Tell-Tale Signs It’s Time To Fire That Client


No one wants to have to fire a client. As a consultant or service provider, firing a client makes us feel as though we failed; it goes against everything we’re taught to believe. We’re taught to value our clients, that the customer is always right and that it’s our job to do well by them and exceed expectations. And while I wouldn’t disagree that any of that’s true, sometimes ‘doing right’ by the client means letting them go. A toxic client-vendor situation hurts not only you, but them.

A bad client/vendor relationship creates:

  • Frustrated and demoralized employees.
  • A more stressful work environment.
  • Loss of time, resources and non-graying hair for you.
  • Loss of time, results and money for them.

But because you’d be hard-pressed to find a class in business school about when to fire a client, below are some tell-tale signs that it may be time to give everyone the space they need to move on. Including some that are directly your fault. Yeah, it’s like that.

When they can’t pay for services

Let’s just start here because this sucks extra hard. It sucks for the client and it definitely sucks for you, the service provider, who has just invested time, energy and resources into building and implementing a campaign. Early on when Outspoken Media was catering to smaller clients, this was a larger issue for us. Sometimes it’s hard to tell on paper whether or not a client is really going to be able to come through with the money. You assume if they’re a national brand, with offices in multiple locations, that they’ll be able to pay for the SEO consulting they just asked for.

But then you’d be wrong.

Through the years, we’ve had to become better at evaluating clients and making sure their eyes weren’t bigger than their wallets. But if someone can’t pay, then you gotta cut them loose. It’s simply not fair to your team.

When there’s no accountability

Back in 2009 I wrote:

As your SEO firm, we are your coach. Your hot, willing-to-go-the-distance, ready-to-fight-for-you, coach. However, you own the team…. As your coach, we want you to make the championships and we’re going to do everything in our power to get you there. However, all we can do is arrange the roster, script the plays and craft you a road map to the finals. It’s up to you to trust us enough to implement it and follow through. The power to be great is with you.

You can give someone a solid game plan and a strategy for how they can go all the way and be great, but unless they’re willing to implement it, all of it, it’s not going to work. As an SEO consultant with your hands tied, there’s nothing more frustrating than giving someone the magic and watching them use it to warm the bench. At Outspoken Media, we make clients sign that they’ll implement what we’re giving them. And if they can’t be accountable for it, then we can’t work with them. Because that’s a waste of everyone’s time. If they don’t truly believe in search engine optimization, social media or building a great brand, then they should use their dollars elsewhere. Maybe on better office snacks so their employees don’t lose morale due to lack of sales.

When trust is lost

It is your job to set client expectations and manage client trust. You are the expert and the authority in the room. By putting expectations down on paper, being transparent, and spending the appropriate time on communication, you should develop a relationship where the client feels safe in what you’re doing, how long it will take, and what their role is in this whole process. It is your job to create that.

When you fail, a serious problem arises.

While there are certainly clients who will come to you fearful and untrusting, often that trust is a result of something you did or didn’t do. Maybe you got a document to them later than they were promised or something wasn’t explained transparently enough – either way, if you find yourself with a client that no longer trusts your ability to get the job done, it’s a good sign it’s time to let go of that client. Because they don’t have the energy to hound you while running their business and you can’t work with someone micro-managing you and looking over your shoulder. If you can’t fix it, let them go. Then take some time to discover why they didn’t trust you (was it you? Was it them? Really was it them?) so that you’re able to learn from it going forward.

They think SEO is magic

Again, it’s probably at least partially your fault that you’re in this situation (sorry). You may not have given them their SEO Is Unicorns outlook on life, but you didn’t out it before you signed them either. Or, even worse, you did out it but decided the money smelled good enough to ignore it. If your client is still walking around telling people that SEO is magic, then you know their expectations are skewed to hell. You probably won’t be able to reconcile this in time to save the project. Let them go and then re-evaluate what you did that allowed you to sign a client who had no understanding of what they were buying. How can you prevent yourself from getting into this situation in the future?

When they tell you how to do your job based off a blog post they read

Please see: When They Don’t Trust You.

When the proposal/contract stage lasts a full year

Okay, so this person isn’t technically a client yet, but you want to nip this in the bud before it gets worse. If you notice that your normal proposal is taking three times longer with a prospective client because they’re nit-picking verbiage or claim to be too busy to get it back to you, they won’t work well as a client. Why? Because think a few months down the line…

  • If they can’t implement a signature, what are the odds they’ll be able to implement the work?
  • If they’re nit-picking now, what do you think they’ll do when they see your recommendations?

Am I generalizing? Yeah, maybe, but experienced consultants will get a feeling in their gut for when a client will work and when they’ll become a burden to the company. Don’t let it get there. Also, make sure you’re being fair to your team. When you’re writing up contracts and proposals, you’re doing it based on what’s happening NOW, what the client’s site looks like NOW, and what you’ll need to do to compete in TODAY’S search eco-sphere. You’re not basing it off a year from now when you finally get that signature and the okay to start the work. If the proposal process is dragged out too long, at some point you’ll have to start it all over again. Are you gonna charge them for that?

When your team openly resents them

We’ve famously lost clients because we weren’t willing to compromise who we are. That’s not going to change. But what happens when your team strongly dislikes a client that they’re being asked to work on? While it’s not always realistic to believe that you’ll be working with clients you love, adore and cherish 100 percent of the time, this may be the sign of a larger issue with the client. Why is there pushback from the team? Investigating the “why” may out issues with accountability, a lack of education (on both ends) or other issues that you’ll determine you either can or cannot fix. While you can’t drop every client who doesn’t mesh with the team (unless you can, then, good for you), you don’t want to lose valuable employees by creating a toxic environment either.

