Why Would You Fire a Client?

Note: I have actually had consultant colleagues tell me I was insane to fire a client. Maybe not. Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

The Six Main Reasons to Fire a Client
There are probably more than six, but this is a good start for a list that I use as a measuring stick for terminating a client relationship:

1. They Make Unreasonable Demands.
2. They Want Everything for Nothing.
3. They’re Always Slow to Pay.
4. They Don’t Listen to Your Recommendations.
5. They Don’t Respond to You.
6. They Show a Lack of Respect.

1. They Make Unreasonable Demands - In my work, I often interface with a lot of the client's staff and, in doing so, build a relationship with them based upon trust. That trust turns into my ability to see and hear themes that may be thwarting forward progress. I will often shape these themes into an anonymous overview of the current culture and as a springboard for changes in how leadership interacts with their staff. In one recent case, a client became infuriated when I told him that his leadership style was not conducive to building trust and spurring initiative. I also suggested how he could make some quick adjustments to his style that would help alleviate this challenge. Instead, he pressed me for the names of the people that felt that his leadership style was wanting, to which I refused. Shortly after that tense meeting, I withdrew from the engagement; the timing was good at the point when deliverables were complete and I had other client demands pressing for my time.

2. They want everything for nothing - This usually happens with clients that have not worked much with consultants and they assume that, once you're under the tent, you become just another staff person that serves at the pleasure of the CEO. Instead of the 5 - 6 objectives predetermined by the proposal/agreement, you are suddenly tasked with attending weekly staff meetings, department meetings, etc., when your goal might have been to help the organization become more efficient and reduce the number of existing meetings! Or, as in one engagement, where I was brought in to pull together the various financial elements of a large expansion project for a hospital, the CEO decided that I should attend the weekly 4 hour meeting with the general contractor and the construction company to go over the punch list as we neared completion of the project - totally unrelated to the goals of my engagement. Given that I was not scheduled to be on-site on Friday's for this meeting, the CEO still wanted me to attend anyway, on my nickel. I terminated the contract after 4 months when I determined that my effective hourly rate as a result of all the "freebies" I was giving to the hospital was exactly half of what I usually charge.

3. They are always slow to pay - I don't know about you, but I generally work with organizations much larger than mine, and, as such, I cannot afford to have them use me (project fees) as their bank. I have taken to shortening my invoice due dates to 15 days net and hopefully I get them at the 30 day mark. I once worked with a large healthcare system that stated right up front that invoices from subcontractors were 120 days net - take it or leave it. Because the volume of business was so great, I accepted these terms, but discovered that 120 days net really meant 150 days net. I explained that I could not afford to loan them "my money" and backed away gracefully at a reasonable juncture.

4. They don't listen to your recommendations - It is painful to work with clients that agree with you to your face about a decision that they need to make and then subsequently do entirely the opposite. In the case of one client, we had a discussion about the steps leading up to a major change in the business model and how he was going to present that to the shareholders vis-a-vis the tone and subject matter he was going to present at the meeting. I recommended that the tone be informational and the subject matter non-directional since the changes that were coming were radically different than the SOP for the previous 10 years. Yep, you guessed it - he got up and told everyone exactly what he was going to do and, essentially, his tone was, "do you agree or don't you understand?" The resulting backlash from the shareholders took months of damage control to repair and restore confidence in leadership. I walked away, shaking my head.

5. They don't respond to you - The phrase, "hurry up and wait" is something I learned all about in the military. It also can extend to the business world. I had a coaching client that wanted instant responses to his questions at almost anytime of the day or evening. My mistake here was that I included the language, "unlimited support for calls, emails, and texts" in the agreement between him and me. People that know me well will tell you that I am very good at getting back to people in a very timely manner, usually no more than 60 minutes to turnaround an answer to a question or, to at least, schedule a time to talk in the very near future. As this client was involved in a stressful, but temporary, turnaround situation, I gave him some slack and responded almost instantly by text to any request made. Then, I would hear nothing but crickets, until his next "end of the world", life or death question, which I would respond to and also ask for an update on the previous question. Again, no response. After this went on for awhile, I called for a time-out meeting to discuss the concept that we were involved in a partnership that required him to keep me informed. He promised to keep up his end of the agreement, but he never did and I had to suggest that he find someone else that would be a better fit for his needs in terms of support.

6. They show a lack of respect - How about this one? I once worked with a hospital CEO that would profess his respect while you were in front of him, but as soon as you left the room, he would start in on a tirade about how awful you were. I witnessed this so many times with so many people while I was in his office that I was convinced he did this to everyone. Quite naturally word got around and no one had any respect for him as a result. His Executive Assistant wasn't even safe from his pointing finger and when she found out, she determined to leave for another position. Before she did, though, she decided to tie a can to his tail and she recorded him ranting and raving about this person and that in his office one day, including the Board members. He was particularly generous with his criticism for the Chairman of the Board, so she let him have a copy of the recording. After listening to it, The Chairman just smiled and said, "thank you."  Within 60 days the CEO was out of a job and the Chairman of the Board took over as CEO. He immediately started behaving the opposite of the previous CEO and was generous and fair with his criticism as well as with his praise (in person) of the people that supported him. Over time he created a great culture of loyalty and trust within the hospital. By that time, though, I had long since left the organization, because I just would not put up with a lack of respect.

What have I learned from consulting for 25 years? Always respect yourself and what you do all the time. Never sacrifice your integrity or principles for a consulting engagement or money. You'll sleep better at night.

Next week: Thanksgiving break; I'm back on December 4th. Enjoy!