How to avoid bad clients: just say “no”

How to avoid bad clients: just say “no”

It can be easy to convince yourself that, in business, there is no such thing as a “bad” client. Work is work; cash flow is cash flow. Surely it’s better to sign a couple of less-than-ideal clients than to watch tumbleweed blowing through your office?

It can seem counterintuitive to turn clients down — especially if business has been a bit slow, or you are just starting out and haven’t yet had the chance to build a substantial client list. There are times when we all find ourselves tempted to take on certain customers, even though our instincts are telling us that it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth.


You need to ask yourself — are these “bad” clients going to be worth the trouble they bring?

Your time is finite: there are only so many hours available in your working week for dealing with client work. Every hour you spend working with one client is time you can’t spend working with another. And, while each client takes up time and energy, the bad ones always seem to require more of both.

Every minute you waste placating an irate client who didn’t bother to read your terms and conditions properly, or who wants to change the goalposts halfway through a project is a minute you could have been spending actually doing your job and earning more money.

It can be useful to think of it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. When you consider the impact these clients have on your time, your energy, and your patience, the cost of keeping them on board is usually far higher than the amount of money they bring in.


So what’s the answer? Learn to say “no”.

It’s far easier to say “no” to a potential customer than it is to fire an existing one, so here are a few tips to help you avoid nightmare clients.


Ask yourself, who do you want to work with?

Who is your ideal client? What type of person will be a good fit for you and the way you work? If you’ve never consciously defined your target customer, it is definitely worth taking a little time to do so. It’s far easier to spot great clients if you actually know who you are looking for.


And figure out who you want to avoid.

Likewise, it’s a good idea to define the type of client you definitely don’t want to work with. Consider the less-than-ideal clients you’ve had in the past. What was it about them that made the relationship tricky? Can you pinpoint any specific characteristics they’ve shared?

We all have our quirks, and it is impossible that we will be a good match for every client who crosses our path. Is it a lack of punctuality that drives you crazy or is it a client who changes their mind every five minutes? If you can figure out the common thread running through your past nightmare clients, you will be able to spot these red flags in future conversations with potential customers and avoid getting involved with them!


Define your red flags.

Try to come up with a clear list of warning signs — the behaviours or things prospective clients say — that get your instincts tingling and make this list a regular part of your client intake process.

It could be those clients who want everything done yesterday. Or, the ones who baulk at your perfectly reasonable rates. For some, a client who appears disorganised right from the off is a huge red flag that you won’t work well together. Know your warning signs and do not ignore them.


That’s great … except I’ve already signed a challenging client. What do I do now?

Of course, in an ideal world, we’d all notice the warning signs in plenty of time. We would listen to that gut feeling that tells us a client is going to turn into a nightmare and we simply wouldn’t take them on in the first place. However, what can you do if you didn’t heed the warning signs, if you put that gut feeling down to last night’s chili?

The best thing to do is to set clear expectations about how work is going to proceed from here on out. Ideally, you’d do this with every client to begin with, but if you haven’t yet, now’s the time. Make sure you communicate clearly, so that new clients are aware of any deadlines and the full scope of your services. Advise them on your work processes so they know what is expected of them and when.

If you have done everything you can to build a good working relationship and they are still giving you a headache, it is probably time to cut your losses. You may lose out on the work and the money it would bring in, but this will be offset by the space you’ve cleared to take on a different clients who are a better fit for you and your business … and you can use them as a case study for what not to do next time!

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