How to Fire a Toxic Client

Can you fire a client?

I remember the first time I asked that question.

Since 2012, I have fired over 10 different clients.

If you came here wondering when it is “ok” to fire a client, then keep reading.


When to Fire Your Client

Figuring out when it’s time to fire a toxic client is up to YOU. Everyone has different thresholds for what they can take from a bad client. Some businesses try to keep every client no matter how much misery they bring. While other business owners will not tolerate the mental anguish of bad clients.

You have to figure out what your “breaking point” is.

To better illustrate this point, let me explain some reasons to fire a client. These are my personal reasons, but I know you may relate to some of them.

Here are six possible reasons to fire a client (most bad clients exhibit more than one):

1. Your Client Doesn’t Respect Your Time

This is the ultimate deal breaker for me. You cannot forget the value of your time. As Tim Ferriss explains in the Four Hour Work Week, 20% of your clients are often responsible for 80% of your support time.

Most clients are great. They respect your time, understand how reporting works, and do not try to micromanage. But, you will always have a few bad seeds.

If you have 20 clients and 1 of our clients steals 80% of your support time, then you need to fire them. That way you can get your time back and focus on your good clients.

2. Your Client is Disrespectful

Everyone deserves respect, but some clients think that rule doesn’t apply to them. In a distorted sense of reality, some clients believe they can treat you like dirt because they are paying you.

Think about this way… would you continue being friends with someone who was rude or disrespectful? Probably not.

So, why would you take that type of abuse from a client?

Money is nice, but your sanity is what matters. If your heart races when you think about your rude client, then it’s time to make change.

3. Your Client Believes the “Grass is Always Greener”

Some clients will never be happy no matter what you do. They believe there is always a better SEO agency, a better CPA, or a better [INSERT WHATEVER SERVICE].

This is not to say that a client shouldn’t have high expectations for your service. You should always continue to delivery when you are getting paid to do (and beyond that). But if the client is always questioning your work and “what you have done for them”, then you should start to worry.

Every business is different, but in data-driven businesses like mine, I can always go back to the data. Business owners and marketing directors often have short-term focus. This is reasonable. Marketing directors want their bonuses and want to keep their job. Business owners are often pulled in a hundred different directions.

All I can say is keep track of the great work you have done. Some clients may need a refresher.

4. Your Client Spends Too Much Time Worrying About You

This only applies to B2B companies/marketing agencies. There are some clients that obsess over everything you are doing.

In my industry, an example is obsessing over the day-to-day movements of keywords rankings in Google. Keyword rankings can fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. That why we emphasize to clients to focus on the long-term results (quarterly and yearly movements).

An SEOs job is to influence the search results, not control it. Google is in control.

To show you a different perspective, let’s say you are a financial advisor. How would you feel if your client emailed you every day about the movement of their stock prices? That would be ridiculous because the advisor has no control of the day-to-day fluctuations of stock prices.

The point is that if a client is obsessing about the minutiae, then the situation will likely never get better. Whether their need to micromanage is from their personality or from financial concerns, it doesn’t matter. These clients will continue to critique your work, study your every move, and look for every opportunity to use you as a scapegoat for their lack of success.

5. Your Client May Actually be Insane

This is a rare one. Out of the hundreds of clients my business has served, we have only encountered two of these individuals. I won’t get too deep into it, but if you have to question a clients sanity, then there is a problem.

6. Your Client is Envious

I have only encountered this situation one time. As you know, I like to publish data-driven content.

Some examples include:

99.9% business owners and clients read, learn, and take action on these types of content.

However, there are some clients who become envious of any success you have. For example, they may send you an email like: “These are great results… Why aren’t we getting these results? What are you doing for me? Please send me a report now.” This is not only weird, but unacceptable.

Keep in mind that these reasons are from my experience as an SEO agency owner.

For example, your client experience as CPA, lawyer, or hair salon owner will likely be much different. That’s why it’s critical that you establish your own standards. It’s also important that these standards do not only live in your own head.

You need to get them on paper, so that they become standards for what your company lives by.

One last point is that B2B and B2C experiences will vary. However, in both B2B and B2C, you are always dealing with other people. This point seems to get lost in the mix within the B2B arena.

