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When to Fire a Client

Before we worked together, I politely invited one of my best clients to hire someone else. He liked that I was willing to walk away from the deal. Maybe it was even proof that I was in-demand and good at my job.

I’ve seen this repeated many times. I recently had a prospect who was ready to sign on the dotted line, but I decided not to work with him. It’s hard to turn away clients unless 1) you have a full pipeline, and 2) you’re already making good money.

Sometimes turning away a client is the only thing to do, though. Deciding when to do it can be difficult.

After freelancing and consulting for four years, I’ve picked up some telltale signs that I should not work with someone.

Why aren’t you more excited?
The beginning of every engagement should start with a warm glow. Your client has problems, and you have solutions. The early stages should be exciting for everyone. If your client is not excited at this point, you should consider not taking the gig. Clients who are desperate or have been disappointed by consultants are most likely to fall into this category.

Lesson: if a client isn’t excited at the beginning of an engagement, they’ll never be happy with your performance.

No, I can’t save your business.
This one depends on the size of the companies you serve. If you work with smaller clients, you’re likely to hear this at some point. They’ll say some version of “can you save my business?” If you do, run away! It’s a terrible way to get started in any relationship. And if they couldn’t figure out their own business in the years they’ve been at it, how can you? Your job is to enhance and strengthen their company, not save it.

Lesson: you can’t help a prospect who doesn’t know how to run their own business.

It’s not my sweet spot.
Sometimes you’ll stretch your experience and capabilities. It helps you grow as a service provider. Other times, your prospect likes you so much and they’re so fired upabout their project, but it’s not a great fit. In these moments, when you hear your gut telling you to say no…listen! The one time I didn’t listen, the project was a disaster. Here’s what went wrong: the client’s business was a perfect fit; the client was fantastic, and we were fast friends; the project was unique; the client talked me into doing something that was a stretch. It didn’t end well.

Lesson: your best clients and repeat business will come when you focus on your strengths.

Sorry, but I’m not a slimeball.
You won’t hear many people talking about ethics, but they matter. I once had a client that made some big, hairy, and convincing claims about his service. When I asked for evidence, he couldn’t produce it. As a consultant, having a good reputation is imperative. And as a human being, I try to do what’s right. Unfortunately, I already took payment by the time the client asked me to forget my professional standards. So I promptly fired the client and refunded his money after he asked me to lie about the performance of his service.

Lesson: protect your reputation, and your ability to sleep at night.

I’m not a miracle worker, ya know.
During your sales process, you should always discuss expected performance. Part of your job as a consultant is to provide guidance on possible outcomes and how soon to expect them. Your client will almost always want more than the results you promise, and you need to tell them if you believe you can meet their goals. If not, and if they don’t back off their goals, you shouldn’t work together.

Lesson: it’s okay if you can’t meet your prospects’ expectations.

I can’t solve your biggest problem.
As you speak to your prospects, you’ll learn about their businesses. During that process, you’ll identify multiple issues they have. Sometimes you’ll determine that their biggest problem isn’t the one you can solve. If that’s the case, tell them what you think and walk away.

Lesson: your job is to help your prospects and clients, even if it means not working with them.