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3 Red Flags the Customer Isn’t Right for You


By Maria Thimothy, sr. consultant at OneIMS who helps businesses grow by creating & capturing demand & managing & nurturing relationships.

We have all heard the old adage “the customer is always right,” and to a greater or lesser extent, this phrase influences how we treat our clients. We are more likely to overlook bad behavior from a client than from a colleague and all because they are paying us for a service. However, overlooking bad behavior from a client is detrimental to business and most of the time is a sign that the relationship is not headed in a good direction. Of course, none of us want to lose business or gain a reputation for being inflexible and difficult to work with. Equally, however, working with self-sabotaging clients is not beneficial to your business and can even lead you to waste precious resources on a sinking ship. Knowing when to draw the line and terminate your relationship with a client is not always cut and dry, but there are some specific red flags to look out for.

They Want It Their Way

All businesses have their own modus operandi and best practices, which are completely healthy and normal. In fact, tried and true business practices are what keep most businesses up and running and successful in the long run. However, when clients want everything to be provided on their own terms and want you to change your business operations in order to meet their needs, it will inevitably hinder your partnership. Successful collaboration hinges on both parties being flexible, finding solutions and working together toward a common goal. For instance, your client may make it a condition that in order to work with them, you must switch to using their legacy system instead of the one you have been using successfully for years. Clients who have hard and fast “rules” or make inflexible demands are generally unwilling to compromise to find mutually beneficial solutions. This inevitably means that the compromise and the associated costs will rest with you.

They Don’t Want to be Partners

Often times when a challenging client hires you, they feel that paying you should be sufficient in terms of their contribution to your partnership and the responsibility sits with you to deliver results. However, as we know, business partnerships are a two-way street, and participation and communication need to come from both parties. This issue can manifest in several ways. For example, clients who simply want to buy success will often not respond to your requests or ignore your attempts to communicate. You may require some additional data or even important input on a decision from your client, and you find that it takes much chasing and repeated requests to get a response. Even though it is the client who refuses to engage, and consequently hinders the project, they complain that you have failed to provide results. This is not only extremely frustrating, but it also sabotages the entire collaboration and ends up wasting your time and resources.

They Want to Play the Blame Game

Many times, clients expect perfection and when they are faced with prototypes or a series of ideas or proposals that don’t 100% meet their expectations, they lash out and look for people to blame. Instead of approaching the situation as an opportunity to communicate their ideas and expectations as part of the collaborative process, they focus on all elements, big or small, that they feel are sub-par and explain why they dislike them. Of course, sometimes there are misunderstandings and clients can feel frustrated if they feel they aren’t being heard. However, if you find that your client repeatedly behaves this way despite your attempts to refocus the discussion around what the positive desired outcome for the project is, you may want to reconsider your partnership.  Typically, clients who nit-pick and always focus on the negative, despite having had repeated opportunities to provide feedback on what they do want, will continue being dissatisfied for the duration of the project and will often delay completion or even payment of a project because of their discontent.

Make Sure the Customer is Right For You 

Challenging clients are unavoidable when it comes to business partnerships. However, you should remember that you are also one-half of the partnership, and having standards for how you wish to work together with another business also applies to you. You may decide to work with a client hoping for the best and along the way come to realize that they are displaying self-sabotaging behaviors. You may have already wasted precious time and resources trying to satisfy their needs but to no avail. So, before you throw more time, money and effort at the project, don’t just assume that the customer is always right, but rather ask yourself is this customer right for you?

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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