All business is a relationship between people. Like in any other relationship, you deserve respect.

Now before you start firing clients, you need to consider a few things:

  • Will losing this client hurt you financially? If this is your only client, then you obviously shouldn’t fire them. But if the client is less than 10% of your total revenue, then it should be a pretty easy decision.
  • Have you considered the long-term repercussions? It is much more expensive to attract new clients than keeping your current ones. That’s why you need to think about your decision carefully. This should go without saying, but you should make an effort to improve relations with your client before firing them.
  • Do you have reliable lead generation sources? If you are getting new leads on a consistent basis, then you should have nothing to worry about. There is always a better client around the corner.
  • Do you have a contract? If you have a contract, then you will likely have to talk to a lawyer.

Now that you know some reasons to fire a client, let me explain how to do it.


How to Fire Your Client (Nicely)

Firing a client is a lot like ending any relationship. If you do it the right way, there may be some questions, but it won’t be chaotic. The key is to remain professional and polite no matter what their response is.

Phone vs. Email

Deciding whether to fire a client through email or on the phone depends on your personality. Are you someone who can handle heated conversations? Or are you more conflict averse? If you are the latter, then you should use email with an option to call. More on this in second. If you are former, then you will have a different set of guidelines. Let’s start with email.

How to Fire a Client Through Email

Let me start off by warning you that some clients take offense to getting fired via email. That’s because it feels impersonal. They may even say something like: “You didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me over the phone.” It’s like getting broken up with through a text message.

The point is that you need to know your client. Are they someone that always requests to talk over the phone? Then don’t use email! Use your best judgement and think about how you and your client have interacted.

With that said, here is an email template you can use to fire a B2B client:

Hey {CLIENT NAME},

Thank you so much for working with our company over the past {NUMBER} + {MONTHS or YEARS). Unfortunately, we do not believe that our two companies should continue working together. That is why we will need to end the engagement. We really appreciate that you decided to work with us and we wish your business the best of luck in the future.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call at {INSERT YOUR NUMBER}.

Sincerely,

{YOUR NAME}

This is a polite and professional way to end the engagement. In my experience, the pushback has been nothing more than a question of “Why”.

Now that you understand when and how to fire a client, you need to improve your systems to prevent bad clients in the future.


How to Avoid Toxic Clients

Let me start by saying that you will never prevent working with some bad clients. It doesn’t matter how effective your vetting systems are. Some bad clients are amazing in the beginning and can flip a switch. All you can do is have solid vetting systems and use your best judgement.

Consider Your Prices

Cash-strapped clients are naturally attracted to lower priced options. Cash-strapped clients are also concerned about cash flow. That means there is a good chance they will always be breathing down your neck. No matter how good your service is. In my experience, higher prices attract higher quality clients.

Use a “Discovery” Phase

The “Discovery” phase only applies to B2B businesses. The process is simple. Create an application that every lead must fill out. The point of the application is qualify your leads before speaking to them.

Here are sample questions from my agency’s application:

  • “Have you used SEO in the past?”
  • “Who is your ideal customer?”
  • “What is the Lifetime Value (LTV) of your average customer?”

Trust Your Gut

After the discovery phase, you have to trust your gut. Use your best judgement.


Conclusion

Firing a client is never a fun thing to do, but sometimes it’s necessary. Don’t let any client/person make you lose sleep at night. No amount of money is worth your wellbeing.

Comments

  1. Hi Nathan, this is new type of article you have written. I haven’t read it yet, but I am sure it has some useful information. Keep up the good work man.

    1. Thanks for the comment Rintu! I’m going to start creating more content about business and client SEO 🙂

  2. Great article, good advice. You know in your gut when you have signed up a toxic client, but in the early days, you may have no choice. Hard work and perseverance, a little luck (and listening to good advice) will get you to the place where you can fire clients that are bad for business.

    1. Hey Nick,

      Thanks for the comment! I agree with that. You have to do what you have to do in the beginning. But as you build your client base, you can offload the ones that are ruining your quality of life (and making your business less efficient)

  3. There is so much “yes” in this article, I’m not even sure what kind of compliment I can offer. Thanks for writing it. You’ve solidified my resolve and offered some hope in the process.

