There’s a conversation I used to have with the two lovely chaps who run Acrylic Digital. I worked there as their Head of Marketing for nearly four years and in that time there were a couple of clients who acted in a way that I would not have put up with had I been working for myself. Before I worked there I’d developed clear ‘sack your clients’ boundaries and standards. If clients overstepped their bounds, I sacked them, plain and simple. The notion of ‘sacking’ clients was quite foreign to these two fellas. They viewed a client as a client; as long as they brought in revenue they didn’t much care if they were unpleasant or downright horrible.
My opinion is that there are certain types of behaviour that are out of order, and if your clients persist in them you should sack them.
Because when you have a client relationship that is unhealthy it puts strain on you and your business. This can be a strain on your finances, on your time, on your patience and mental wellbeing, or even your physical safety. After over a decade of working with various clients in a wide range of industries I’ve learned to recognise the red flags when I hear them. I’ve become quite adept at swerving clients I sense will become problematic. But sometimes there are no red flags, no warning, and you end up with a vampire client that drains the life out of you.
Before I start, a caveat – I’m not advocating for sacking clients the second they say any of these things. Usually, you can explain your position and the boundary they have crossed, they will listen, and moving forward it won’t happen again.
Other clients, however, will not respect the boundaries you set and will consistently repeat the behaviour no matter how many times you raise the issue.
They’re the ones you show the door. They don’t pay you what you’re worth, what other clients will happily spend. They monopolise your time leading to you spending far longer on them than they’re paying for. They try to wriggle out of paying for things whenever they can, demand refunds, or flat out fail to pay. They pick your brain for your expertise but never actually buy from you. The upshot of all of this is that certain clients ruin your profitability. You’re working your butt off to make money, and not only do they undermine your efforts, they actively prevent you from spending time attracting better clients.
So, with that in mind, here’s a roundup of shit your clients say and why you should sack them for it.
#1 “I Can’t Pay You, But…”
“I can’t afford to pay you, but you can advertise on my site for free.”
“I can’t afford to pay you, but in six months I’ll be able to settle everything outstanding and give you a nice bonus.”
“I can’t afford to pay you, but if your work generates enough income I’ll be able to then.”
“I can’t afford to pay you, but here, have this free THING.
“I can’t afford to pay you, but don’t worry, nobody will know you’re doing this for me for free…”
“I can’t afford to pay you, but it’s great for your karma. You do yoga, right?”
“Money’s really tight right now, how about I pay you 1/4 what you asked for?
“Would you trade me for…
I could go on, but then I’d literally be writing a whole post about the stupid shit clients (and potential clients) have said while trying to weasel out of paying a bill, or convince me to agree to work for free.
Bottom line, it’s selfish. They may not be selfish people but, in that moment, they’re thinking of themselves and their own businesses, not the burden they are placing on you or yours. You are also running a business. Working for free does nothing but damage you. Bartering does nothing but undermine your value. Your prices are your prices and anyone who can’t respect that can move on.
This is something I struggled so hard with in the early years and invested in a lot of mindset work – mostly with the fabulous Denise Duffield Thomas – to overcome it. Someone telling you they can’t afford you right now but they’ll be back when they’re ready or able is great – you’ve got a client there they just need to cook a little longer. Someone expecting you to devalue yourself and what you offer for their immediate gain is selfish.
Tell them no. And if you’ve already told them yes, look at how you can gently phase them out. If that doesn’t sit right with you tell them the discounted rate will last X amount of time longer and then you will need to switch them to your regular rates. If they can’t, or don’t want to, it’s time to part ways.
#2 “It’s Not Good Enough.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you do or how far you go, it never quite lives up to expectations. Perhaps it’s because client expectations are too high, and you’ve neglected to give them a realistic outlook. If that’s the case, it’s on you; honestly the number of issues that can be solved by simply being open and honest about what people are going to get from working with you.
For example, when people approach me about an SEO campaign I’m always very clear: this is how much you’re going to have to invest monthly to achieve your goals, and you’re going to need to invest that for six to twelve months before you start seeing those results.
Yes, you’ll get some results in the interim, but it’s a minimum of six months before you really start to see what an SEO campaign is capable of achieving. SEO is a long term strategy.
If I’m not clear on these two points – the level of investment needed to achieve their goals and the time it will take to see those results – I’m setting myself up for failure.
Because two months in that client will be questioning why they haven’t got what they paid for yet. Six months in they’ll be asking why the traction they’ve gained isn’t as much as they needed.
On the other hand, if they go into it with a clear, realistic understanding of the investment and time needed, they can make a fully informed choice. They know spending less means less effective results. They understand it’s not going to produce instant leads.
