“Do you have any bad clients?”


So I had an informal catch-up meeting with a former co-worker recently. Quite informal – we met on a weekend morning, at a local library, while our kids were browsing for books, and we were both unshaven. In fact, we spoke more about our families, lack of weekend sleep (heh), summer plans, our ever-booming neighborhoods and insane real estate prices – and only briefly asked each other about work directly. I told him about how uneven things are, when you’re trying to fly solo, and when some gigs end sooner than you expect, and others – bloat into longer, more complex projects. And I also assured him that it’s more fun than not – I still have the freedom to explore and test my skills in the field, and I have the advantage of setting up my rules, my rates, build (and own) my relationships with people (more on that later). It’s the chaos, the unpredictability of this that kept me on my toes. But the progress, even if slow – was exciting.

He shared, too. Said that things at work are steady, to the point of almost boring. That the team is well-rounded, and the technology is built up, and is scaling out – there’s not much newness to it all – they just iterate on the same projects, widgets, plugins. He’s getting a little restless… And then he asked me point blank: “Do you have any bad clients?”

I remember instantly dismissing it with a quick “Of course not”, and continuing our conversation – but that question kept bugging me the rest of the day. First of all, because I wasn’t entirely honest. I do have one, yes, one client who’s … less than ideal. We meet very rarely, he’s very distrusting of technology, is temperamental, and he really wants to expand his brand online. Unusual task. Suffice to say our meetings are more about education and training than actual building, branding and publishing of his product. He is a brilliant engineer, an inventor – who’s a little rough around the corners. I genuinely enjoy seeing that spark in his eyes when he ‘gets’ something – and at the same time, our meetings just tire me out. So while I cannot call him bad, he’s definitely a challenging client. All my other business relations – without exception – operate on a whole other level. We interact frequently, give constant feedback about our expectations, work, results, and insights – share things about our lives and families, occasionally go out for food and drinks and spend time NOT talking shop – we have fully formed relationships that go beyond our shared work or projects.

And I sincerely hope that all my business relations are built on that model going forward.

But here’s the other reason why that simple question kept bugging me for so long. It’s expected. You are expected to have bad clients, just like a business is expected to have crap suppliers. Not all, but a few. There’s a built in expectation of someone trying to swindle, to cheat, cut corners, bloat prices, oversell and under-deliver. And that expectation usually comes from both sides.

But why?

Why do you choose to start working with someone shoddy, or someone who sets off red flags? To fill a sales quota? To close the deal, despite foreseeable problems? Because your budget is too lean to afford someone better? Isn’t that a risk, that can potentially cost you more than the value of that client or contract, or a hire? Are you doing a favor for a friend, school buddy, your neighbor? Again, if you’re seeing flags – why jump in? Aren’t there other clients/projects out there for you? I know it’s a competitive market – but isn’t this reckless?

Or, if your business relationship had started off well, but then soured, why do you keep labeling it as ‘bad’, instead of trying to rectify it? It does take both sides to work out the issues – and it can be a prolonged, (and costly) process – but if you two can find your way to a better relationship, and not just count down the hours or days to the end of the project or contract, why wouldn’t you remedy things? Or cut it loose early on, and move on?

In business, there’s a concept of sunk cost fallacy – and how it can often lead to irrational business decisions. Well, if you calculate all the costs and benefits of maintaining a few ‘bad’ clients – and don’t take into account that this relationship is toxic – for your team, possibly for your finances or capacity for other work (none of those things are usually mentioned in calculations), you’re overspending yourself. You’re convincing yourself (and your team) that this is a worthwhile relationship, when it’s just not the right move. Fix what’s broken, or part ways.

My personal approach is usually “fix what’s broken”, but sometimes, it’s just easier (and cheaper) to part ways. As I write this, I already have an idea of how many steps and meetings I need to take with my challenging client before we part ways. I genuinely want to help him get his product out, in the most attractive light – but I can only do so much about his distrust of technology and rough social skills. He’ll likely take the last few steps on his own. I might not be there at the launch date. Both of us should learn something along the way.

But what about you – what bad clients are keeping you up at night? Do you think you’re in a bind, or are too dependent? Are you too invested? Are you delivering along their expectations? Is it a knowledge gap? Trust issue? It can be a number of things – but simply embracing analysis paralysis, and letting the time run out on your business relationship – is an easy, lazy escape. Don’t be tempted by “easy”.

Instead, try to solve for it – see what this client is truly expecting from you, and isn’t getting. See what’s lost in translation. See their product from a different light, re-negotiate terms. And if you still cannot be of use to each other – it’s best to part ways. Your energy is more valuable. Your team is infinitely more valuable. Don’t stagnate in your client relationships. Built on them, because that pays off.

In the meantime, if you do have a problem with technology, or do have shoddy developers or digital supplier – gimme a shout – I can help you sort it out, and get your production, operations, development cycle back on track. My approach is always ‘fix what’s broken; improve what already works’. And it helped me solve a variety of issues – with business problems, customer relations, production bottlenecks or even informal meetings, like the one a few weeks ago, at a local library.

It was worth the time. We both learned something along the way.

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