How to weed out unwanted clients and grow your business

When you first go freelance, you'll want to attract as many clients as you can and this might mean taking on anything and everything that comes your way. But once established, you'll want to gain bigger and better clients while weeding out any undesirables who might be holding you back.

These unwanted clients might be small and have less capacity to organically grow and bring you further revenue. Or they might be on your original day rate – which has since doubled, and they've refused to acknowledge. Or they could just be a pain in the backside, causing lots of stress and taking up all your time for little return.

No matter what the reason, rotten clients have to go to make room for more promising ones. Those who pay better, pay on time and who are likely to be more profitable and enjoyable. After all, you only have so many hours in the day and life's far too short to 'put up and shut up' if you're not happy.

So how do you pull up these weeds and get rid of clients? Here are our top tips on deciding if a client is worth keeping and how to graciously let them go if they aren't...

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Before you hastily ditch someone, consider the following crucial questions surrounding common client relationship issues – along with some of our recommended solutions. Because it's important to carefully think about whether you really should let a client go – before you've given yourself a chance to rectify any problems.

1. Do they pay on time? Are they late payers?

Late payment from clients is a very common problem. If it happens once or twice, and is delayed by no more than a month – it's not an issue. But if it's common, and the money isn't showing up for months on end, that's a serious issue.

Tackle this problem head-on by requesting a 'review' meeting where you can gently broach the subject of late payment and see whether you can come to some sort of arrangement. You could suggest staged payments whereby they pay a deposit before work begins. Or you could insist on work being paid upfront. Or perhaps you could set up a retainer, where they pay by standing order for chunks of your time.

If the client is unwilling to compromise and you're concerned things will never change for the better, it's probably a good time to move on.

2. Do they cause lots of stress?

Is your client a pain in the proverbial? Do they call after normal working hours and demand your attention? Do they slam their hands on the table during meetings and put unnecessary pressure on you to meet impossible deadlines?

Life is too short to work for people who shout at you and cause you lots of stress. If anyone gets aggressive or angry with you, my advice would be to run in the opposite direction and make your humble excuses as to why you're suddenly 'unavailable'.

3. Are they growing with you? Or expecting more for less?

You're helping your client to become more successful, so why are they insisting on more output for less money? If a client is always squeezing you, then it's never going to be a profitable arrangement.

This is where you should attempt to 'review' your pricing structure, and highlight the need to increase your rates and/or support to cover the time and resource now required to adequately serve the client. If they insist on having you at the same price but they're demanding more and more of your time – it's never going to work in your favour, so walk away.

4. Do they listen to your advice?

Great work is achieved by having a strong partnership with your client. If you're both working harmoniously together, the outcome of your support will be successful. But what if the client isn't listening? And what if they're making their own wild suggestions that could compromise their business?

Before you weed out those who don't listen, try and consult one last time – offering your honest advice on why you think their suggestions won't work. They're only human, after all. But remember, you won't necessarily have all the right answers either. That's why it's important to see if you can both come to the right solution for their business.

But if after attempting to get them to listen, it's still not happening – you should probably follow your gut and walk away. Your reputation is at stake, and you certainly don't want their careless actions to backfire on your own business.

5. Do they value your support, trust and respect you?

Healthy business relationships are built on trust and respect. If your client shows neither of these, then it can be incredibly difficult to get the work done. How you build trust and respect is by having regular face-to-face meetings; ongoing reporting and feedback and always going above and beyond their expectations.

If you're doing everything you can to create a healthy partnership, but the client is still undervaluing you and not trusting your support – it's worth an honest chat to raise the issue and see if you can earn the respect you deserve. It's a tough conversation to have, but if you handle it well, you could find the client starts to value your support. And if they don't? You've done everything you can to prove yourself, what more can you do? It's time to part ways.

How to Get Rid of Unwanted Clients

1. Raise your prices

The most obvious choice is to raise your day rate and price yourself out of the market for certain clients. We're not talking a minimum hike of 5 or 10 per cent – you want to make sure you increase your rates to such a level that the client will make the decision to go elsewhere. And if they stick around? Well, you've just got yourself a more lucrative client.

2. Get rid of specific services

Another great way to weed out clients is to simply eliminate certain services. The next time they come to you asking for help, explain that your business has just been under review and you've made the reluctant decision to no longer offer those services.

3. Focus on certain sectors

If you can't pull off the services angle, then you could say that you've decided to specialise in certain industries, not including their own. It makes sense long-term to try and focus your skills and expertise in specific sectors, so you're able to win more work in those areas.

4. Suggest other commitments

Here's a little white lie that might just work – suggest to the unwanted client that you've just made an agreement with another client that prohibits you from working with anyone else in a similar field. You don't actually have to create a contract with anyone, it's just a good excuse that is believable and the unwanted client should understand.

5. Ditch with care and professionalism

When ditching unwanted clients, never leave people in the lurch. Always act professionally and ensure you give people plenty of notice, so they're able to make alternative arrangements. Not just for the sake of your reputation, but to ensure you do things by the book.

Legally, if you haven't got any contract in place you're expected to give "reasonable notice" – this varies depending on the length of service and the level of work involved. A month is usually sufficient but seek legal advice, if you want to be sure.