Putting Your Clients In The Firing Line

Firing your clients goes against almost everything we’re told when running a business. It’s not something that I had considered before now. As a small business starting up, you tend to take on any work that comes through the door. I’ve done this for the last 9 years and it turns out for me that this model is flawed.

I’ve spent the last 6 months going against the norm and culling my client list, and here’s the story of how it turned out.

I’ve been running a small agency over the last 9 years and developing websites for small to medium businesses which has kept me more than busy. I specialise in .Net web design / development and fell in love with Umbraco after leaving my beloved self-developed CMS behind at my last agency.

Growing from a part-time venture whilst being a stay at home dad, to a full-time agency of me, myself and I (with a bit of external help), I have found myself in high demand, but it’s been far from ideal. The work-life balance that I hoped to achieve after leaving my last big city job seemed to have gone out the window.

A client of mine boasts that I had never said no to anything he’s thrown at me in the 10 years that we’ve worked together. Never wanting to let people down, I have taken on any work that came my way. Up until recently I was managing long term projects that involved, ASP.NET (Webforms / MVC), HTML, CSS, Angular (1 & 2+), jQuery, PHP, SQL Server, MySQL, Umbraco, Magento, Joomla and many Wordpress sites. On top of this I was doing iOS/Android Apps, design (Including print), AdWords campaigns, SEO, Accessibility audits, IT support, server management, and email services. I’ve even been known to be cabling up new offices. I knuckled down on it all and my clients just kept coming back for more.

As the work kept coming in, I started to slip into extending my hours, trying to juggle family and work. I had slipped into the routine where sleep came 2nd to work. Last year a new job came in to take over the development of a 10-year-old web application that needed updating to make it mobile responsive. This was going to be a massive job and I was already stretched. The only option was to expand. I moved out of the home office and started the recruitment process for a front-end developer to take over half my work. This was my big opportunity to expand my business and start to grow.

We hit the ground running and still didn’t make a dent in the work load. I had to get a full-time contractor on top just to keep up with deadline. Now with 3 x the resources, I had no signs of keeping my head above water.

My new employee didn’t work out and I had to let him go. I can reflect on this now and realise his role was a near-impossible one. Too many different skills that required me to closely oversee each project he was working on. I was back to square one. After he had left, I found that I was only 10hrs per week down from the average of those 3 months.

Luckily, I had met a couple of great contractors that helped me get through the work over the next few months, but this was not a long term nor cost-effective solution.

This is where I suddenly had an epiphany; I didn’t need to physically grow my business to be a successful one. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. My gut feeling was that clients which were taking up most of my time were the ones with little impact on the income to my business. When I started digging deeper, it made more sense that I needed to fire these clients.

I found that these same clients were the ones that didn’t fit my main skillset of ASP.Net / Umbraco / Angular or were simply difficult clients. So, the list was a logical one for me to write (I’ve included some tips below if you’re not sure where to start). I made my list and sorted them by the ones that would make the most impact to my time vs my income from them.

I had my list and was all excited until it sunk in that I had to take the next step and fire them. I love my clients and have built good relationships over the years. How would they react and more importantly how do I go about doing this? I started with one on my list which I had a good relationship with. I had a very difficult but honest conversation with them, and we worked on a plan together to finalise work over the next 6 months whilst they found a new developer to take on the work. I’ve only just finished up with them over the last few weeks and it went smoothly.

I quickly realised that method wouldn’t work with all clients and found that each client needed their own specific approach. I was able to pass most of my clients onto agencies and contractors where I knew that they were in good hands. I was able to tell a few clients that were more sporadic, that I simply wasn’t taking on any new projects.

A few projects were devastating to let go of at first, but others a relief. The ones that were initially hard to let go of have eventually felt better, now that I’m seeing the effects 6 months later.

I’m still in the process of transitioning clients on, but I am seeing the effects already. Stress has reduced, productivity has gone up, I’m putting out less fires. I’m nearly getting enough sleep and I’m enjoying my work again.

I began this process to gain better work / life balance but hadn’t realised the side effects of making this change. I had not realised the extent of the inefficiencies of my work. Ironically, I’m making more money and don’t have less work, however I’m much more efficient with my time and producing better quality work. By freeing myself up, my clients are asking for more work. I hadn’t realised that my clients were also affected. They would only ask for the important things, as it was hard to get my attention for anything else.

