Breaking Up With Sh*tty Clients

*updated February 22nd, 2018

It seems like it’s part of this new business owner’s curse that we all inherit; thinking that we have to comply with every client request, no matter how ridiculous.

When you first start out, you think, “There’s no way I’m going to turn down someone who wants to give me their money!”


However, there comes a point in your business when you realize that you can and should say no!


But when and how do you do it? You don’t want to go too far and turn down so many people that you find yourself with zero work. But you also don’t want to let in those “toxic” clients that suck the profitability right out of your business.


Here are a few helpful tips to navigate the relationship waters and get a solid DTR (colloquialism for defining your relationship status with someone).

small business owner advice

WHY You Should Say No

Let’s start with explaining why it’s so important as a business owner to say no to people every now and then.


To protect yourself and your business’s future.

Setting standards is important from the start of your business! Clients will respect you more, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your own values and you’ll begin to setup a work culture that makes you feel fulfilled and complete. And when you begin to add to your team, your employees will appreciate that.


To save yourself from burnout.

Business hours are essential when you own a small business. Clients need to understand that there are appropriate times and ways to reach out to you. If you are constantly “on call” for your clients, you’ll soon feel burnout and become less productive.


Because taking on clients that just don’t fit the bill can take away from clients that do!

Some are actually wonderful to work with, have a lot of potential, compliment what your business does and stands for, and appreciate the hell out of your work! When you agree to take on a sh*tty client, you are unwittingly taking away time and attention from those all-star clients.


WHEN To Say No

Now, let’s talk about some tell-tale signs that you need to say no to a client (or potential client).


Your first interaction with a potential client is usually where your gut will be your key indicator that this is a no-go. Trust your judgement and always proceed with caution.


  1. When a client repeatedly asks for a discount or special rate. These types of clients tend to devalue your work so as to justify a lower price. Instead of quality, they focus on budget. This can cause problems because you’ll find yourself spending more time justifying your prices and less time working. And as you already know, lowering your prices can cut into your margin and swiftly turn a project into an unprofitable time suck.
  2. If a potential client asks you to do something that is outside the scope of what you offer, this is a clear time to say no! This may be a huge opportunity but if you aren’t equipped or capable to deliver, you’ll ultimately ruin this relationship. Know what your strengths are and your core offering is and don’t deviate from that just to make a sale.
  3. If a client takes days (or maybe weeks) to respond to a general inquiry, we’ve painstakingly learned that this is a huge indication of a toxic working relationship. You have a lot to do as a business owner, and even more if you’re a one-man shop, so chasing down clients who never answer emails isn’t really something you should try to manage. One thing that we have instituted that we believe has had a positive affect on this situation is institute “pause fees”. Pause fees are small fees that a client is charged if their project gets held up because they failed to communicate with us. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean send an email and if they don’t respond by the end of the day, charge them $500. However, stagnation is not profitable and you need to do everything you can to keep a project moving along to completion.
  4. When someone is rude, treating you poorly, or being inappropriate, it’s clearly “Bye-Felicia” time. Sure, sometimes someone had a bad day and mistakenly projected that onto you. But if it’s a constant thing, there’s no time in your busy entrepreneurial life to deal with rude people.


HOW To Say No

When in doubt, you’re simply too busy to take on another project/client. I know it isn’t the most truthful reason, but some of us need a scapegoat because we are just not good at saying no. And besides, there are those rare occurrences when the stars align and a “no” turns into a “yes”. It’s the way to go for keeping someone on the back burner.


Simply tell your potential client this, “Based upon your request/needs I think it would be better suited for you to work with someone else that can better assist you. Here are a few recommendations….” Always have a handful of people that you can refer business out to if you turn someone down. Don’t think of this as “passing the buck”, though. Instead, let these other businesses know (in a professional way) why you turned down this potential client. Having a great referral network can have a very positive impact on your business if you manage each of those relationships with care and respect.


When you’ve already started to work with someone is the hardest situation to say no in. First, be sure that you aren’t in a legally binding contract with them. If you are cleared for departure, schedule a meeting with your client to talk in person. In this situation it’s best to tell the client the truth, in the most graceful way possible! Here are a few examples:


“You’re too needy!” TRANSLATION: “You require more time and effort than I’m able to give.”


“You think you know it all and try too often to tell me how to do my job.” TRANSLATION: “We have creative differences that make solutions very difficult to formulate.”


“You call me way too late in the evenings, request last minute changes, and are inconsiderate!” TRANSLATION: “My business standards are x,y, and z and I’m afraid that our ideas no longer complement each other.”


“My other clients aren’t nearly as difficult as you are! And they pay me on-time and don’t always ask for a discount!” TRANSLATION “I have decided to scale back on the amount of clients I have so that I can better focus and prioritize.”


While we’ve just barely skimmed the surface of sh*tty clients and toxic work relationships, hopefully we’ve given you some ideas on how to be truthful without being hurtful and why you need to say no as a business owner! And always remember, as a courtesy and best business practice, be sure to communicate professionally and provide an adequate stopping point that way someone can easily pick up where you left off.

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  • Reply
    Carolyn Ann Ryan
    February 17, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    This is very helpful for a variety of industries. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Miranda Perales
      March 3, 2016 at 5:23 pm

      We’re happy to share what we’ve painfully learned! Feel free to share any tips or advice you’ve learned as well.

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