On Firing Bad Clients: Seven Questions Worth Asking Yourself

The other day, I got the following email from someone:

“I have been following you for a long time and really enjoy the newsletter. I have your books, I watch your youtube videos, the whole thing. I have a question, though. I am a property manager, I make decent money with just a few homes because my goal is to finish University and finally get my Masters in Ecology. So, I can pay the bills, but I have a client who is not very nice to me and he wants for me to be his on call everything. Honestly, I don’t need it. Is not a lot of money and is a pain. How can I politely tell him that I don’t want his business anymore?”

And it reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a client a few weeks ago.

She is an energy healer and has one client who would consistently pay her lower than the bottom of her sliding scale, and often late and for whom the sessions would always run over time. She hadn’t seen her for a while and then she put out a special offer online for a free service she was testing and this former client signed up. She immediately felt a deep anger and revulsion inside as her body gave her a very clear, “No!” to working with this woman. And she came to me with a similar question, “How do I let her go?”

And that made me think of a woman I knew who owned an independent, organic grocery store. She had a client, an older woman, who would spend hours in her shop looking at the supplements and asking her staff a dozen questions. Her staff spent hours with her. But she never bought anything there. Never spent a time. It became apparent she was using the staff for education and going and buying them somewhere else. What to do?

I’d like to suggest ______ questions you can ask yourself in situations like this to help yourself navigate through.

Question #1: What exactly is it that they are doing that is upsetting to you?

It’s important to get crystal clear on the behaviour (or lack of behaviour) that isn’t working for you. It’s easy to make it personal and imagine it’s just ‘that person’ and ‘who they are’. But it’s never that. It’s always something more particular. If you can’t identify what it is, then you will lack any power to make the particular changes needed to protect yourself from it in the future.

Question #2: How did I contribute to this happening?

I’m not suggesting you ‘manifested’ this or that it’s all your responsibility but responsibility doesn’t seem to be a binary proposition of it’s either their fault or yours. It seems, often, to be a shared thing. And even if you only carry 1% of the responsibility, it is a very empowering feeling to find that and own it. Identifying this gives you the foundation for making any needed changes that could prevent it from happening in the future.

I recall author Marianne Williamson sharing something she’d often say to women who kept attracting bad guys. “The problem,” she say. “Isn’t that you keep meeting bad guys. It’s that you keep giving them your phone number.”

In the case of my energy healing client, there was plenty she had done and not done to contribute to it. The first was that she didn’t ask for payment upfront from her clients (and this client in particular) even though she had a pattern of late payment. The second was that she never checked in with her client to let her know that wasn’t working for her. She let it continue with no consequence to the client. Third was she let the sessions with that client run late. When she told me about it, she phrased it as ‘the sessions always run late’ but this frames her as powerless and, in reality, she is 100%  in control of when sessions begin and end. And, again, she never expressed to her client that this didn’t work or make any changes. This left her boiling over with resentment by the time her client signed up for her special offer.

The first step I had to do was to help her see her role in this situation and how she was contributing to it happening.

Once it began to land, it was sobering for her. But also empowering.

My friend who ran the organic grocery store realized that she was complicit in this by not saying anything to the woman.

This can be a very humbling question to ask because you may realize that it’s mostly on you.

Question #4: What changes, if any, can I make to my marketing and client agreements so that this kind of person would be filtered out in the process?

This isn’t always possible. I don’t know if there’s anything my friend who ran the organic grocery store might have done so that this woman would never have entered the store. But I know that in the future, she trusted her gut more about when clients were using her for information with no intention of spending money there.

In terms of the energy healer client, she realized there was a lot she could do. She realized there were certain kinds of clients that just weren’t her people and she could be more explicit about that in her sessions.

She realized that she could ask that all of her clients pay upfront for the sessions. This would mean there was no chance of late or accruing payments. She realized that she could be clear about the timing of sessions with clients and set an alarm to go off 5-10 minutes before the end of the session and let clients know they were needing to wrap up soon and that, if clients kept talking, she could tell them, “I have to get going now,” and hang up. I also affirmed that she could bring all of these issues to her client as healing work to delve into, “I have noticed you consistently pay me late and less than the minimum I ask for and this seems to be okay with you and I’d like to explore why. I also notice that you speak in such a way that it’s impossible to interrupt you. You breath in the middle of your sentences and never slow down. I think this might be a defence mechanism. I’d like to explore why you do that.”

Situations where you need to fire clients are gold. They are immensely valuable because they help you learn how to improve your systems so that you are filtering better for clients who you can actually help and filtering out the clients who won’t be as good a fit.

Keith Johnstone, the founder of Theatresports and author of Impro had an approach to working with beginning improvisors. He’d tell them that there was no way for them to fail. That, “if this scene doesn’t work it’s because of me. It’s my fault. Give me a chance and I’ll fix it.” He took responsibility for their scenes and thus took away the fear of experimenting.

Question #5: Might there be somewhere where I owe them an apology? (e.g. for letting it continue for so long)

This is a humbling one.

Could it be that, as much as you feel used by your client, that you used your client?

Could it be that you knew they weren’t really a fit but that you ignored that because you needed the money?

Ouch.

It’s good to let this one sting for a while and use that pain to drive you to create the clarity and systems you need to attract more of the kinds of clients you really want to work with and who you are best suited to help.

In the case of my energy healing client, I suggested that an apology might be in order. “I’m sorry,” she might say. “That I went so long without telling you the truth or making adjustments on my end. I let things that didn’t feel good keep going because I was too scared to speak up and now I feel this resentment and it’s not your fault. That was me having poor boundaries. I am so sorry for the distance this has created between us and my need to take space. I will be reflecting on my part in this.”

This doesn’t mean she can’t also give feedback to her client. It doesn’t mean she ever needs to work with them again.

But it’s worth asking yourself if, as much as you want them to apologize to you, you might owe them an apology too.

Question #6: How can I communicate my realizations, where I’m at and the new arrangement I’m needing without making them wrong?

This is the nub of it: as long as you are seeing them as wrong, as bullies, perpetrators or predators who took advantage of you, you won’t be able say anything, to go back to the question that started this blog post, politely (not that I think politeness is necessarily always an admirable goal).

If you see them as wrong, no matter what you say, no matter how ‘nicely’ you try to say it, it will land as an attack of sorts; as a shaming. And that’s not always needed.

Question #7: After thinking all of this through, am I willing to give it another go with the new boundaries or do I need to let them go as a client?

Sometimes you can keep them on as a client.

Sometimes the damage is too much.

But it’s good to sit with this instead of having the knee-jerk reflex to want to punt them. That knee-jerk reaction is what keeps us from learning anything and improving our systems.

My friend who ran the organic grocery store ended up speaking to the woman and asking her to leave and not come back. She explained that she had seen how much time the woman was taking and that she’d never spent any money there and suspected she was buying somewhere else and told her, “We’re not your store.”

For my energy healer client, she might say something like, “I’ve been reflecting on it and realizing that I’m not the best person to help you right now. I’d be happy to refer you to someone else.” Or she might say something like, “I’ve been realizing that certain dynamics in our relationship aren’t working for me. If we are to move forward I will need you to pay, in full, before each session and I’ll be ending them all on time. And I would need to explore your end of the dynamics with you as a part of the healing process. If you’re okay with all of that, I’d be happy to continue working with you.”

Additional Resources:

The Secret Purpose of Your Sales Funnel – To Help Clients Become Ideal Clients

On Healthy Boundaries (a collection of memes, articles and videos)

Introducing the Are You Sure? Page

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