  4. Yeah, Gotch I completely agree with you, If we want to develop a company or individually “Firing clients is also important than getting them”. Presently I am facing the few of the above situations you have mentioned. This tells that you have a very good experience with clients.

    Keep up the work.

  5. Totally agree,

    You could have loads of clients but one bad egg could easily affect your mood and output, and if it keeps happening then you keep loosing!

    I’ve been there!

  6. Quality Insight on horrible clients. In my experience, most of these “bad clients” can be avoided before moving forward with the client. Asking lots of questions in the initial conversation should give you a good idea on what type of client this will be.
    Signs of a bad Web/SEO client:
    If the client wants a free SEO audit
    If the client always mentions “price shopping”
    The say things like “This other company quoted me Less”

    We are super picky with the business owners we do business with for this reason. Bad clients can ruin your business. We never promise the world. We always over-price our services. We never do free SEO audits.

    Quality Article.

    1. Thanks for the comment Brenan! I totally agree. You can prevent many bad clients through proper vetting, but some slip through the cracks sometimes

  7. Hi Nathan,

    You got me on spot once again. I just fired a client last week. It wasn’t a great weekend for me but I’m glad that he’s gone so does $1,500. Learnt my lesson in a hard way but I’m glad I made the decision.

    Commenting out on your phrase not to let go the one and only client even though they’re stink, I have to say I disagree with that. Bad client is always gonna be bad. I believe in good karma and if you trust in Him, He shall provide what you need =)

    Cheers!

    1. Hey Lisa,

      Thanks for the comment! You’re definitely right on that… bad clients don’t usually change

  8. Thank you for writing this mate, I’ve been struggling with shit clients for a while. I even let go of a client without getting paid for the work me and my team had put in. It saddens me to say that I’ve even stopped taking projects from people due to these reason.
    Cheers!

  9. Another great read dealing with an issue that is not spoken about often.
    The idea of firing a client sounds a little strange at first but is completely reasonable if the client is causing problems.
    I think many business owners (not just in SEO) feel obligated to take on and work with any customer who wants to work with their company and can afford the payments, especially with pushy new leads.
    Learning to first screen a client and refuse to work together or in this case fire a client after realising things are not going to get better is completely empowering to a business owner and helps put you back in control.
    Thanks for the article Nathan.

  10. I am not sure the place you are getting your information, however good topic. I needs to spend some time studying more or understanding more. Thank you for wonderful information I was in search of this info for my mission.

  11. Hi Nathan,

    An interesting article which makes sense to me even as a customer of SEO rather than an agency. There is another side of the house which I believe is an equally if not more important issue. I have had the misfortune of engaging a few SEO agencies to help our business which I would regard as extremely toxic.

    In the process of challenging them on much of the work they have done which as a layman sounds rather dubious and suspect they may consider their client toxic if they don’t simply keep quiet and accept everything they say and do.

    For me it’s an issue of trust more than toxicity.

    I have had experiences whereby I have asked an SEO the same question several times and they either can’t answer the question, answer a question which wasn’t the one I asked or simply send me a link of someone else’s explanation to read for myself.

    My business has spent many thousands of pounds with SEO agencies that have:

    – Built back links which we later found out were ‘toxic’ and had to disavow.
    – Built hundreds of location pages which they insisted was what was needed, for us to find out later that this was a potential huge penalty waiting to come from Google
    – Built an SEO campaign around key words which had little if no search volume but couldn’t explain why
    – Sent 30 page reports fraught with graphs, charts and data that looked extremely impressive but very confusing and when you took the time to study closer most of the data was largely meaningless.
    – Send us videos of other experts to explain something they couldn’t.
    – Tell us page speed is not important to Google.

    I could go on and on and on but hopefully you get my point..

    What I’d like to read is an article on how you can spot a toxic SEO agency before you spend thousands of pounds with them.

    Best wishes, Maurice

    1. Hey Maurice,

      Thank you for the comment! I appreciate you taking the time to craft it. I am in 100% agreement with you and that’s something I have planned 🙂

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