Should you “fire” that difficult client?

Should you “fire” that difficult client?

One of the things you get better at as your sales process improves is learning how to sign up only your most ideal clients – the ones who you most love working with, and with whom you get the best results.

In the early days you can just feel grateful that anyone is willing to pay you! But as time goes on and you become more confident of the value you bring, you get better at screening out those clients who are going to become a negative drain on your energy or simply not do their part to get the results they say they want, leaving both of you frustrated and unhappy.

However, something I see far too often and that really bugs me is business coaches and mentors being very quick to recommend you “fire” your difficult clients.

The argument here goes “Your work should be joyful and rewarding.  You work for yourself now so you can choose who you work with”.

Some even recommend firing all clients who don’t seem to be making progress as this helps give you a 100% track record of success.   (It’s also not too good for the ego to have a client who doesn’t appear to be benefiting from your work).

Should you fire difficult client

But should you really  fire your difficult clients?

Well, not always in my opinion.  Because firing the clients who you find challenging could be preventing you from growing into your true brilliance and very best work.

It also means that some of the people who most need your help, or who just need an extra dose of patience or take longer than others to see results might not get the help at all.

You see, if you are anything like me you do what you do because ultimately you want to help people. Sometimes in order to help people we need to step up and get even better at helping our more challenging clients, not just write them off because they are not “easy” for us, or working with them doesn’t “feel good”.

I know for certain that if it wasn’t for my most difficult clients I simply wouldn’t have grown as a mentor and facilitator and be as good at helping people grow their businesses as I am today.  I also wouldn’t have helped as many people get the results they so desperately wanted.

My client Sarah is a great example:

Sarah (name changed) is gifted practitioner who helps women break free from chronic health problems and fatigue using an intensive and powerful healing approach.

Last year she enrolled an incredibly difficult client who caused her a lot of stress.   There are maany who would have advised her “Sarah, this one client is causing you so much stress that she’s not worth it, just get rid of her so you can focus your energy on attracting clients who are easier to work with”.  But what they would have missed was just how this client was giving her important lessons that were going to form the foundation of her future business.

You see the nature of Sarah’s ideal clients, and their health conditions means that they typically come to her anxious and exhausted and this makes them quick to blame her for any perceived lack of progress.   The healing process in itself also brings up emotional responses and of course Sarah is often in the firing line.  Rather than giving up on this client Sarah took my advice to stick with it and while it wasn’t easy, the process helped her to tighten up her working structure to best support her clients. She honed her coaching skills, put in place new tighter boundaries to protect her own energy, and also ultimately changed her pricing to a level that fairly reflected  the level of support she was providing and the transformation to the health of the client.

This “problem” client was in fact her teacher

The client helped her to become a more effective practitioner – not just for this client but for all the clients to come – in a way that no theoretical training course could have done.

This happens in my work too.   If a business owner who isn’t making any money decides to take a leap to invest in working with me, she will usually bring all her fears and anxieties, and it can be quite an emotional journey until she starts to see some results.   If I labelled these clients “nightmares” and decided not to work with them I wouldn’t get to come close to making the transformation that is so rewarding for me.

Rather than dismissing the client I choose to work on myself

So my advice, especially if you are in the earlier stages of your business is not to be too quick to dismiss a client just because you find them challenging – they could be here to stretch you and grow you to be the best you can be.

Start by asking yourself:

Given the issues this client is facing right now in their life or business, is their behaviour or response understandable?

What more could I be doing to support them if I’m truly committed to seeing them get results?

How can I set and communicate clearer boundaries so that I can give them what they really need  without draining myself physically and energetically in the process?

Maybe it’s part of your work to be understanding and support them, rather than dismiss them for being challenging.

Rather than an excuse to “fire” them it could be a sign of an area for development for you.

– Client blaming you for things that aren’t working?   Maybe you need to work on your resilience so that you don’t take it personally and are available to fully support them.

– Client not getting the results?  This could be a sign it’s time to improve your skills, maybe adding in coaching or other transformational tools, so you help them through their resistance and procrastination

– Client taking up too much time or draining your energy?  This is a sign it’s time to take responsibility for firming up and communicating your boundaries.

– Client determined to ignore all of your advice?   Maybe you need to get more courageous on their behalf and confront them directly (this might also include the conversation about whether you part company).

In my experience every difficult client is an opportunity for growth and for you to become even more brilliant at what you do.

I remember having a very difficult client in my first ever mentoring group.   After a long phone call where she aired her grievances I was very upset and my mentor at the time suggested I just give her money back.   But on reflection I realised  that the client was feeling separate from the group and just wanted to feel that she mattered. I stopped to consider whether her comments were valid and had to admit some of them were they were, and I made changes to the way I ran the group in response.  Most importantly it prompted me to develop ways to get the group members to connect with each other to foster a sense of community – and I continued to work on this over the years that followed.

