sometimes the small fries can't bring themselves to tell them to go away even if they aren't making any money on the deal. Good for you that you took a long, dispassionate look and saw that it wasn't worth it. I probably wasn't very clear on the insult thing. Responding in kind sometimes works in personal relationships, but as I said in the post it isn't good for a client relationship.

asics447
asics447

A little off topic but I was asked by my new boss at an old company to fudge serial numbers and he would not sign off on it but told me to do it. I documented everything illegal they asked me to do and when it was pushed back on me I busted out the documentation (CYA)to the CIO and was fired 1 month later for other reasons I was told after 6 years. I am not getting in trouble for someone else's negligance,unethical and sloppy management. Getting let go was one of the best things that could of happened to me - Becareful when put in these situations and CYA- I did get fired but it wasnt wothth it to me and I am better off for it

a.barry
a.barry

Installing Photoshop (or, for that matter, any packaged software other than Clearcase) is usually a simple matter of put the disk in, click a few buttons, and bingo. It's certainly not something that I'd pay someone to do. Had she done the install herself, nobody would be the wiser. I suspect that either she assumed installing multiple copies on a single license was perfectly OK, or that she wanted someone else to blame in case the sh*t hit the fan later. I somewhat suspect the latter.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

Instead of; "it was a question of her asking me to commit a crime for the federal government." It was a matter of her asking you to commit a crime for HER. I doubt very much if she was in a position to write official policies or regulations and personally sign off on them. The Federal government as a whole, and its various departments and branches, have had an official policy against software piracy, etc for a long time. Since before most people ever personally had a chance to lay fingers on a computer keyboard. I know that such policies existed AT LEAST back to the beginning of the 1980's. Because back then I was working for a branch of the government and part of my duties in that assignment was to keep track of what machines were licensed to use which software and to verify that the machines within my department had no illegal or unauthorized software on them. This gal you mentioned, if she had a position of some sort of manager or supervisor or whatever, would know that it was against official government policy. Everyone in such position is required to read and sign off understanding about such things. The only real reason she might have asked you to violate that policy would be because (1) she was a poor manager and did not budget adequate funds in order to buy additional legitimate licenses or (2) when she wrote up her request and justification for obtaining those licenses and using them she did not do a adequate job of it and her request was denied. More likely, the former. The head of a department or office if asking for official permission to use a piece of software, or if asking to deploy it beyond a previously allowed scope, who has said permission denied, CAN go ahead and do it. As long as its otherwise legal. But must pay for said items out of ordinary OPTAR funding. (Think daily operating expenses pocket money) As versus getting additional funding specifically for that purchase. AND, in such case, will not get support from official government IT folks for such things as help desk assistance, user training, installation services, etc. So I'm thinking its likely she either did not have the adequate funds and her request for additional funding was disapproved because of lack of adequate justification on her part. OR she was just trying to scrimp on spending the money so that the bottom line on her budget report looked good. Likely the very reason she asked YOU to install additional, illegal copies. She knew what the answer would have been if she'd requested one of the government IT department folks to do it.

jeremial-21966916363912016372987921703527
jeremial-21966916363912016372987921703527

I'm in the same boat. I am reconfiguring what we will loosely call a "network" for a client (the server is an old Dell PC, loaded with Server 2000, and currently harboring more than a few trojans). In working through the network documentation and planning phase, I have found that all users installed Office 2007 from the same CD, and same Single-User license. The same can be said for their anti-virus, as well as several other applications. They are truly stunned that I do not think this is okay.

izzy_again
izzy_again

When someone comes to buy make sure your not the one paying.

reisen55
reisen55

In Mahwah NJ, the owner used to purchase copies of AutoCad at a helluva discount price (for internal use, hehehe) and then resell the software to clients at in inflated profit. Cute. We also had one sales rep who sold a $13.95 cable to Mt. Sinai Hospital for $1,300. When Mt. Sinai did some research, that was the end of that account and it blew away 1/4 of the four large accounts that kept the store alive.

Parrish S. Knight
Parrish S. Knight

Because, as is the case at many shops, end users did not have privileges to install their own software. The federal government, in particular, has been getting quite a bit more strict about this kind of thing recently.

MrEddie
MrEddie

There REALLY are people who are naive/dense enough to not understand that what they are asking is illegal/unethical. But more than likely they are pretending to think this so that they can plead ignorance when or if they get caught. The way to tell the difference, at least with larger companies, is to ask that a company attorney sign off on the request. You still won't do it but at least you can classify the requester!

