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Whether you’re a small business owner managing a team or a solo operation, we all reach a point with some clients where it just doesn’t make sense to continue.

It’s not usually easy to reach that decision. We often feel that “firing” a client implies that one side has failed or it brings up feelings of fear. You work hard to bring clients onboard. Will it affect your reputation or cause any financial hardship?

Sometimes it’s simply the best thing for your productivity and ability to excel with your work to let go of a client. Here’s why:

Get the bonus content: 5 “Do’s” of Firing a Client Without Burning Bridges

You could get your time back…

It’s not the fact that you’re spending time (obviously you spend time on clients!), it’s how you’re spending that time. There are some clients for whom you just exert way too much energy mentally and physically simply trying to get the work done. If you’ve ever noticed a relatively similar job taking several times longer for one particular client compared to others, you may have a case for ditching the client to improve your productivity.

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Here are some common time-sinking clients:

The Seagull

Much like their counterpart among management roles, seagull clients have a tendency to suddenly swoop in and dump (or try to dump) a whole lot of extra tasks on you, whether those were part of your original agreements or not.

Seagull clients tend to take a lot of “management”, whereby you’re spending a lot of your time trying to explain what you will and won’t be doing. They also often have a tendency to disappear and give zero feedback for quite some time, only to make a sudden reappearance with an extensive list of things they’d like done.

In short, this type of client can be stressful to manage and can waste a lot of your time. Letting them go can make room in your schedule for clients who are a better fit.

The “Check is in the Mail” Client

This is another major time-sink. If you’re continuosly chasing up late payments, it goes without saying that your time could be better spent actually doing work you get paid for. There’s really not a lot to say here, but that the client who always puts you in this situation should be near the top of the list for being “reassigned.”

The “Nickle and Dimer”

A close cousin of “Check is in the Mail”, the “Nickle and Dimer” wastes your time by disputing or nitpicking your invoices, perhaps only sending partial payment while they’re at it. You’ve got better things to be doing with your time so send them packing.

The “I’ll know it When I see It” Client

Most of us will experience the client who is vague on what it is that they actually want. They say things like “I’ll know it when I see it” and, “no, that’s not it” when you’ve busted butt coming up with something you think will work with the information they’ve given you.

Assuming you’ve already done everything you possibly can to try and narrow down their needs and get specific direction (because hey, that’s part of your job), then you’ve probably got a flake on your hands and your time will be spent more productively if you refer them to your friend who enjoys working with flakey people (just kidding, unless you do know someone who thinks this is their dream client?).

The “I did it My Way” Client

At the opposite end of the scale is that client who knows exactly what they want. Down to the letter. In spite of your best advice, as a professional, to go another way. This might be fine, but the time-wasting occurs when they expect you to pick up the pieces when their decision doesn’t work out.

Of course, the professional thing to do is to help them fix the mess, as long as you vow never to go for a repeat. Think of all the other things you could be doing in the time it takes to fix up their mistakes.

You can boost your own energy

When you have a client who is just not right for you, there are a number of possible unproductive consequences that sap you of your energy and enthusiasm for the job:

  • You feel emotionally drained and dread dealing with the client.
  • You procrastinate because you don’t want to deal with the client.
  • You miss out on potential revenue because too much time is spent on the client.
  • Confidence and morale can be damaged.
  • Your hard-won reputation can be damaged if the client expresses dissatisfaction to others.

Mindset is a huge factor when it comes to productivity and all of these negative consequences can take a toll on your mindset and feelings about your own abilities. James Clear discussed “growth mindset” in a post for Buffer, as a key indicator of successful people:

“My coach said, “Confidence is just displayed ability.” Put another way: “Prove it to yourself in small ways and you’ll develop the confidence that you can improve.” In other words, small wins repeated over time can lead to a growth mindset.”

When you’re feeling stuck with one of these types of client, it can be difficult to find the “small wins.” It’s amazing the difference and lightness of load you can feel once you’ve moved them on though – chalk that up to being one of those small wins that you need to boost your own growth mindset.

You can focus on key goals

Probably the most important reason that it will be more productive for you to fire “wrong fit” clients sooner rather than later is that you give yourself the space to work on your key goals without the distractions that those clients bring.

It’s common knowledge that having specific goals and a plan to reach them are key factors in being successful and productive, but sometimes it’s not so easy in practice to knuckle down and achieve what you’d like.

Difficult clients can impact your focus and distract you from what really needs to be done – that’s why learning to say “no” the right way can be an effective tool in your arsenal. Leo Widrich wrote about this in a Buffer article on productivity tips which are backed by science.

It might seem like arguing semantics to focus on how we say no, but the scientific truth is that the language we use matters. Scientists tested groups of students by tempting them with ice cream, followed by offering them a complimentary candy bar or granola bar on their way out of the room. Here’s what happened:

The Experiment

“One group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation, they would tell themselves “I can’t do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I can’t eat ice cream.” When the second group was faced with a temptation, they were told to say “I don’t do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I don’t eat ice cream.”

The Outcome

“The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.”

The lesson for your own productivity and pursuit of goals? Using “I don’t” is an effective way to say “no.” It’ll put you in the right mindset and it has a certain tone of finality to it if you’re saying no to a client.

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Get the bonus content: 5 “Do’s” of Firing a Client Without Burning Bridges

Final Thoughts

Letting a client go is never an easy decision – it’s understandable that there may be fears of damaging your reputation or negatively impacting your finances by doing so.

The thing is that if you’ve been dealing with clients who continue to suck up disproportionate amounts of time and energy, you’ll find that you’ve suddenly got much more room to be productive when they’re gone.

Take your time back, boost your energy and zest for work and give yourself room to focus on the things that are really important. Firing a client isn’t usually easy, but it’s often worth it in the end.