The Clients You Don’t Want

Everyone wants more clients, right?

Yes. And, no.

What we want is more of the right kind of clients. Which means we have to tune our sensors to recognize the customers we don’t want.

Some clients are a good fit for who you are and what you offer. Others may be a source of short-term revenue…and long-term migraines. Having clarity includes understanding the difference.

The fact is: not all business is good business.

Here are some of the clients you want to take a pass on (or, if you already have them, you may need to fire them!)

  1. thumbs downThe Shapeshifter – this client is always changing their mind about what they want. However the project may be defined at the beginning, that is only a rough guideline – these people live and breathe scope creep. They destroy timelines and often squeal like a stuck pig when told that changes in scope incur additional costs. No matter how much you quote up front, you’re likely to lose money at the end.
  2. The Disappearing Act – bursts of communication before and during the engagement are interspersed with black holes of silence – unreturned calls, ignored emails, brushed-off deadlines. This behavior is typically accompanied by sudden fire-drill demands for immediate action (although your requests for rapid response are never honored). It’s like a game of whack-a-mole – except the client is the one who pops up unpredictably and whacks you.
  3. The Squeezeplayer – everything is win-lose with this client – and you lose. Hard-nosed negotiations. Nibbling for extra goodies without paying. Threatening to go with a competitive vendor if another 10% isn’t shaved off. This isn’t partnership. It’s a form of biz-abuse.
  4. The Know-it-All – some people don’t want to be clients. They want to be dictators. You’re not a value-add, you’re simply a mere commodity provider. These people will do it wrong often, and drag you down with them.

I still remember (with chagrin) being a know-it-all with a graphic design agency many moons ago. I got some idea fixed in my head, and none of their gentle persuasions, based on far more expertise, would sway me. I still shake my head when I think about the end product of my design ideas implemented on a promotional coffee mug.

There’s still one of those mugs around, as a reminder…!

Life is too short to put up with bad clients, even if (sometimes) you can gain some revenue. “Diversity” does not apply to keeping your bad clients around.


See your customers as foundation stones of your business – people who will give you repeat business, and refer others to you.

There’s a very important mental shift that every business person needs to make here – we don’t wait for our clients to pick us. We actively choose the clients that are a “best fit” for us. Don’t be a beggar. Be a chooser

So, how about you – surely you’ve learned from a few hard knocks in the marketplace! What are the labels you’d use to describe clients-to-avoid? Share your insights in the comments!


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  1. You left off “the gnat”. They just buzz around and annoy you and end up costing you in the long run.

  2. Great reminder Steve. And it all starts with knowing who your ideal clients are. What do they look like – so you can know what they DON’T look like.

    Swat them all away – including the gnats 🙂

  3. Hi Steve,

    I’ve been a business owner since the mid-90s, and have experienced all four client-types. Squeeze Players and Know-it-Alls were very common when I first started out. Shape-shifters and Disappearers 😉 came later.

    “Diversity” does not apply to keeping your bad clients around. Indeed!

    I would also add the Never-ender. They seem to be in love with process and never, ever want to end a project. Either that or there is a large committee involved and you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen 😉 If you want to move the needle in your business you have to, as you’ve written, pick your ideal clients. Not let them pick you.

    • Ah, the Never-ender. Seen that too many times too, as I’ll bet others have. When I worked with a company that did a lot of project work for pharma, the internal bureaucracy (and layers of approval) almost guaranteed that many projects would drag on interminably.

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