When you don’t fire toxic clients, you tell employees: “This revenue is more important than your happiness”

Written by: Karl Sakas

When you don’t fire your terrible-but-lucrative clients, you’re telling your employees, “This revenue is more important than your happiness.”

In my experience, most terrible clients aren’t terrible people—they’re normal people in terrible circumstances.

  • Maybe their boss is a control freak, which means you get tons of status requests.
  • Maybe their company lost their biggest client, and their board is putting on the pressure to get new clients ASAP.
  • Maybe they’re in over their head managing a marketing program they don’t entirely understand, and they constantly ask you to redo work because they didn’t think it through the first time.

Sometimes they are terrible—like clients who say offensive things to your team, whose business goals are 100% contrary to your personal values, or who insist on unethical practices.

But regardless of the reason, you need to take action to avoid losing your best employees.

Terrible Clients = Toxic Revenue

Not all revenue is the same. Some dollars are very expensive—or even toxic.

I’m not talking about clients where the work is boring or otherwise routine—until you have a consistently strong sales pipeline, those bread-and-butter clients are subsidizing your other activities.

Instead, I’m talking about clients that come up in every management meeting, the clients that employees won’t stop complaining about, the clients that you dread speaking with.

We’ve all had those clients. One of my “favorites” included a client who insisted everything he requested should take us “just an hour” to complete. He was also the one who refused to upgrade his web hosting account, but then who’d call us every time a traffic surge took out his ecommerce site.

Toxic Revenue = Employee Turnover

Clients come and go—but great employees are hard to replace. Great employees have options. When working for you stops being fun, they’re going to jump to where they’re valued, appreciated, and listened-to.

Are you listening when your top employees keep telling you how much they hate dealing with a particular client? Remember, it’s not just listening—it’s about taking action, too.

If you’re losing more than 20% of employees a year, you have a high employee turnover problem; it may be client-related.

What to Do Next

Use my free Client Ranking Matrix tool—see whether difficult clients are a strategic part of your agency’s future.

And pay attention when your top performers keep complaining about a difficult client—they’re keeping a mental tally about whether days are mostly good or mostly bad. When it flips to “mostly bad,” you might be just a month or two from getting their two-weeks’ notice.

Ready to take action? See my advice on how to fire terrible clients.

Question: What surprised you about doing the Client Ranking Matrix exercise? 

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

Do you dread hearing from certain clients?

Know you need to end some of your client relationships, but you’re worried about revenue? Not sure where to start?

Use our free Client Inventory (aka Client Ranking Matrix) to help you get unstuck—so you can stop working with toxic clients, and focus on the ones you love.