I simply would not have developed the successful, close-knit, mentoring community that I did, or become the mentor that I am today had I not been willing to learn from her feedback – even though she was extremely challenging for me at the time.

This isn’t to say you should always just “put up”.  There are definitely cases where you should let the client go:

So who should you fire?

  1. Sometimes you are just not a good “fit”.  Something doesn’t click despite the best intentions on both sides.   There may be a lack of flow in your communication.   Sometimes despite multiple sessions you are just not getting through and you can see that you are not making the difference you know you can make.  In this case have an honest conversation and be prepared to let them go.
  2. Maybe you wake up with a pit in your stomach or full of dread on the day you have to work with that client.   If you feel this way you are unlikely to be giving them what they need.  Ultimately this is your business you do have a choice to just end the relationship and let them go.
  3. If it is impacting on your other clients.  If it’s in a group this persons attitude could be causing other members to become demotivated or negative.  Or indirectly because the emotional impact is causing you to be less effective and it’s impacting on the quality of your work.
  4. And of course clients who don’t pay you or continually cancel or reschedule sessions without valid reason need to be shown the door, no question.  This should really go without saying and is about getting very clear on your payment process, guidelines and legal terms.   And having the self-respect to stand by them.

And of course you won’t always get it right.   There has also been one clear occasion where my NOT firing a client was a due to weakness on my part because I was avoiding conflict or confrontation – and in the end this didn’t serve them or me.

What about you? Do you have a client that you know you should fire today for the sake of your peace of mind and for the other clients you are serving?

Or do you have a client you have fired in the past but on reflection you know you could have done more to support them, and grow as practitioner in the process instead?

I’d love to hear from you.  Let me know in the comments below – I always read them all.

With Love & Gratitude,

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16 Comments

  1. Fiona Lockhart on March 29, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Thanks Catherine, a useful reminder to reflect & ‘go inside’, before taking any immediate action. I have done both over the years. With one particular client, I learnt a lot about my boundaries & focus through persevering (exactly as you mentioned), & still enjoy understanding the two way process of the work I do with my clients. With others, ‘firing’ them was the best thing I could have done, as I really was not interested in being a part of what was going on for them! It felt as though I would have been colluding, in some way. However, I know there are some, where I could have done more work on ‘my stuff’ & been able to offer continued support. Thank you for your gentle, reflective pieces – very much appreciated.

    • Catherine on March 29, 2017 at 12:20 pm

      Hi Fiona
      It sounds like you’ve got a really good balance between knowing when to persevere for the good of the client and your own development, and knowing when to let go and say goodbye and free your time and energy for someone who can benefit from it more. Not an easy balance for any of us. And I’m glad you appreciate my musings!

  2. Jenn on August 7, 2019 at 11:09 am

    This is such a great post. Client relationships are in essence like all relationships. If you want the behaviour of the other person to change, you can change your own behaviour and that often makes the changes you need.
    It also comes down to being clear – on boundaries, on what your product is and on what your policies are. It comes down to communicating those clearly and it’s always an ongoing learning process.
    Criticism is always hard – I don’t feel very comfortable when being criticised, but my policy is to step back for a day, ask myself how much this will matter to me in 5 days, 5 weeks and 5 years (which puts it into perspective) and then see what can be done. I have a set of standard replies for clients as well – that is a HUGE help, to have the words in advance.

    • Catherine on August 7, 2019 at 6:10 pm

      I really like the idea of the standard replies. It can be easy to say the wrong thing or just not quite hit the right note if you are feeling under pressure or under attack, so what a great idea!

  3. Amy Garner on August 7, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    This is a great perspective. Always good to hear the message in client feedback, even if coming from a difficult source. I agree, there’s a different between ‘negative’ feedback that’ s coming from a place of hopelessness, or valid concerns, and unconstructive feedback that is just someone being mean or acting out. I’ve definitely grown a lot as a result of difficult clients! Had one last week which meant I had to tighten up my T&Cs further!

    • Catherine on August 7, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      They definitely teach us a lot Amy – sometimes we learn and grow more through the more challenging ones than the ones that are easy and joyful to work with (even if we do have a preference for the latter!).

  4. Elisabeth Stitt on August 7, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Nice blog. I had that experience this year. A woman had taken a class with me and then she signed up for 6 months of coaching. Working with her was like holding onto a runaway horse for dear life. Until one day, I really offended her, and she wrote me a 6 page letter. And I wrote a 2 page letter back acknowledging her feelings but basically saying that she was acting like a toddler who escalates his behavior in order to say Will you still love me no matter how badly I behave?

    I thought for sure she was going to fire me, but I guess she decided that my pushing her was the sign that I “still love her” even when she is difficult and we finished out the remaining 4 months. She always provided drama–and I don’t think there was a single session when she would bottom line things before around 20 minutes of venting–but I decided that working with her made a stimulating change from some of my easier parents/family situations. And she really got to work and made a big shift in her parenting, so win-win for all.