If clients are jaded about the results you’re delivering and you’ve not set their expectations, it’s on you. If, however, you were very clear and they made the informed decision to go ahead, then complain anyway, it’s on them.
They don’t get to change their mind and demand more than they’ve paid for, or faster results than you promised. Not unless it’s coupled with them saying, “I want to step things up a notch and invest more.”
If they’re telling you what you promised and subsequently delivered isn’t good enough, that’s on them.
And while you can manage the occasional bitch and moan, the odd day when they’re frustrated and venting, don’t put up with the constant complaints and jaded views of a client who never finds what you do good enough. These are the people who can see the amazing results you’ve achieved, far beyond anything they anticipated, and still turn around and say, “Meh, I guess you did okay.”
This kind of toxic negativity is draining. It also hinders your performance in the future.
#3 “Do It My Way.”
They hire you for your expertise then ignore everything you suggest and insist on doing it their own way. You politely warn them that this won’t work, and explain why, but they insist, so you do it their way.
It doesn’t work.
Clients can go two ways at this point: realise they undermined the success of the project by ignoring your advice, and follow it in future, OR blame you for the fact it failed.
Even though you told them it would, and why, and how to do it differently.
The blamers are likely to continue ignoring your advice while complaining that what you told them wouldn’t work, didn’t. At best they will continue to ignore your advice and insist things be done the way they think will work (even though this is your zone of genius and they know nothing about it). This will result in more things going wrong, or not going as well as they could have, and more complaints. Eventually, it’s likely to lead to them leaving.
At worst, they will turn into a troll that delights in telling the world you’re a spectacular failure, a con artist, a charlatan. They’ll leave shitty reviews and post sarcastic comments on your social posts, banging on about the bad job you did.
#4 “You’ll Be Rolling In Cash…”
This is a great one. I get this all the time. It usually comes right after ‘I can’t afford to pay you, but…’
It happens as a client tries to convince you that the future is golden. That there are astonishing opportunities for you, right around the corner, if you would just keep working for them at an offensively low price a little longer.
Some of my favourite ones go like this…
“I’ll soon have a HUGE list of ideal clients and I can directly promote you and your services.”
The troublesome points here are ‘soon’, and the fact that ‘ideal clients’ mean completely different things for me than everyone else.
This isn’t saying ‘I have direct access to 10,000 people who are your exact ideal client, and I will write a GLOWING recommendation email encouraging ALL OF THEM to work with or buy from you. And I’m going to do that RIGHT NOW’.
This isn’t that.
This is saying, ‘I don’t currently have anyone but my Nan on my email list, I have no idea how to build an email list, or the resources to do it. Which means this whole list thing is a pipe dream. And even if, by some miracle, I do pull it off, I’m not going to recommend you to my list because 1) they’re not your ideal client, they’re mine, and 2) I don’t really want to admit I’m hiring you in the first place, because then they will know I’m not god’.
They may get there, eventually, a lot of them do. But in the meantime they’re asking you to work for free, or next to nothing, on the vague hope that their business will, at some point, not only be successful for them, but also successful for you. The likelihood of both happening is slim.
Aside from anything else you would need to be in complementary but not competitive fields, and have exactly the same ideal client.
The odds of that, and their business achieving massive success, aren’t great.
#5 “Can I Just Ask…”
On a similar note are clients that require an endless amount of wooing before they ever become a client. To be crass, you have them buy them dinner, a ton of drinks, and take them on numerous dates before they ever put out. When they finally do you realise it so wasn’t worth the effort.
They approach you saying they need the earth, and wind up buying a peanut. Take my business as an example. These are the clients who come to me saying they need a new website, a high-ticket monthly SEO package, and a ghostwritten book and ecourse. Naturally, before making this kind of investment they have questions.
That’s never an issue.
The problem arises when you invest a huge amount of time talking them through the various options, outlining possible strategies, and essentially giving them a blueprint that tells them exactly what they need to do. All for free.
You do this because you’re expecting them to ask you to do it for them. They just need to understand what they’re paying for.
But they end up paying for nothing. Or next to nothing. These clients pick your brain for an age, promising they want to hire you for everything under the sun, then never pay for a thing. Or, they will pay for a small, token service that doesn’t come close to the value you’ve provided for free.
In either case, the client then takes the blueprint you’ve given them and DIYs every aspect.
They’ve gained all my marketing expertise and a detailed strategy that should have cost them hundreds, thousands, even hundred of thousands. In return I’ve got nothing (or next to nothing) to show for all the time and effort.
This isn’t the same as customers who want to work with you but aren’t ready yet, who will hire you once they are.
No. This type of client never had any intention of hiring you. They purposefully misled you to get the most out of you for the least payout.
Should they ever darken your door again, the likelihood is they haven’t changed and will do the same again.
