Have you ever been verbally abused by a customer?
Ana* has. As the owner of a cleaning business in the suburbs of Boston, she’s done her fair share of work in some very nice homes. Naturally, these customers are usually pretty particular about how they want their homes cleaned, but no one could compare to Sarah*.
Sarah would text at all hours of the day and night, believing it was 100% appropriate to call Ana at 3 a.m. to talk about the work she had done the previous day.
While Ana was cleaning at Sarah’s house, Sarah followed Ana around and watched her carefully, commenting on “her poor work quality.”
Finally, Sarah decided that she wouldn’t pay Ana her usual $150 fee for the day’s cleaning. Wracked with uncertainty, it took Ana a few weeks to finally decide that the stress of dealing with Sarah’s harassment just wasn’t worth the money. She informed Sarah that she wouldn’t be returning to clean again, at which point Sarah seemed genuinely confused as to why Ana didn’t want to work for her anymore.
Situations like this happen frequently to small business owners; it’s just the nature of working with the public. But that doesn’t mean small business owners need to put up with customers or projects that are more trouble than they’re worth.
There comes a time when it’s better to walk away from it altogether, rather than waste any more time, mental energy, or stress over an unsalvageable situation.
I call this situation “taking a bath,” as it usually means you, the small business owner, may lose time you’ve already invested in the project or lose money and business from the customer. But sometimes it’s better to take a bath and learn a valuable lesson, rather than deal with the misery and aggravation that comes from working with a nightmare client.
So how do you know when it’s time to take a bath and walk away?
*Not her real name.
The project has morphed into something completely different.
If the job you got hired to do looks a LOT different from what you’re actually doing — and the customer won’t pay up or acknowledge those differences — this is your first clue that it’s time to walk away. It’s a sign that your customer may be taking advantage of you and your hard work, which means your paycheck probably won’t accurately reflect all of the time you’ve put in.
You have a gut feeling the customer won’t pay up.
I’ve mentioned this before in previous articles, but your gut is going to be the single most useful tool in deciding whether or not a customer is worth doing business with. If your gut is screaming at you that a client is going to be a lot of trouble, think twice before taking the project, or politely decline the offer to work with them. I wrote about this topic in another article, but I usually pay careful attention to how a customer talks to me before deciding to work with them. If a client is excessively disrespectful of me or my time when we’re negotiating the work, I politely inform them that I am unable to take on the work. It saves me a lot of time and headaches, plus it frees me up to pursue work with customers who actually understand how to speak to another human being.
The project is beyond your skill level.
Every project or job represents an opportunity to learn, but there comes a time when the learning curve is so big that you’d be doing the customer a huge disservice by continuing to work on their job.
This one is a little harder to admit to oneself, as it’s a bit of a blow to the pride. However, if you’re working on a job and it’s way, WAY beyond what you’re capable of doing, the best thing you can do is pass the project on to another professional who can deliver what the customer is looking for.
In the future, if you continue to keep getting jobs that are outside your skill level, it’s worth hiring a few employees who can supply those skills while complementing your own.
It’s distracting from your other customers or projects.
Naturally, if you’re juggling a portfolio of projects or multiple customers, you can’t spend all of your time on a single client. But if you’re finding that one client is so needy that you can’t properly focus on your other customers, it might be time to cut that client loose.
I’m talking about constant texting, multiple emails, phone calls in the middle of the night — the list could go on! The point here is that if a client is crossing a personal boundary for you and taking up so much time that you’re doing subpar work with other customers, your best move might be to send them on their way.
The customer has become abusive.
No business owner should ever, ever have to put up with a verbally or physically abusive customer. Whether someone chews you out over the phone or actually gets in your face and calls you unacceptable names, an abusive customer needs to be let go of ASAP. In my opinion, there’s no salvaging this kind of relationship, as this is someone who doesn’t respect you or your business enough to see reason.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me longer than it should have to realize this lesson. At the beginning of my freelancing career, I had a customer who kept emailing me at all hours of the day, calling me a b**** when I didn’t respond right away. I kept apologizing to him because, quite frankly, I was “green” and just assumed this was the cost of doing business.
But eventually, I got so anxious and physically sick about seeing his emails in my inbox that I decided to cut ties altogether. I gave him his money back, blocked him on email, and saved all of his emails in case I needed to show it to a court if he continued to harass me.
By the way, if a customer ever lays a hand on you or your property, or threatens violence in your place of business, call the police right away.
It’s genuinely destroying your quality of life.
If you find yourself getting mentally or physically ill at the thought of working with a customer, or your thoughts are consumed by a project (and not in a good way), it might be worth walking away. Your quality of life shouldn’t be sacrificed in any way because someone decided to make you miserable.
And don’t let the thought of lost profit stop you from walking away. Nine times out of 10, another customer will come along and make up for any money you’ve lost temporarily.
Hopefully, the above section helped you gain more clarity about when it’s time to call it a day with an unruly client or an awful project. So what should you do once it’s time to walk away?
Give advance notice.
Don’t sit with the decision for longer than you need to. No matter how awful a client has been to you, walking away from a project will probably be a huge inconvenience for them. Give them as much advance notice as possible so they can make other arrangements. The only exception to this rule is if the customer has been verbally or physically abusive, in which case you should get yourself out of the situation ASAP.
Return money and/or project materials.
After letting the customer know you’re no longer working on their project, return any deposit monies, materials, and intellectual property you’ve created for them. This is where the “take a bath” mentality kicks in because you’re probably going to wind up losing money or time or both.
Suggest another vendor.
If you know someone in your line of work who can deliver what the customer is looking for OR is better at handling unruly clients, you may want to recommend their services. Make sure you give the other business owner a heads-up, as you don’t want to pass along an unpleasant experience. Again, don’t bother with this step if the client has been verbally or physically abusive.
Save all communications.
Don’t delete those emails or text messages you’ve received; you never know when they might come in handy. For example, if a customer threatens to sue you for backing out, you can use those communications as part of your legal defense. I recommend saving them to a separate folder in your phone or email so you don’t have to look at them unless you absolutely need to.
Don’t do this all the time.
Think of choosing to “take a bath” as your “going nuclear” option. Sure, it’s an option that’s available to you, but it’s not one you should pick unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you do it too often, you’ll end up getting a reputation for being flaky or untrustworthy — and that’s certainly something you want to avoid!
Did you ever have to walk away from a project or client? What happened, and how did you do it? Share your story!
I love writing about the small business experience because I happen to be a small business owner - I've had a freelance copywriting business for over 10 years. In addition to that, I also head up the content strategy here at Simply Business. Reach out if you have a great idea for an article or just want to say hi!
Mariah writes on a number of topics such as small business planning, contractor insurance, and business licenses.
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