dixon
dixon

Are you sure you're in Michigan? I could swear you're describing clients I've had.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've even seen people who were supposedly upstanding individuals (conservative Christians, in this case) who didn't blush at violating license agreements. Whether or not you believe that all software should be free, if you clicked "Accept" on that EULA, you can't violate it without being an outlaw, and dishonest besides.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

not long ago. Wondering why I ignore his calls and emails. Talk about dim...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

most are worth while, some turn out not to be. You've got to keep an eye on the current situation. It's "if I knew then what I know now , would I have taken the business". If the answer would have been no, then drop them. Could you rescue the business, may be, but if you are going down that path, when looking at if it's worthwhile, factor in your current losses, estimate the investment required to turn it around, project when you'll be back in profit. Does it still look good, do you have the resources, will your other business suffer? Always remember there's a reason why the bookies will give a you a 10000-1 on the three legged nag in the the three mile steeplechase. Don't look at what you could make, count how many legs it's got.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

good. In the main, useful generalisations, but generalisations never the less. There are reasons why you might take a loss, follow on business, leads, prestige etc. But you need to keep an eye on when where and if those are happening otherwise you might as well save yourself a lot of trouble and set your money on fire. Only exapnsion I could see was on point one, indirectly supporting a customer who is doing something unethical. Such as being asked to support your stuff on a pirated OS or some such. Even if teh ethics don't other you, trying to do that on an unpatched and potentially hacked version can be a nightmare.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...you're definitely not rooting for John Edwards big comeback.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If we could clearly see all of the consequences of our behavior, we'd probably do the right thing even from purely selfish motives.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

How much do you pay for Benadryl at the drug store? Now see how much they bill you for it if they give it to you at the doctor's office. By my calculations, it's about a 240% mark-up. And that's just for the medication, not including the additional charge for administering it. Granted, that's only a small charge, but the same price inflation applies to all medications and services. Part of the reason for that is because they're required by the government to provide free services to people who cannot pay. So we're already indirectly taxed for a form of socialized medicine.

reisen55
reisen55

1 - Because they regularly screwed clients, but remember this was about 1993 to 1995. 2. Because I TOUCHED that awful invoice, I felt I owed something back to the world, at least to avoid 20 years in purgatory. 3. I am profit oriented but not to the loss of customer. By the way, health care costs are expensive because of malpractice insurance costs which are driven by legal judgments. Get some good TORT reform in there and that part of their business would be significantly better. Now, how many lawyers are there in Washington and how powerful are they???? yeah, like we would ever SEE that one solved.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Why do you think medical care is so expensive?

izzy_again
izzy_again

Do unto others is not just for the other person, its for you too. Sure they just made $1286 roughly but that's all they will from that client.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even if you accept deception as a valid business practice (which I don't), they were sadly lacking in the risk assessment department -- didn't they think the client would even look at the bill?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even just getting the client to put it in writing with their own signature often kills such requests. It's hard to claim innocence when it's spelled out in hardcopy.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

I would remind you that my ancestors and a large number of their spiritual descendants, seem to be using this as their justification for their actions: "And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."

dba88
dba88

...in Judaism, there are 613 commandments! Because over the millennia, they've learned all the tricks of a variety of trades! I can't understand why people don't get it!! Geez!! It's illegal, because it's stealing!! How is that difficult to comprehend??

dixon
dixon

...it comes as a surprise when I get a client who DOES understand and/or care about licensing issues. I get very tired of delivering the same lecture over, and over, and over...

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

[b]Moses[/b] should have added an 11th commandment? ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Every time some honking SUV cuts me off and puts that fish right in my face, I think Moses should have added an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not be an A$$hole.

santeewelding
santeewelding

That the fish symbol you see on the backs of cars means that the operator is exempt from provisions of the vehicle code?

Parrish S. Knight
Parrish S. Knight

I work primarily in desktop support with some systems and network administration, and I've worked with a number of different clients and in a number of different shops. It happens constantly. In fact, I can think of only one shop I've ever worked at that even tried to maintain compliance. I've even had cases -- not rare cases, either, mind you -- where a user would call me asking for an install in violation of the client license, then when I explained the terms of the license and declined, the user would call back a few days or so later, ask for another tech, and lie to the tech to deceive him into performing the illegal installation.

santeewelding
santeewelding

It's a bullet hole in a perfectly good shirt, and overzealous EMT shears when they cut you out of it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

are completely different things. Someone who's shirty has a tendency to take theirs off. Which was an important step in preparing for a fight. Of course that was in the days when your opponent was polite enough to let you finish, and shirts were far more expensive.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's particularly true of code, because you're often uncertain as to whether you've passed the point of diminishing returns. I like how you got past the automated censors with "shirty", BTW.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

they will sense it and they will use it, you are telling them you need their business no matter what. As soon as they latch on to that, you'll have a lot of what you never thought would matter. It's like trying to rescue a bad idea when coding, uses up more resource than dropping it like the dead duck it is. Come up with a different approach, based on what you've learnt from the wrong one. If you are making a loss on the client you are not losing business by dropping them, you are gaining. Tell them as why as well, if they get shirty about it, you were never going to benefit anyway.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Just because you've sunk a lot of time and effort into the client doesn't mean that you shouldn't walk away from it. If you're just going to lose more money anyway, it's still no good.