Unless, of course, you tell them to jog on.
#6 “I Expected More From You”
This is usually followed by “especially given the LARGE amount of money I’ve paid you!” It’s right up there with ‘I’m so disappointed in you.” And it’s usually followed by a request for a refund, or a demand for additional work at no extra cost to ‘compensate’ them.
Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a right to lodge a legitimate complaint if you haven’t met expectations, if your standards have slipped, or the quality of a service or product isn’t up to snuff. But there’s a big difference between having cause to complain because you have paid someone well and they have failed to deliver, and trying to guilt them into working for them for free.
The former happens from time to time. If your clients come to you with a legitimate complaint, fix the problem, refund where appropriate, and do whatever you can to make it up to them.
The latter is an unfortunate but not uncommon situation, yet it has nothing to do with you. Seriously. The client may have buyer’s remorse, and suddenly find they’re not inclined to part with the money they promised you, even though you earned it. They may be having cashflow issues and not have the money right now. But they could be honest with you about that, instead of trying to shift the blame. Or they may genuinely believe that they’re entitled to what you’ve done for free. They may believe because they’ve paid you an amount – any amount – that they’re entitled to everything.
You didn’t trick them into buying from you. You didn’t mislead them. You delivered exactly what you promised, as promised, on time and to a high standard. You spent time and resources on it.
Handing that money back or over delivering by giving more will harm you, and your business. It’s one thing to do it when there’s a genuine issue – whether it’s your fault or not – but if you’ve fulfilled your part of the bargain, you shut this shit down the second it starts.
And ignore the guilt that will gnaw at you, because it will swallow you whole if you let it. Ear
ly on in my business I think I had a sign around my neck reading:
Total Rube: Will Work For Free, Go Over And Above, And Refund Without Cause Whenever Asked.
People can smell it on you, the lack of confidence, the fear, the worry that ‘the customer is always right’ means you absolutely HAVE to give people their money back if they ask. You MUST do whatever they expect, whether they paid you for that or not.
#7 “Payment Is On The Way…”
Cashflows are problematic, everyone has the odd month when an unexpected bill goes out, or a client or customer of their own is late paying. They find themselves in a predicament. As a business owner you have two ways of handling things when you’ve not got enough money to pay for something (assuming simply not buying it is no longer an option, because you’re already committed and the bill is now due).
You either pick up the phone or send an email, politely explaining you’re aware there’s a bill due soon and you’re very sorry, but there will be a delay in payment. You give a realistic date they can expect to receive payment, and then you follow through and make damn sure they are paid by that date.
The other way is to avoid the issue, allow payment to bounce, dodge phone calls, and when they do pin you down give a vague answer that their money’s ‘on the way’, or promise it by a date and then fail to deliver.
Everyone has cashflow issues. If they’re upfront and get you paid as soon as they’re able, keeping you informed along the way, that’s one thing.
If they try to pretend they don’t owe you anything, avoid speaking to you about it, and lie to your face, they can’t be trusted.
#8 “I Need More.”
I’m paraphrasing on this one as there’s not a specific thing that gets said, but a pattern of behaviour. These clients are the needy ones who hire you for a specific thing or buy a specific thing from you, yet somehow also expert you to fix all their other problems.
They have ridiculously high expectations, relying on you for far more than you’re obliged to provide, and often more than you would ever provide other clients. The worst one I had for this was someone who treated me like a business manager and developer, when in reality I was just their content marketer.
They wanted advice on things well outside my expertise, and expected me to provide them with information and answers to questions that were completely unrelated to anything I did for them.
This type of client looks to you for emotional support as well as professional services, expecting you to hand hold them and coach them through their troubles – personal or professional. Again, I’ve had clients calling me in tears on the weekend because they’re so stressed out, and need someone to speak to.
You may love these clients as people, but as a business owner you either need to put clear boundaries in place or look at phasing them out.
Nothing good comes from blurring the boundaries between professional support and personal or emotional support. For one thing, it’s not your job. For another, you’re not getting paid for it. And finally, you’re opening yourself up to a world of trouble if you advise on something that’s not really your area and it goes wrong.
This is true whether that’s personal advice or professional advice you’re not really qualified to give. Your clients need to be clear on your role and responsibilities, and you need to gently but firmly enforce the boundaries of both.
#9 “You Will Be Losing A Really Valuable Client…”
These are the clients who randomly kick off over something they’re unhappy about. It’s usually of their own making, or out of your control, yet they demand you fix it instantly and delight in reminding you that, if you don’t, they can leave.
And if they leave you’ll be losing a really valuable client.
This can be a client who genuinely brings in a lot of revenue. But I’ve also seen it from clients who pay next to nothing and waste hours of your time every week, yet still seem convinced their loss will somehow cripple your business.
