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You’re Fired: When To Call It Quits With A Client.

You’re Fired: When To Call It Quits With A Client.

You’re fired.

That’s a phrase that no one in my industry likes to hear. I’ve been in marketing and communications for over two decades and I’m grateful to have only heard that phrase a couple of times and usually in the context of an amicable parting of ways over creative differences.

However, while people in my industry openly talk about the scenarios that caused their dismissal, we rarely engage in a conversation about firing our clients.

Several weeks ago, I made a decision to fire a client. This is rarely done by creative services companies and I argue that while a matter of last resort, firing a client can be a healthy business move.

Creative services companies can only exist, grow and become profitable with a mix of money and happiness. In this economy it’s hard for businesses to consider what makes them happy when they are struggling to define what makes them money.

While trying to quantify relationships with a spreadsheet is justified in some scenarios, sometimes relationships can be a burden on a business for entirely different reasons.

Here are two of my firing experiences. One of them is about money and the other about happiness.

Company X: Sometimes The Writing Is On The Wall

My company, Rahvalor, had worked for Company X (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent) for many years. We worked on a large scale web application and then subsequently on some online marketing. The recurring pattern was that invoices were usually paid late or not at all. Towards the end of our relationship we began withholding work in order to incentivize payment. We then discovered that Company X had taken all of the Information Architecture we produced for a project and handed it to a freelancer to develop without first having paid us. Once the dust had settled on the invoicing scuffle, the remaining balance, including all of our hard work on Information Architecture, was not worth legal action, a harsh reality that makes every entrepreneur squirm.

My partner and I discussed the matter and decided that it was time to end the relationship. What I haven’t told you was that the writing had always been on the wall and we had ignored it. Before Company X came to us, they were working with another company similar to ours. That company cut off Company X because they could not get paid for the work that they were doing. This was reported to us by Company X as, “the old company was difficult to work with”.

After firing Company X, I was involved in some email discussions that are typical of transitioning from one creative services company to another. In those correspondences, I became privy to a complaint on the part of the new developer because they had not been paid for the work that they had done, either.

The practical reality is that all that transpired was our fault and could have been mitigated had we not been so eager to please. It’s a harsh reality, but there are people and organizations that are willing to try to cheat others if given the opportunity.

It became clear that our efforts were going to be used but not paid for, and that we would spend the rest of our relationship spending more time chasing money than earning it.

Company Y: Sometimes It’s Not About The Money

But not every relationship has the proverbial writing on the wall. Sometimes relationships end in ways that are shocking and unexpected.

Company Y was a client of Rahvalor since its inception. We met regularly with the principal of Company Y and had nothing but nice things to say about him. He seemed like a regular nice guy.

In June of 2008, my entire staff began receiving emails from this client indicating a clear animosity toward the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. The emails were in bulk and CCed all of his clients so that they were all clearly visible to each other. This led to a reply-to-all chain of people asking not to be sent political e-mails. I took a different approach and sent him a nice email directly without CCing anyone asking him to stop sending emails like this to my staff.

The e-mails continued and became more and more fiery. Eventually the rhetoric became so fiery that I submitted a complaint to his email service provider and asked him once again to stop.

In retaliation, he collected a series of brutal photos of dead bodies ranging from bodies with gunshot wounds to decapitations. He sent those photos to the list with the message, “This is what you support if you vote for Barack Obama.”

Within 48 hours I ended our relationship. I later learned that he had become so consumed with Barack Obama that Company Y was not being tended to on a day-to-day basis. He also assaulted his management team with political tirades and accusations that resulted in a mass exodus of his management staff. This began Company Y’s rapid death spiral.

The irony is that I am convinced that, if asked, Company Y’s principal would say without hesitation that his company went out of business because of Barack Obama.

The moral of the story is that that every company is at its best when it picks the clients that it wants to do business with and then keeps the clients that produce revenue, excitement, growth and just as importantly – happiness.

If your clients costs you more to keep, either financially, intellectually or morally, it may be time to fire them.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Becky says:

    Hi Ralph,

    Great post, and good topic for entrepreneurs to have to think about. No one ever wants to think that they’ll have to fire a client, but as you said, sometimes the writing is on the wall. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I’ve only had to do it once, and frankly, I’ve never made a better decision for my business. There is a short-term pain, but the long term opportunity more than makes up for it.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Becky Blackler