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We can all relate when someone mentions having a client who is a “nightmare.” Unfortunately, this archetype has become more and more common whether you are in the digital marketing industry or not. To incorporate my love of reading, the feelings attached with these type of clients are definitely not those of revering (as with the wise, old sage) or respect (as with the noble king), but are more commonly associated with hatred and resentment (as with the evil stepmother).

Although the tagline “the customer is always right” is effectively acted upon in many business spaces, I believe everything has a limit. No working professional has infinite time or resources to attribute to never-ending client demands. Because of some less-than-ideal experiences I’ve had with clients over the years, I have become somewhat notorious in the office for politely encouraging co-workers to simply stop putting up with these problems. In my mind, very few (if any) clients are worth spending your entire 40-hour work week on, let alone the headaches, frustration, and overall lack of sanity they tend to cause. Because I enjoy my job, I believe companies should have control over the clientele with whom they choose to engage. In other words, I believe there is a point at which you need to let clients go.

Though in no order of importance, the following reasons should help you to know when is a good time to “bow out” of a negative client relationship.

Reason 1: Client Frequently Requests Out-of-Scope Projects and Side Favors

While there are few people who complain about a client bringing them more work, the difference here is that these clients aren’t willing to pay for the extra work they’re getting. They see these Side Favors for Clientsside projects as favors because, “I’m paying you enough already as it is,” or “It probably won’t take you that long anyway.” And maybe both of those statements are true! But, just as I don’t walk into the grocery store and walk out without paying for my milk and bananas, free work is something SMB’s do too much of as it is. In addition, it doesn’t matter if my designer can create an email template for you in 10 minutes–the point is that we are offering a service that the client can’t provide for themselves, so we will charge for our time. Any business knows that improving their efficiencies will improve their margins, given the fact that they don’t do work for free.

If you are constantly hounded for random out-of-the-box projects, set the precedent now that a price will be appended to any work you do that is outside the scope of the contract. Oftentimes, clients believe that they are the exception to the rule, but with every statement like “I know the owner, I’ll just go talk to him,” or “But I did work with you guys a few years ago,” comes a drop in your profitability if you continue to give in to these requests.

Reason 2: Client Takes Up Too Much Time

Again, I am happy to do work for a client as long as my time is accounted for in their budget. Quite frankly (though I hate to admit it), I am not superwoman, and I cannot make my time multiply to fulfill all the extra tasks for each client who thinks they are the center of my universe. This reason is meant to include those clients who, quite disproportional to their spend, call or email every day with menial tasks for you, or just to check in, or just to waste more of your time. While it might be common in many industries to work around the clock, we have had problems with clients trying to communicate at strange times of day, or non-workday times altogether. We’ve had plenty of emails sent at 11:30 p.m. the night before, requesting a call at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. Really? Even better, you might not recognize the number that just rang to your personal cell, so you don’t answer it. Result? A message from your client, who stealthily tracked the number down (enter Twilight Zone music).

All these silly examples aside, the point is that they translate into a blatant disrespect for personal space, as well as normal, working business hours. In addition, these are usually the piddly little clients who are spending too little and expecting too much. And while I understand that the check for their several hundred dollar per month spend might be painful for them to cut every month, it can’t mean that I give them as much attention as I give my clients who spend $10k+ per month. It just can’t.

Reason 3: Client Shows Disrespect for Your Staff, Processes, and Company

This reason gets me particularly frustrated because this is where the relationship becomes less professional and more personal. No longer are emails and calls geared toward goal setting that will lead to success, but rather they become extremely unprofessional hurlings of accusations and personal attacks Disrespectful clientsif something seems to be going wrong. These attacks can be geared toward you as the contact, the team working on the project, or the company as a whole. Regardless of who they’re directed toward, does anyone deserve to put up with this kind of abuse?

Now for an excerpt from a real client email: “This does not take a rocket scientist to do properly… In my opinion,

[they] should go back to junior high school… I’m pretty sure someone with down syndrome could adequately…” And I’ll leave it at that, but you can imagine how the rest of it went. These comments were extremely unprofessional, and it reflected on the clients’ character and ability to treat people with respect (as well as their intelligence level). I wanted to include an actual example because I’m obviously passionate about this topic, having had several less-than-notable experiences myself. Never before have I been more grateful to have an “at-will” clause in our client contracts.

Take a step out of this blog post for a second, and think about this treatment not as a working professional, but as a person. This type of interaction, whether it be from a colleague, family member, coach, or even a client, is absolutely unacceptable.  Especially in the business environment, there is no room (or desire) for any company to tolerate this kind of behavior from their clients. For SMB’s specifically, there must be constraint in desperation. Being in the “start-up phase” doesn’t mean you can’t still have respect for yourself and your company.

Reason 4: Client Refuses to Adjust Expectations, Even After Extensive Education and Explanation

Nobody’s perfect, not even the people who might have sold you their services. In our industry in particular, there are changes every week. We are constantly trying to stay on top of the latest techniques and best practices to make sure our clients’ campaigns are as optimized as possible. Along with the constantly shifting industry norms, you can imagine that our clients might not understand why we change the things that we do. “Why are you suggesting that we alter my campaign? Things are going just fine the way they are.” Sure, things may be going well, but they might not be going as well as they could be.

On the other hand, another common problem with client expectations is that they had a previous negative experience with another company. Despite our efforts to establish a relationship built on trust and clear communication, we don’t always come out on top. Just like the breakup of a relationship, clients have to be willing to learn from their exes and move forward without the emotional baggage–our job is to establish that trust that we are one of the better fish in the sea. If they are even more paralyzed from a bad experience, they might tend to give 95% of their focus to the 5% of work that is least important, while they put 5% emphasis on the 95% of work that is actually important. If you cannot come to an agreement via a candid conversation to define the ultimate goal, as well as the steps to get there, rarely will you meet their expectations. No matter how hard you try.

Reason 5: Client Is Standing in the Way of Their Own Success

Client refusing to adjust expectationsOverall, I think all of these reasons can be summed up in this final point. If the client themselves is barricading every possible on-ramp to the road to success, you do not want to be working with them. They might hire you as a strategist and consultant, and then proceed to advise you as to how to best do your job. They might think that because they know their business, anything to do with it becomes their area of expertise–so why did they hire you in the first place? They might be unwilling to change their strategy, no matter how much evidence you can offer that it will actually work better in the long run.

Or, aside from the advising side, they might have a flawed business model to begin with. And remember, not even the perfect marketing mix can fix a flawed business model. Have the client fine-tune their strategy and goals before you step in to save the day. Finally, the client might be an extremely poor communicator. Misunderstandings, lack of direction, or simply not responding to calls and emails makes fulfillment work go all the more slowly. Chances are that the relationship will not progress without proper communication, period. Oftentimes in the client’s misguided mind, it turns out to be your fault, even if the client is the barrier to progression.


Although we’ve only listed five reasons here, there are many reasons that client relationships fail. The path to success isn’t difficult with and end goal in mind, but the hurdles along the way might seem daunting. And let’s be honest: despite my experience with the worst of clients, I have had some of the best as well. Interestingly enough, some of my best client relationships have come about because of issues that we have worked through together to become more successful. Just think of it as coming out stronger after you’ve been through the fire.

So to all those who are dreading that email, or who shrink in their chair when the phone rings, I challenge you to take an analysis. Is it worth the stress, your time, or your sanity? Does the prospect of parting ways with this client make your heart leap for joy? If so, just do it. Be done, and go back to working with your normal, happy clients who respect you and trust you to help them become successful.

Jamie Bates
Online Marketing Director