If a person feels the need to tell you they are a valuable client, it’s usually because they know – at least subconsciously – that they’re not. They say it out loud, or write it in an email, to confirm to themselves that they’re a good client, and emphasise to you that they’re a good client, because somewhere deep down they know they’re actually taking advantage of you.
Maybe they’re not paying you anywhere near enough.
Maybe they’re trying to get you to hand over the finished product before they’ve paid in full, and they know damn well that full payment won’t be coming swiftly (if at all).
Maybe they talked you into trading for something you didn’t want, or something of far less value than what they got.
Maybe they talked you into extending that flash sale price for a few months, instead of the day it was supposed to last…
Whatever the reason, most business owners know bad client behaviour when they see it – even if they see it in themselves – and it’s an ugly sight to behold. The immediate response of anyone who senses they may be guilty of these things is to try and convince themselves, and the world, that it’s not true.
It’s like saying, ‘You can trust me’.
If that’s the case, why do you need to tell me? Surely it should be self-evident from your behaviour that you are a trustworthy person. You shouldn’t have to say it.
There is, to my mind, something inherently untrustworthy about people who spend time trying to convince you that you can, in fact, trust them.
Trust is earned, like respect, they are things that must be felt, not facts you can be told.
You know who your good clients are. You know which are trustworthy and can be given a bit of leeway. You know which are going to be late making payment month after month. You know when you send an email telling them there’s an issue with something, and it’s their fault, that they’re going to ignore it and pretend they don’t know what you’re talking about, no matter how politely you phrase it.
Some clients are good. Some clients are amazing. Some clients are ideal, perfect clients, and you wish you had a hundred more like them.
I guarantee you, none of these people have ever felt the need to tell you how valuable they are to you as a customer, or insinuate, allude to, or outright state that you’d be an idiot to lose them.
The upshot of this one is that these people are a pain in the arse and have been the whole time you’ve worked with them. They ridiculously high expectations, they never give you answers to your questions or the information you need, delay making progress then blame you for not getting things done, want everything yesterday, complain about how expensive you are, etc.
In other words, you’ve been putting up with their bullshit for long enough, next time they kick off over something ridiculous and threaten to leave you, consider this: you’re never getting back the time it takes for you to deal with this shit.
Is it actually worth it? You could be spending that time improving the service you’re giving other clients, or landing new clients that don’t threaten you every five minutes.
#10 “But We’re Friends!”
I have a couple of friends who have needed professional help with one thing or another. Mixing business and friendship can be tricky. My view is that as long as my friends respect my business and don’t take advantage of our friendship, there’s no issue. Indeed, I’ve never personally had an issue with a friend who has asked for help with their marketing or writing.
What is more problematic is when clients become friends. There’s no pre-existing relationship but they start to feel you’ve got a personal friendship in addition to your professional one.
This happens more often than you might think, especially if you’re super busy running a business and speaking to clients is a large percentage of your socialisation time for the week. You may end up speaking to them more than you would otherwise because it’s nice to have a chat and catch up with someone. Or they may be friendly clients who like to set the world to rights before getting down to business, and you don’t want to appear rude.
Whatever the reason, there’s nothing wrong with becoming friends with your clients. However, the second you hear these words come out their mouth, you might need to rethink it.
Because if they’re saying this, they’re asking for something you don’t want to provide. They’re playing on the friendship. And if they’re doing that, they’re no really a very good friend, are they?
I know, it’s tough. Especially if you really like them and value the friendship. It’s hard to say no. Maybe they want extra work, maybe a discount, maybe a job you don’t want to take on at all – whatever the situation, you say no, and they retort “But we’re friends!”
And because you are friends, you cave and do what they’ve asked. Even if it’s against your better judgement. Even if it costs you. Because you have genuinely become friends with them and you don’t want to lose or tarnish that friendship.
The problem is that once you’ve lowered your own boundaries or standards to meet their needs, they will continue to expect you to do so. They may escalate and expect more and more from you. And all in the name of friendship.
While we’re on the subject, this goes both ways. I have learned the incredibly hard way, that if you have a friend doing something for you professionally it’s vital that you pay them as any other client would. Even if they insist on doing it for free, or for a bottle of gin, don’t do it. You don’t want to be that friend who takes advantage of the friendship to get stuff for free. You DO want to support them and their business. And if you’re unhappy with the job they do you don’t have any recourse to complain about it.
Have I Missed Any?
What are the boundaries you enforce in your business? What kind of crap have clients come out with to make you end the working relationship? If I’ve missed anything from the list I’d love to hear about it! Hit me up on social @rebelwolfmarkting and let me know!