How to Change a Bad Client Relationship


In the final article of her series on clients who make a poor fit, bookkeeper Billie Anne Grigg explains how to communicate with clients who remain difficult despite your best efforts. She also delves into what you can do if it doesn't seem like you can fix a relationship at all.

Jun 16th 2021
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If you’ve been following this series, this is probably the article you’ve been waiting for. You know, the one where I finally admit it:

Even if you do everything “right” in terms of onboarding, transitions, and ongoing communication...sometimes a client is still an unreasonable and demanding nightmare.

You used to call these “bad clients.” Hopefully, by now, you can see that the client isn’t inherently bad...but it’s possible there’s a fundamental personality mismatch that is going to make an ongoing relationship with the client impossible.

Or, maybe not. Before giving up on a client relationship, I like to try to alter the bad fit.

Altering a “Bad Fit”

Before you give up on a client you’ve deemed a “bad fit,” it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with them. Even if you ultimately disengage the client, this conversation can be the difference between a burnt bridge and the possibility of the client becoming a cheerleader for your firm. More on that in a bit.

This conversation shouldn’t be a variation of “it’s not you, it’s me.” Instead, you’ll want to have what’s known as a “crucial conversation.” You can learn more about how to have a crucial conversation from the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, but the crux of it is that you acknowledge to the client things aren’t going well, and then you work toward a solution.

One of two things can happen as a result of this conversation:

  1. The client could want to continue the relationship. This has happened to me more than once. I’ve gone into a conversation with a client thinking it would end in disengagement, only to have the client open up about some key issues that were causing their unreasonable and demanding behavior. And, more than once, I’ve had to own up that I was part of the problem, too. When you go into a conversation with an open mind and committed to dialogue, the results can surprise you.
  2. You and the client could mutually decide to end the relationship. When this happens, it’s critical for you to immediately outline the next steps and the parameters for disengagement. And it’s even more important that you follow through with those parameters. Think of it as onboarding in reverse: You’ll want to provide the client with regular updates about your progress as you wrap up the engagement, and you’ll want to transition them out of your firm with grace.

Turning a Bad Fit into a Fan

Not every client relationship can be saved. However, if you handle this phase with care - as opposed to abruptly dropping the client or raising your prices and hoping they will go away - you can actually turn your “bad fit” clients into fans of your firm and valuable referral sources.

The first time I had a former client refer someone to me, I thought it was a joke. We had ended our engagement on friendly-enough terms, but the entire relationship had been a struggle for both of us. Not only did we have an extreme personality mismatch, but there were some unmet expectations (caused by my lack of clarity in the engagement and onboarding process) that I was sure was going to result in a negative review. So you can imagine my surprise when this prospect told me who had referred them to my practice.

My curiosity got the better of me, and I asked the prospect about the referral. As it turns out, my willingness to have that hard conversation, own my mistakes, and then gracefully transition the client out of my firm were the exact reasons why the former client referred his business owner friend to me. As the prospect (who later became one of my best and favorite clients) said, “Integrity goes a long way. I want to work with someone who has integrity.”

Now, not every bad-fit client will become a cheerleader for your firm, but having a good process for disengaging a bad fit can be the difference between hard feelings and bad reviews online and a simple shrug and acknowledgement that “it just didn’t work out.”

For Further Reading

I hope you’ve found this series of articles thought-provoking and helpful. There are always two sides to every client horror story, and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. My intention was to highlight a different way of viewing our challenging clients. It’s so easy for us to vilify them, but at the end of the day they are business owners with their own hangups and insecurities, trying to provide for their families...just like us.

I’m fascinated by human behavior and ways to help everyone win. Two books that have been extremely helpful in building client relationships and fixing those that don’t get off to a good start are Never Lose a Customer Again, by Joey Coleman, and Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, and Ron McMillan.

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