Weeding your Garden


Many years ago, someone I considered one of my dearest friends hurt me deeply, and not for the first time. In comforting me, another friend, Bob, told me something I live by to this day. “Sometimes, you have to weed your garden. While it may be a pretty weed, or one to which you’ve grown accustomed, it’s still a weed. It’s unhealthy for  you and needs to be eliminated.” His advice hit home for me then, and it continues to now.

The same holds true for business. There are times when it is in your best interest, and that of your firm, to “weed your garden” and let some clients go. This is obviously much easier said than done, but here are a few occasions when it may make sense.

“I really need your help, but can you give me a big discount?” I don’t suggest you dismiss anyone who wants a small discount or to break up payments over a few months. I do this myself from time to time. Sometimes there are  strategic reasons to work with the client who is just starting out or in the midst of a cash crunch. Sometimes you may just like the person and make a gut decision about whether they look like a good long-term match. But if you consistently start hearing this line from your clients, you are targeting the wrong people. Look at your client list and consider culling those that are always in need of a favor.

“The check is in the mail.” If you are constantly sending a particular client reminders about overdue invoices, you are not only their vendor, you are their banker. As a small business who partners with a variety of outside vendors, on-time payment is pretty important for my cash flow. This is true for most small businesses. If you have a client that is ALWAYS late, consider the time you spend following-up on their invoices, as well as the time you are without these funds. It might be better in the long run to replace them with a smaller client that pays on time.

“I know I’m high maintenance, but…” The client who is always late but expects you to make up the difference. The client who expects you to work every weekend or holiday because they have an “emergency.” The client who needs to meet in person to discuss every little comma in a document. I’ve been told that I spoil my clients; I’m a huge believer in providing the best client service I can. There is, however, a limit. If you figure out your hourly rate and it is less than you can make flipping burgers, or if you are pouring yourself a drink before every conversation with this client, it’s time to move on.

“I’m not sure why I don’t like this. Can I see 15 more versions?” There are times when the client-vendor relationship just isn’t a good fit. If nothing you do makes them happy, and if you are constantly going outside of scope with their projects, it might be time to weed. This could be because the client is never going to be satisfied, you aren’t asking the right questions or doing enough research, or could be that what you are doing just isn’t what they need. Regardless of the reason, if it doesn’t work, it’s time to let go.

No one is perfect, and it’s best to recognize this and make a change when necessary. This can be one of the hardest things a small business owner does, but nearly every time it’s best for both you and your unhappy client. How you handle the separation is vitally important. It’s best to have this sort of conversation in person and to be as direct as possible. Tell them that you no longer feel that your company is the best fit for them. Determine how any open projects will be completed and make introductions to alternative vendors. Most people will appreciate your honesty and the fact that you care enough to help them move on. Make the transition as smooth as possible, then step away. You can then focus your time and efforts on nurturing other clients, adding new ones to your landscape and creating a garden that will thrive and make you, and your clients, happy.

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