Firing clients sucks. But staying in an unhealthy relationship puts both you and the client in an even worse relationship. Being a leader means making tough decisions. Don’t be afraid to cut someone loose when it’s clear the situation isn’t a match or can’t be fixed.

Photo taken from Gage Skidmore and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.

Your Comments

  • Abe Bellini

    “They think SEO is magic” Unfortunately many people still believe this and they expect me to show up to meetings with a black top hat. Not cool

  • Garry Polmateer, CAE (@DarthGarry)

    This blog posts holds true for much more than just the SEO business, I think it’s pretty much universal! First, are your client relationships profitable, do you have trust, and do you enjoy it? Great post!


    • Lisa Barone

      Ha, you know, I think you’re right. Actually, I think these rules are universal for all types of relationships, even dating. I mean, especially that part about not being about to pay. ;)

  • Ben Locker

    Great post, and so true.

    We’ve experienced the ‘copywriting is unicorns’ outlook – my favourite was a small business who refused to pay us for a website’s worth of great copy. His reason? He’d hired some SEO cowboy who’d told him we shouldn’t be paid because we hadn’t provided him with meta keywords… *sigh*

    Still, as you say – the bad experiences help you learn to handle clients well.

  • Nick LeRoy

    Great post Lisa. I tend to take on more one-off type projects these days for these exact types of reasons. Client expectations seem to be through the roof these days. You tell them a realistic expectation and they don’t sign. They sign on with the ‘right’ expectations and for some reason they always elevate regardless what you do.

    • Lisa Barone

      A valid point. I think that’s why so many SEOs are so fearful of clients. It’s really easy for the relationship to go sour. But I think the bad experiences do help you learn how to become a better service provider. Hopefully we’re better with (and smarter about) our clients today than we were a few years ago, too.

  • Chase Sherman

    Lisa, this post is very thorough.

    I appreciate the quote you pulled from 2009. Although, it seems like the consultant is the one implementing the game plan so I’m a bit confused on the analogy…

    • Jonathan Beaton

      I have always found it more useful to develop the strategy and give the client the guidance/resources to be able to implement it. As a consultant, we are paid for our expertise and not necessarily for doing the tedious work that is required to make everything go…Furthermore, implementing proper SEO, SEM, etc. is a long term project and it is best that the client is able to pick up the ball and run with it.

    • Lisa Barone

      Hey Chase, many times we’re just consulting on the work. We’re giving them the strategy and then it’s up to the client to do the act work on their Web site. That’s what I was referring to. If you’re actually the one touching the client’s site, then you’re absolutely right. You’re the one implementing the game plan you’ve created.

  • Wasim Ismail

    I believe having a good level of trust between you and your clients is imperative, as they are hiring you for their project they should have faith and trust in you, listing to your advise and also to take ACTION on what needs to be done, many of the times client think thats it, I’ve hired you, now its your responsibly to get me out of this mess, yes but it has to be a two way traffic.
    I totally agree with your points, some relay good ones, especially when the client starts to lack on payments, it breaks everything and also your motivation on the project.

  • Jerry McCarthy

    You’re speaking my language right now. It’s actually reassuring to hear how other’s juggle their catch 22s. We all want to make it work, but sometimes it’s just not possible. We were just discussing this the other day. My biggest challenge is setting boundaries with clients in terms of gauging their expectations. We all want to go above and beyond for every one. But when you give 100% Monday through Friday, client’s assume you’re going to provide the same access on the weekends or even worst, come to expect you to jump through hoops when they say “jump.” MY peace of mind comes from when a client is fired, we can look in the mirror and know we did 110% every time. So when a client thinks differently, it hurts. The silver lining is knowing it won’t happen again. I guess growing pains are part of the game. Have a great weekend Lisa!!

  • Brian Collins

    Thanks Lisa, great list! I know that you are referring to clients using your SEO service, but my work as a sculptor brings me in to contact with many clients who tick at least two of these boxes. Never really thought in terms of ‘firing the client’ but I really like the concept and feel sure that I’ll become a convert!

  • Elisa Adam

    Educating clients is key to laying the boundaries of expectations. I’ve seen more good SEO’s using this as their marketing strategy. True trust is built organicly as satisfied clients give testimonials & reviews.

    If you manage to sell your services without Educating First, you run the risk of a client signing a contract without understanding what they signed. While this may cause any number of the situations listed above, ultimately the responsibility for the failure with the client lies with you.

    Getting clients who actually pay is a whole separate thing, experienced in every kind of business, and resolved through sound practices that 1. Makes payment easy 2. Makes payment affordable 3. Makes receipt of service or product conditional on payment delivery and 4. Plans for disengagement from non-paying clients that preserves future prospect of them or their referrals returning & doing business later, when they have the money.

  • Anna

    Energy vampires are the worst.


  • Kelly McCausey

    What a great advice post Lisa, I got a lot from it for myself and will point my listeners over here too :)

  • Mitch Mitchell

    Very good stuff. I’ve never had to fire a web client but I have had to fire clients in other aspects of my consulting. It’s never easy to give up money but it’s always best when working with someone who just doesn’t seem to have a clue and yet wants to keep trying to tell you what to do or what they’re looking for when it’s an unrealistic expectation.

  • Bret Juliano

    Thank you for this post. I fully agree. Unfortunately I interacted with a client recently in which no terms were fully discussed, but bartering was agreed upon. When the time came to reciprocate my contribution it was completely one-sided and now I don’t even want to look at my work for them because they don’t appreciate anything that was done. Makes me more cynical about some clients.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    Great post! There needs to be mutual respect between client and agency. The client needs to trust the agency to do its job, but also realize that they are an integral part of the process. In some cases, the customer isn’t right and if a poor working relationship is ruining the quality of work that’s produced it’s best to cut ties.