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Don't be Afraid to Fire a Client

It's not us, it's them.

It's a new financial year and it's raining humble-brag "Year in Review" posts full of everyone's impressive wins. So what's our big flex for the year? Learning when it's right to fire that client. We did it not once but twice this year, for the mental health of our team and the integrity of our business. We made space for the type of clients we actually want to work with, the kind that gave us the opportunity to do the good work we set out to achieve, and we're still standing.

We founded Elysian2 during the great toilet paper shortage of 2020, possibly the worst time imaginable to start a new business, but the lockdowns gave us the time we needed to clearly define our core values and we set our standards high. Aspiring to be the consultants and employers of our dreams we agreed to work with honesty and integrity, delivering the exactly the results we promised, and made the commitment to always put people over profit. Sounds simple enough, right?

The customer isn't always the right fit.

We didn't think we'd have to put those values to the test so early on in our journey. Pandemic and lockdowns in full swing we landed some big jobs with big names - that shall never pass our lips again! We let our guard down at just the wrong moment, we forgot other companies don't share our core values, and quickly found ourselves working in the fiery depths of consulting hell - and after many sleepless nights and hard conversations, we planned our exit strategies.

Walking away from a commitment doesn't come easily to people that are natural problem solvers - especially when we already know the solution -  but sometimes our clients aren't ready for the change they thought they wanted and proceed to find every way possible to trip themselves over along the way. They will seemingly on purpose turn a straightforward problem into a complicated hard fought war and drag you and your team into the dirty, bloodied trenches with them because they need someone else to blame. Don't let it be you.

Reading the room through a screen.

A team member struggling to navigate the politics of a project spiralling out of control can create a toxic culture more contagious than a new variant of COVID-19. If not caught fast enough the frustration, fatigue and resulting burnout may leave even the best employees, and sometimes leaders,  feeling like the only way to end the frustration is to walk out the door. 

Remote working has countless benefits, but it's also harder to see when someone is having a bad day, a bad week, a bad project. It's harder to read the room through a screen. Seemingly harmless Teams chats and casual venting to colleagues that feel like friends can be the most dangerous kind of cultural virus there is. As leaders how do we truly to connect and check-in on one another in this new virtual workplace so we are don't find ourselves blind-sided by an unexpected resignation?

What I do know is the shift of energy and drop in morale that follows the exit of a well liked member of your team can quickly snowball and next minute you can find half your team gone. The skills shortage in our area of expertise means temptation is only one click away, only experience can teach those burned before that the grass isn't always greener, it's only green where you water it (cliché I know) so all we can do is stand by our values, looking after the people that stick by us and make room for people that share our dream.

You don't have to be the hero.

When you find morale low and staffing gaps increasingly hard to fill, the extra work can often fall on the shoulders of Leadership in small businesses. We have managed to look after each other, taking turns bearing the burdens of projects gone wrong, but both times we tried way too hard for way too long to save a project that was dead in the water and suffered for it. We feel like experts in this arena now, so we thought we'd share some warning signs, so when you start to see the red flags you can walk the other way and save yourselves the pain.

Red Flags  

Negotiating down a fixed rate quote in exchange for exposure because we're "important"

What are Professional Boundaries? Expecting all-access passes to consultants 24/7. 

Meetings with empty invitations, no agenda, with the clueless sacrificial junior sent in to present a surprise change of scope and terms of agenda. No, they don't know why.

The never-ending story of not meeting their own deadlines and stretched out timelines because they can't deliver their side of the project.

Stalling on payments because they are waiting on approvals for projects that were already approved on commencement.

Key stakeholders simultaneously running in different directions, all unable to make any decisions because they haven't consulted with the business.

"But we've always done it this way" after hiring you because the way they do it doesn't work.

Ghosting on the project for weeks, then wondering why you have taken on new projects and they still need to pay their invoice.  

The Project Manager mysteriously changes weekly and subject matter experts evaporate into thin air.

There are more, but I won't go on, and maybe this post should have come with a trigger warning!

The Fine Print

Don't Burn the Bridges no matter how badly you want to set them on fire. It's a small industry, people talk and reputation is everything.

person writing on brown wooden table near white ceramic mug

Do your best to reset boundaries and fulfil your contract or renegotiate. It's probably not working for them either it might be easier than you think.

red wine digital wallpaper

Don't make it personal and keep it professional even if your client isn't. Save your emotions for the wine or the whiskey after the meeting.


Give them a plan and a professional handover -  make it easy for their next victim that just might be a better fit for their company.

When did you know the time was up on a project - share your red flags with us!


Don't be Afraid to Fire a Client
Alison Pearson July 18, 2022
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