    • Catherine on August 7, 2019 at 6:08 pm

      What a great story Elisabeth – and I bet you grew too as you learned how to handle her – which can only benefit your future clients too. Good for you for hanging in there though – most others would probably have let her go and she would not have got the benefit of the work, which will in turn impact her children.

  5. Lorraine on August 8, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    I am struggling with a client who is refusing to pay her monthly instalments. I now realize that I was too vague and generous with my T & C’s and need to tighten them up. However, if the T & C’s been tight at that time, I’m not sure that the client would have started working with me. They are seeing improvement in their thoughts behaviour but I do know that there is fear around money that I needed to address a lot sooner. And they also mentioned to me that they may be sabotaging (may be from fear of change in some way) so it’s a tough one. I have also extended my programme to 18 months instead of 1 year which I think helps give the client more processing time. This has been a really good learning. I have made some changes and now I recognize the need to do more. The other challenge I’m recognizing is that certain clients (especially with a history of Narcissistic relationships) may take a whole lot longer (i.e. 5+ years) to heal so I also need to take this into account. So, the challenge here is, upgrading them into another 18-month programme to help them achieve their goal (it’s all a journey, some take longer than others). This is my first experience of this since I’ve been in business, I haven’t had anyone else not pay their monthly instalments (may have missed a month but not totally stopped) so it’s a bit disappointing and perplexing to say the least. But as you say, a huge learning curve. Thanks for a great blog, Catherine.

    • Catherine on August 10, 2019 at 3:08 pm

      Hi Lorraine, yes we definitely learn more and more what our clients need, how to best serve them, and also what we need to do to tighten our boundaries and contracts as we go along. What you share here is also why I always get payment up front for 121 work – I don’t like giving the client the feeling that they “pay as they go”. I find that when the client pays up front in advance the commitment is there in a very different way.

  6. Stefan on July 1, 2020 at 10:37 am

    Interesting perspectives Catherine. I’ve seen so many views on this from other coaches, with many too ready to fire the client. My takeaway is to reflect on my part in what has happened before making the decision to part ways. It’s all to easy to let the ego get I the way!

    • Catherine on July 2, 2020 at 6:49 am

      Hi Stefan
      Absolutely, sometimes it’s ego and not wanting to be seen to fail, or feeling out of their depth, sometimes it’s actually laziness and not willing to do the work. Of course there IS such a thing as clients who block us and resist us at every step and sometimes we have to accept we have to part ways – but I when I see coaches talking too easily about “firing” clients it always grates for me.

  7. Pip Evan-Cook on July 1, 2020 at 10:39 am

    This is insightful Catherine, and not advice I’ve heard before, but it is totally on the money.

    Some clients are more verbal than others and if one is having an issue or not getting on with your (one’s) delivery method, it could be that lots of your clients are having the same experience, bot not speaking up.

    Perhaps we can reframe these ‘difficult client’ experiences as learning opportunities to improve the business model or customer service level. Thanks for this post, it has given me food for thought.

    • Catherine on July 2, 2020 at 6:52 am

      Hi Pip, absolutely you are so right that sometimes it is the one client who speaks up for everyone. And one thing I find is that even with those “resistant” clients it’s not that they don’t want change or results – after all they committed their time and money to the process – but they are stuck. And we serve them best by learning how to help them through that resistance. The “best” coaches and consultants are not the ones with a 100% track record because they “fire” the ones they struggle with. They are the ones who can hold a space for a “difficult” client and help them get results where others would give up on them.

  8. Kate Wolf on July 2, 2020 at 10:29 am

    I love this, Thankyou Catherine. In general I don’t see enough nuance and humility on this topic so Thankyou for bringing it. In fact there can be a lack of nuance and humility in the coaching world in general unfortunately. I know I’ve learnt and grown in incredible ways from ‘difficult’ clients- and having a mentor to go to, to unpack my part in it. If I was getting triggered, or if there was simply something practical I needed to put in place. Over the last few years as I’ve grown my tactic has been to meet it head on with a conversation, ask them how they think it’s going and if they’re getting what they want and if not, why they think that is. I’ve learnt a ton! Not always comfortable though. Often when I see the posts about firing clients I think the truth is the coach got triggered and didn’t want to look at their own stuff.

    • Catherine on July 31, 2020 at 9:43 pm

      Hi Kate, So true, so true – about the lack of nuance and humility in the coaching world. And also how quick coaches are to talk openly about “firing” clients – as if it makes them look good. When actually the question is what were they doing or not doing, or what were they not prepared to look at in themselves, their own skills or processes that meant the client appeared to be “fire-able” rather than someone who neeeded an extra amount of support, or an upskilling on the part of the coach to be able to meet them.

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