Dealing with Difficult Clients: Time to Say Goodbye


Difficult Customers

Everyone has to deal with a difficult client now and then. But sometimes it seems as though you’re spending all your time fixing issues for the same few people. And you might be. Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, came up with a theory that, “a small number of causes is responsible for a large percentage of the effect.” This is called Pareto’s rule and it might be significantly affecting your business.

Arthur W. Hafner, Dean of University Libraries at Ball State University, cites Pareto’s rule can be very helpful when looking at business costs, “To reduce costs, identify which 20% are using 80% of the resources. If members of this segment are not top profit generators, consider charging them for the resources they consume or shift services away from this sector.”

In other words, if a few clients are taking up most of your time and energy, either charge them more money or dump them. Here are a few types of difficult clients that you might consider dropping.

They Don’t Pay

If you’re invoicing clients, then it’s obvious that you’re not doing charity work. But some clients will go to great lengths to avoid paying up. Bryce, an HVAC contractor, performs work for Realtors who need work done on the properties they’ve listed. He typically goes out, fixes the issue, then bills the Realtor. Most of his clients pay promptly – they appreciate Bryce’s dependability and level of service and know that his work can be the difference between their deal closing or not.

But Bryce has a few Realtors who consistently let invoices go 90 days without payment. Sometimes the client’s deal doesn’t close, so it might feel painful for them to pay for a repair on a property that didn’t sell. Sometimes they’re too busy to deal with their finances. Sometimes they just don’t place enough value on Bryce’s work to worry about it.

After finding that the majority of his bill collector’s time was going to just a few Realtors, Bryce stopped working for them. Now he has time to take work from other, prompt-paying clients, and he’s not paying his collector as much in fees.

They’re High-Maintenance

You know these clients – they email and expect a response within 10 minutes. They show up without appointments and expect to be seen right away – even if you’re with another client. They seem to take up most of your day. These difficult clients can suck away your time and drain your energy, leaving you unable to care for the rest of your business.

Joyce runs a small restaurant that does a lot of lunch business. One regular, a nearby business owner, likes to bring his clients to her restaurant to impress them. While he’s very pleasant, he’s also very demanding. He insists on creating his own appetizers and ordering other dishes not on the menu. He wants a special wine that Joyce doesn’t normally carry. He runs the waitress ragged with his constant demands and drives the chef crazy with his substitutions.

Joyce finally had a talk with the customer and found that he was happy to pay extra for his food and service if she would be willing to customize things for him. He tips the waitress extra and pays a large service fee on top of his meal. He still gets to impress his clients with his special treatment, and Joyce (and her employees) feel like the extra money makes his difficult requests worthwhile.

In this case, things worked out. But if it’s not possible to charge the client more, or they’re just too much of a headache to keep, let them go.

They’re Mean

Sometimes clients don’t think they have to behave in a civilized manner, since they’re giving you money. Is it worth dealing with mean clients? Mandy, a small business owner who created unique, highly-detailed custom clothing was in a tough situation with a very difficult client. The client would order something, then insist she’d ordered a different item. She would call late at night and when no one answered the phone, would get very upset. She would try to make changes on custom orders days before they were due. During at least half of their interactions, the client would scream into the phone, curse like a sailor and demean Mandy, telling her that she was the stupidest person on the planet, etc. This would go on for weeks.

After the order was delivered, the client always called back to apologize. She would beg Mandy to keep letting her order (she’d already been thrown out of two other shops). She’d rave about how beautiful the clothing was and send flowers to “congratulate” Mandy for such great work.

The problem was that this client made up about 30 percent of Mandy’s orders. She hated being treated that way, but was worried that her business wouldn’t stay afloat. But dealing with the client was making her a nervous wreck.

Finally, Mandy had had enough. She sent out feelers to other potential clients and picked up two who were able to deal with her in a professional manner. As soon as the second client signed a contract, Mandy called the difficult client and informed her that her business was no longer wanted.

Some Pointers on Saying Goodbye

Don’t drop a client without fulfilling your obligation first. If they’re counting on you filling their order or you are under contract with them to supply a service or product, make sure you keep your end of the bargain. Don’t risk ruining your reputation – finish the contract, then say goodbye.

Say goodbye in person, if possible. Breaking up with a client via email or text message is as slimy as sending a break-up text to a lover.

Have the conversation. Whether it’s over the phone or in person, it’s important to say goodbye. It’s tempting to just ignore calls and emails from difficult clients in the hope that they’ll get the message, but that behavior is unprofessional.

Make the goodbye as pleasant as possible. Avoid placing blame or escalating the conversation into an argument. Keep it short and sweet and try to part ways on friendly terms.

Nelson James

Nelson James is the chief operating officer of and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company. Prior to joining the team, Nelson was the president and co-founder of For over 6 years he helped to grow the company from 2 to over 85 employees. Nelson managed many large accounts during his tenure at, including In early 2011, Nelson was recruited to Lendio Inc., where he was VP of marketing and was responsible for the creation and management of a marketing team as well as the strategy, tactics and programs to create interest and demand for Lendio’s products and services. Prior to his work experience, Nelson graduated Cum Laude from Brigham Young University in marketing and advertising from the communications department. Nelson lives in Lehi, Utah with his wife and three children. He currently holds leadership positions in scouting and volunteers in his church and community.