Handling toxic clients
Unfortunately, not all clients are easy to work with. Some may be overly demanding, always negative always blaming you - or even disrespectful or abusive.
Often times these are also the clients that are always asking for discounts or penny pinchers - and the ones you have to chase up their invoice payment 5 times before seeing any money.
Working with toxic clients can take a toll on your mental health and overall well-being. It’s important to remember that your time and energy are valuable, your work is valuable - and it’s not worth sacrificing your well-being for a client… especially one that doesn’t appreciate you.
The value of a positive work environment 💕
When I first started my agency, all I cared about was finding work and making enough money for my business to survive. But after we’d built up a regular client base, that fear of “not enough work” started to dissipate - and I could take a breath, and reassess. Had I actually built a company I loved working in?
I mean, I loved most of it. I loved coding, working on cool projects, and hanging out with my team. But, there were a couple of clients who were always negative, they always demanded more, and even though they didn’t spend much money with us, took up a huge amount of time, and expected to get priority treatment over everyone else.
Relationships like these can bring the energy down, and as a small tight-knit team - our energy and culture were integral.
As a software development agency, it’s important to create a positive work environment for your team. This includes not only the physical space in which you work, but also the energy and culture of the team. Working with difficult clients can create a negative atmosphere, which can affect the productivity and morale of your team.
What’s their problem? 🤔
Just because a client is showing toxic traits this doesn’t mean they are a toxic client, it could mean that your relationship is damaged, but that can be fixed.
This could be due to many reasons, the way the relationship started, or they may have a problem that they have not communicated, or they may think that's how they have to deal with businesses to get what they want.
Whatever it is, there's really only one way to find out: Communication.
Arg... hard conversations suck, but they are hard because they are important. They’re hard because they are often things that should have been discussed a lot earlier.
Have a respectful chat with your client, not via email, but in a meeting (virtual or in person). Certainly don’t call this a “TOXIC CLIENT CHECKUP MEETING” - just a catchup meeting.
Assuming there is no specific issue, start it off as a general check-in, with questions such as.
- How do they feel things have been going?
- Do they feel you are meeting their expectations?
- Have they been happy with the work you are doing?
- Have they had any specific problems?
- What do they think you could improve upon?
These will help tease out some information you may not currently know.
If you know there’s a specific issue you haven’t talked about, or an issue that comes up in the general discussion, confront it head-on. You need to have this issue resolved, and removed.
Maintain composure, be polite, be emphatic - but be clear.
If it’s a problem with the quality of your work, clearly explain the issues. But also mention that software development isn’t like lego - it is significantly more complex. If you feel there were some quality issues that were below standard, own it, and discuss how you will endeavour to stop these issues from taking place in the future.
If it’s an issue with money - although no one likes talking about money - it has to be done. If they always have a super tight budget, explain to them that they need to allow more padding, because issues will always arise. For example, if they have $10,000 and cannot spend a cent more, then I would recommend we only scope $8000 worth of work, and have a $2k buffer up our sleeve.
Whatever the problem is, try to calmly, and collaboratively solve it right there on the spot. This cannot happen all the time, but most clients when confronted with a direct conversation will be open to a solution (or at least agree to try a solution).
Don’t get me wrong, the toxic relationship isn’t all your fault, it might not be your fault at all. However you are in the client services business, and it’s your job to try and build and repair relationships. At least try.
What’s your problem? 🧐
Hearing them out is great, but you also need to clearly set or reset your boundaries.
Be clear about what’s not working for you, and how you will need it to work in the future. This may be.
- User acceptance testing is completed within 2 weeks of handing it over
- That all communication is done in a respectful manner
- Invoiced are paid within the agreed timeframe
- Uncontrollable scope creep is having a negative impact on the projects
Whatever it is. Everyone has different problems - but you need to communicate these unambiguously, and make sure your client understands.
This may sound like an intense conversation, but it doesn’t need to be as intense as it sounds. Remember, show empathy, be future-focused (don’t bring up past issues, focus on future solutions), and always be respectful.
When it’s time to say goodbye (detox time) 👋
But after all that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may find that a client is simply not a good fit for your business. This happens.
When possible, let them go with grace and poise, and ensure your firing is at the same high standard as your onboarding.
- Finish all work to completion (if possible), to the same high quality you always have.
- Give them advanced notice. You don’t need to be harsh and list the reasons, just tell them you don’t feel this will work out long-term, or your agency is going in a different direction.
- Provide them with a list of alternative agencies or freelancers that could help. Depending on the reasons, you may not want to recommend your friends - however, a quick google search will help you hear. You are in a better position to judge tech companies than they are, so help them out.
- Provide a handover of all source code, documentation, passwords (securely transferred) etc, plus any other information the next agency or freelancer may need - it’s much easier to do this now than in 6 months when a random agency contacts you asking about an API key or something.
- Be sure to officially sign over any code and intellectual property to them, again, this isn’t something you want to have to deal with in the future.
- Try and end on a high note. Don’t burn bridges unless the bridge is already completely on fire, as you never know what will happen in the future.
It’s ok to let go of clients that are bringing you down. And while it’s important to always be professional and respectful, it’s also important to protect your own well-being and the well-being of your team.
Setting boundaries, being honest, and prioritising your values are key to maintaining a healthy and successful business.
Remember, not all clients are for life, and it’s ok to let go of toxic clients (or outgrow clients) just the same as it’s ok for clients to let you go.