Now if you’ve been dedicated enough to make it this far, you’re probably wanting some advice and lessons. I’ll start off by saying that I don’t have it all figured out and I’m still on the journey, but it seems to be working thus far.

Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, I would recommend taking the time to regularly assess each of your clients.

The Process

Step 1. List your services

First make a list of services that you that fit your core skill set or looking to add. These might be some of the services that you currently offer or might be services that you would like to offer in the future. I made the mistake of clients dictating my list of services as they asked for them.

I have a primary and secondary list. My main list is HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Angular, ASP.NET, SQL Server, and of course, Umbraco. My secondary list is SEO, Accessibility and mobile apps (using angular / .Net API’s). I’ve cut my total list from 22 down to 10 which is still plenty for 1 person.

Step 2. Audit your clients

Make a list of each client with:

  1. Their percentage income.
  2. A list of services that they require.
  3. Do they fit within your services?
  4. A rating of 1-5 on your relationship.
  5. A percentage guesstimate of the total time/effort they require. This will help give you an overview of your clients.

Step 3. Decide on your clients

Next to each client, make the decision to keep them, grow them or fire them. I don’t think there is a hard calculation in to which clients you keep but trust your gut with this process. It’s good to go through this with someone you trust that is impartial to the decision to keep you honest with yourself. I’m great at making excuses, so it helps to be held accountable.

Don’t forget that you both need to benefit from the arrangement, and sometimes it’s just not a good fit.

Step 4. Cull

Now that you have your list, you need to plan. Each client and relationship are different, so they will need a personalised plan. This will take some time and you’ll need to wear the cost for any handovers. It’s not the client’s fault that they don’t make the cut (even if you feel like it is).

One important thing that I learnt was not to get too excited and cull them all at once. It causes a lot of extra work to transition a client on to someone else. Most of my clients had a list of work that they needed done before they moved on, others needed documentation and time-consuming hand overs to other agencies. So, do this one client at a time.

You can start the process with an email, but you should follow up with a phone call or arrange a meeting to talk the client through the process, make a plan and answer any questions.

Step 5. Grow

Disclaimer: I’m not at step 5 yet, so this is my plan rather than experience.

By now you’re months down the track, but hopefully you have now streamlined your work, are much more productive, and are giving your clients the attention they deserve. Now is the time to look at the clients that you’ve marked to grow. This may be done in many ways:

  • Directly offer them a service on your list. Maybe an SEO Audit, marketing etc.
  • Send out newsletters or write blog posts about services that you want to expand on. Show that you’re an expert.
  • Or simply, you may just have more time for them. They will feel like they can get you to onto the things that they’ve been holding off on giving you, because you're just too busy.

A few points to take away

  • Don’t leave a client hanging mid project. If you can’t finish the project, make sure that you can find someone who can, and give as much help in the process as possible in the process.
  • Make sure you abide by any contracts that you may have in place. Before breaking things off, you need to be aware of the possible consequences or come to an agreement with the client with a termination contract, detailing the termination.
  • Don’t feel the need to offer every service that your clients ask you for. Your allowed to say no, but make sure that you can help find them someone who can.
  • If your stress levels rise when getting a call or email from a client, then is probably a good indication to let them go. Likewise, with a new client, if it doesn’t feel like a good fit, you have just as much right not to take them on, as they do to you.
  • Don’t burn your bridges when letting go of a difficult client. You may want to tell them everything that you’ve been holding back, but it won’t help anyone. Make sure you stick to the facts and keep it professional.
  • If you find that your health is starting to be affected by your work, it’s a good time to act. Make sure that you share openly what you’re going through with the people around you as they can be a great support.

Wrapping up

I can only speak from my experience, but I can say that so far that the changes that I have made have lifted a great weight off my shoulders already. I’m looking forward to getting my work life balance back on track as well as have the time for new personal projects and opportunities like sharing this article with you all.

I would love to hear from others that might have had a similar experience or have additional insights. Please share them in the comments below or feel free to get in touch with me on twitter @digitalmomentum if you have any questions.

About the Author

After accidentally stumbling into the IT industry, David eventually found his way to his one true love, Umbraco. David is the owner of Digital Momentum, a small bespoke agency in Sydney’s north-west. David enjoys being part of the Umbraco community and can regularly be found at the Sydney Umbraco Meetup.

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