Is it time for a client break-up?

Jul 15, 2015

Take an honest look at your client relationship and ask yourself if it’s still mutually beneficial; if it’s not, it is time to do the hard thing.

January 2015 [ocs 217 In addition to working at Zweig Group, I also run a small horse-boarding and horseback-riding lessons program out of my home, a farm on 13.5 acres just outside of town. I started this business in 2011 at a different location as a way to subsidize the costs of my own horses’ feed and to make some improvements to my property. Many of my boarders became friends and were great companions for horse shows and as farm-sitters if I needed to travel. Though I’ve always been conscious of keeping it small, since it was never meant to support me financially, after a move to a new and better location, my side business rapidly gained momentum and started to grow. Suddenly, I found myself with 12 horses to care for, multiple students, children riding who needed supervision every day of the week, and two other outside instructors working out of my property. I was proud of my beautiful property and my reputation of providing a high-level of care, so I rarely said no to requests from boarders. Before I knew what was happening, dozens of people were at my house every day. A literal parking lot developed in my side-yard, and people who I often didn’t know very well were at my house and using my bathroom at all daylight hours. Every single extra second of my time was taken up with horse activities, and I was unable to do things like go to the grocery store or go out to dinner after work. I even had to pay my sister to run to the store for me, so I could use what precious daylight was left to finish chores around the farm. After a misunderstanding about a boarding agreement made with the parents of a teenage girl and the girl herself, I was berated with multiple lengthy texts from the teenager and suddenly came to a horrifying reality: My horse business had become a “runaway train,” and it was completely off the tracks! Although mucking stalls is different than providing design services, many A/E/P and environmental firms fall into the same trap that I did and don’t stop to look objectively at their current client situation. While it might not be prudent to fire a client in the middle of a job, there are certain things to take into consideration when making the decision to pursue additional services or work in the future. If some of your client relationships don’t give you a good feeling, ask yourself:
  • Does the math add up? If you’re losing money on a client and the relationship isn’t bringing future opportunities, it’s probably time to re-evaluate your fees or the client.
  • Does the work fill you with dread? If every time you have to converse with this client you get off the phone with a bad taste in your mouth, it’s probably time for a break-up.
  • Are you proud to be working with them? If your client has a bad reputation, is always talking badly about other people and/or firms, or is doing such bad things with your work that you don’t want to be associated with him/her, it’s time to end the relationship. The last thing you need is a client talking poorly about your firm. ​
  • Are there more problems and failures than success stories? It can be tricky to turn down work from a client you like, but if the work never goes as planned you might not have the strengths to really perform well for this client.
Many of my clients paid late, showed up at inconvenient times, and weren’t respectful of my personal space or property. Additionally, when I ran the numbers, I learned I was working for free – at best – and usually at a large personal expense. Although it may be scary to turn down work from a client, especially one that you already have a relationship with, it’s probably the best thing for both parties. If you’re unhappy with your client, they are probably unhappy with you, and your time and resources can be put to a much better use. I had to face the scary fact that I had become a doormat and the only solution was to fire some of my bad clients. Telling these people they had to leave was very difficult, but once I imagined a future for myself not working 80-hour weeks, having more ability to travel, not bending over backward for ungrateful clients, and having some personal time at my own home, it was an incredible relief!
CHRISTINA ZWEIG is a Zweig Group marketing and management consultant. Contact her

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.