4 min read

“The customer is always right.”

The phrase is associated with several retail businesses in the United States and in Britain that were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The founder of the Selfridges department store in London is often credited with its use, though it was also used by the Marshall Field’s & Company department store chain when it was established in Chicago.

It took less than a decade for people to begin questioning the logic behind this phrase.

Clients cannot always be right. Some are manipulative. Some want to get what you offer without paying for it.

Even Amazon, a famously customer-centric company with lax return policies, will not continue to serve some customers.

Clients provide us with important feedback that helps us create a better overall business. When we make a mistake with a client, it is important to make that relationship right.

That doesn’t mean we must give that client everything they demand. Making something right means we make the value proposition whole.

If you’ve made that effort and your client is still unhappy, you essentially have two options.

  • You can make further concessions to the client in the hopes that they will be happier with their overall experience.
  • You can choose to walk away from your client.

Here are some reasons why it might be a better decision to walk away from certain clients.

1. You’re receiving pressure tactics from your client.

Every client wants to have their goods or services in a timely manner. There’s nothing wrong with wanting expediency.

Some clients, however, want you to set aside everything else that you’re doing to focus on their work alone.

These are the people who are talking with you every day, wanting updates about their relationship with you. They may ask you for more than what you initially agreed upon and complain if you say no.

We all take on clients like this from time to time, especially when work is slow. If you find that your clients that use pressure tactics are compromising your other client relationships, however, then it is time to walk away.

2. You are asked to work for exposure.

There is nothing wrong with doing a little free work for someone. We all want to over-deliver, especially when we are working with a new client.

We choose to do this because we know that the extra work we deliver today will generate more business from an established client relationship tomorrow.

There are some clients that want you to work for free, no matter what the ask might be. They love you, your brand, and your work. They want a long-term relationship. They just can’t afford it.

Or they find you on social media and keep asking you for your advice.

We must remember that business is about profits at the end of the day. If a client will not be profitable, then it is okay to walk away.

3. You would bite off more than you can chew.

Some projects are big and challenging. Some projects are too small and require more work than the profits justify. In both circumstances, the best solution might be to politely decline the work and walk away.

There are times when it is important to step outside of our brand’s comfort zone. This is how we grow, after all.

There are also times when what is being asked is not within a particular skill set or could be harmful to the reputation you’ve built.

The best way to resolve this issue is to look at how you would manage the project. If you can see the tasks being completed in an efficient, successful way, then a challenging project could be perfect for you.

If not, the better decision might be to walk away from the opportunity and wait for the next one.

4. You have a personal conflict.

As much as we try, it is impossible to get along with every client. Some personalities clash, even when both parties are doing their best to cooperate with one another.

You’ll know right away if you think it will be difficult to work with a client. Always trust your gut instincts. They will usually be right.

5. Your client doesn’t stay in contact with you.

Have you ever had a project that you thought would take 3 weeks, then it turned into a 3-month fiasco because your client wasn’t talking to you?

These clients can be difficult to spot right away. You usually discover the lack of responsiveness after the project begins. Phone calls aren’t returned. Emails are ignored.

Or worse – your invoices remain unpaid.

We cannot avoid this issue. We can, however, learn from it. If you spend more time chasing a client down to complete the work for them that they hired you to do, then maintaining that relationship is more trouble than it is worth.

There are some exceptions to consider here. Maybe a client experienced a family emergency. They might have become seriously ill.

Life happens, and our priorities change temporarily. If this issue happens more than once, however, even if there are legitimate reasons involved, walking away from the client might be the right decision.

How to Turn Down a Client Gracefully

When you turn down a client, you’re rejecting them. There’s no way to tiptoe around that fact. You must treat the situation with grace, dignity, and empathy.

Always be honest when turning down a client. If you don’t feel that the relationship is a good fit, then say so. Honesty, when delivered professionally, softens the rejection. It can even leave the door open to future opportunities if you want them.

There are times when you need to walk away in the middle of a project. Be specific about the reasons. If your client asks you to change something mid-stream and you can’t do it, then say so.

What you should never do is stop all communication altogether. ‘Ghosting’ a client can lead to negative feedback within that client’s network and could cost you future work.

Even if you have an extremely difficult client that refuses to let you walk away, at the very least, you can recommend someone else who might take their business.

And, whenever possible, make this conversation happen in-person or over the phone. Emails create inferred tones that can be misinterpreted.

Walking away from a client is never easy. It is important to remember that what you want to do is build a stable of clients where everyone wins because of the relationship. Have the courage to say the customer isn’t always right.

It may be the best business decision you make.