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What I learned from firing my first client

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oh… and I had to sue them as well.

When first striking out on your own as an entrepreneur or small business owner, it should go without saying that there will be a considerable amount of trial and error involved. Despite the research you’ve done, and the advice you’ve sought from mentors, no one can ever really be fully prepared for every single growing pain along the way.

Inevitably, challenges will arise, seemingly from left field, that you hadn’t even considered, and with no previous experience serving as a reference point, it can feel like the end of the road. However, true entrepreneurs simply will not go down without a fight. When the waters become almost unbearable, and the fear of capsizing is all too real, you will forge ahead and come out on the other side. All be it, a tad bruised and battered, but none the less, stronger, and with a valuable lesson learned in the books; prepared to rise to the occasion in the future.

It happened to me and taught me that being an entrepreneur is all about rising to the occasion.

One of these valuable lessons will be learned when you encounter the rough waters of dealing with with toxic people and difficult clients. If you have yet to encounter your first difficult or down right toxic client, don’t worry, your time is coming. This experience will not only thicken your entrepreneurial skin, but it will also serve as a guide for what you are and are not willing to put up with. Similar to choosing a significant other in your personal life, through trial and error we are able to define our boundaries. It’s only after you’ve kissed a few frogs, that you begin to “trim the fat” and understand what works for you, and what doesn’t. The same is true for business relationships. Not every client is a perfect fit, and not every partnership has the same vision. That’s totally OK. After you’ve realized your own professional self-worth, you will be able to recognize when its time to cut your losses and just move on!

Unfortunately for me, this valuable lesson was one of the first I had to learn. Right out the gate, just as I was finding my professional footing, the winds suddenly shifted and the waters became so choppy I thought it might be time to throw in the towel. Let this serve as a cautionary tale to those just starting out, about how to recognize a toxic client, and when to call it quits.

Not every entrepreneur ends up firing and sueing their first client in court, but if you do, take it from me; it’s not the end of the world.

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Learn how to spot a difficult and/or toxic client.

A toxic client is someone who drains your every last drop of creativity, energy, resources, time and expertise, then wants to low ball you. Often times, they simply can not be reasoned with, and abide by a “my way or the highway” protocol. My first big retainer client was a friendly, solo entrepreneur like myself. During our initial consultation meeting, she was super excited about everything that we could do for her, and couldn’t wait to get started! Almost as if signing this contract served as some sort of validation that she had “made it.” Now someone else would be handling the nitty-gritty and she could sit back and watch as the business continued to grow while she went through the motions on auto-pilot, right? Wrong.

Even the best PR team offering top of the line brand awareness strategies is no substitute for genuine customer service. What good is excellent, engaging, and appealing content when new clients are being met with a combative, negative business owner? One month we had 42 new clients in the door for services, but that meant nothing if the business owner was completely dis-engaged, and dis-interested in cultivating her brand’s following.

Learn the warning signs.

To make matters worse, there was NO budget. Zero. Like, non-existent. I once arranged for a pre-Grammys prep event with a group of digital influencers. These ladies would be coming by to take advantage of services, and partake in a little glam action before heading out to the various Grammys parties in LA. Since my client didn’t seem to think it was important to “roll out the red carpet,”  I ended up doing it out of pocket. This kind of disregard was rampant throughout our relationship together. Toxic people and clients are unwilling to trust the process. As with this example, you may find yourself trying to explain the various benefits of “pampering” influencers, but chances are, it won’t do much good and you will end up footing the bill.

You will notice an unwillingness to budge from difficult and toxic clients. These instances will manifest themselves as a classic reference to the old adage, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got”. Yet, there will be no willingness on their part to make adjustments, which will leave you, the young entrepreneur who is eager to please, left drained of much needed resources.

They demand EVERYTHING.

My first big retainer client was also extremely demanding of my time. Not only did we have to meet in person once a week to discuss goals, progress, and plan for upcoming events, but she also felt the need to email me every fleeting thought or “marketing idea” she had. I consistently received upwards of five to ten emails a day, and that was on top of the already excessive text messages. Even worse, I found myself staying up until almost 3am more than a few nights a week, working on projects she had suggested. During the day, I was passing off smaller, less demanding client’s projects to an intern so that I could focus on the beast in front of me. It had become all consuming. I had no boundaries, and she knew it. I began to realize, since I was building a business myself which was still in its infancy, in this situation she saw me as needing her. Her complete disregard for the work I was doing, and her total lack of respect for my time was a clear indication that I was dealing with my first difficult and toxic client.

Where’s the ROI?

Essentially, I spent twice as much time for half of the return. With the amount of time I was spending bending over backwards for one difficult client, I could have easily taken on two new ones. All the while, tending to each account regularly and with a personalized approach rather than passing them off to an assistant. But what to do now? I was locked into a contract that still had months to go before renewal. I felt like I had just signed the lease on a swanky new pad with a boyfriend I wasn’t sure I even liked, much less could live with for the long haul. This client was looking for someone she could low ball and squeeze every last drop from. Someone who needed her. That just isn’t me. However, in the beginning, when I was first striking out on my own, I may have had the tendency to let that be me.

I’ve always believed in the universe sort of “working itself out” exactly how it should. Oddly enough, the more I felt I was being taken advantage of, the more my “fight or flight” response seemed to kick in. The more she ruffled my feathers, the more I began to puff out my chest, until finally, just two months shy of fulfilling our contractual agreement, she called it quits. We just were not a good fit, and eventually it was painfully obvious. After waking up one day and deciding she just didn’t want to pay anymore, she changed all passwords, log-ins, and essentially went on about her life acting as if we had never met. As bizarre of a move as it was, we were still under contract and that is the one thing a toxic client will respect; the legal gauntlet.

Know when to take action.

Long story not so short, I fired my client and filed in small claims court, suing my first client for breach of contract including two months worth of unpaid dues. Since the terms of our contract were always clearly defined, and I had delivered on my half of the deal, the judge ruled in my favor.

From firing and suing my first client, I learned to accept that not everyone you deal with in business is going to be a perfect fit. I now understand the importance of not being too overzealous in the beginning and remembering to take off the rose colored glasses from time to time. We all want to succeed, and you’ve worked long and hard to come to get here. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t settle down with the wrong one. Be patient and work hard. The right clients will take notice and find their way to your inbox.

Written by DeeAnn Sims

DeeAnn Sims is the Founder of the LA based branding house, SPBX Social. The first of its kind, SPBX specializes in PR and development for nonprofits and social enterprises specifically.

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