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Don't Let Your Biggest Client Become Your Biggest Nightmare — You Should Fire Them Instead. Here's Why. Small businesses often depend on one primary client for their primary source of income. Or at least they think they do. But the "biggest" client doesn't always mean the "best" client. Here's why.

By Emily Reynolds Bergh

Key Takeaways

  • Your "biggest" client isn't always your "best" client.
  • By prioritizing big clients, you overwork your employees and potentially lose out on additional revenue.
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One of the biggest fears business owners face is losing their biggest clients. Maybe this was the first client you landed, so all the time and energy you were able to put into them elevated them to the first position in your roster. Maybe this client came on board later in your growth trajectory, and things started happening for you after their revenue stream started flowing in. Maybe this client is the most recognizable name in your client list.

Whatever the scenario, you see this client as your proverbial "bread and butter," and you're worried that without them, your own company might dry up and disintegrate into crumbs.

But what if you saw the situation differently? What if the reality of the situation warrants seeing things differently? Sometimes, entrepreneurship isn't actually dependent on one client's patronage so much as it's being held back by this client's ever-growing list of demands and expectations. If that could be the case for you, it's time to ask yourself: What if your biggest client is actually your biggest barrier to continual growth on your terms, not theirs?

Related: 3 Red Flags You Have a Nightmare Client — and How to Cut Ties

Bigger isn't always better

Let's look at one particular small business to make this point. Amy had been running her own advertising and marketing agency for over a decade. In all that time, her biggest contract had been with a popular local brand based out of the town where Amy had launched her business. The multi-platform brand was the first high-volume client Amy had landed, so there was a loyalty connection between them, a geographic connection between them and a financial arrangement that started off mutually beneficial to both.

But over the years, the client kept adding more and more to the list of tasks and duties they wanted Amy's agency to fulfill — but not, mind you, at a higher cost. Year after year, when it came time to renew the contract, the fee structure stayed the same, but the scope of work kept creeping uphill.

Amy was reluctant to raise her rates for fear of losing this client, and the client — pleased with the services being provided — kept growing its own brand on the shoulders of Amy's efforts and just seemed to expect that the agency would keep meeting every new request with a smile and the same level of expertise and dedication.

Related: 6 Types of Clients You're Better Off Without

Amy saw what was happening, of course. She knew she was devoting far more time and human resources to fulfill the contract than had been needed initially, but she felt her hands were tied: If the choice was between all or nothing with this client, Amy felt she had to stick with "all." And so she did for years.

Eventually, when the price of efficiency and profitability she was paying to retain the client clearly outweighed the benefits, the situation reached a head. Personally, Amy and the client got along famously, and relations between them had always proceeded smoothly. But, Amy's team was complaining about the intensity of the workload, and she had to hire more staffers to meet the contract terms without added revenue to compensate them. The agency's internal structure looked more like the client's company than Amy's own.

It was time to set up some boundaries. So Amy offered the client several choices:

  • Keep the pricing as is but decrease the quantity (not quality) of services
  • Increase the pricing in line with current market values for the current services being delivered
  • Return to a baseline of services, then incrementally increase the pricing year over year as more services were added back into the mix.

The client rejected them all, and so the two parted ways. It was sad, it was strange … and it was also uplifting. All of Amy's projections pointed to the fact that without this client monopolizing the majority of the agency's resources, there'd be so much more bandwidth available to take on a broader and more diverse array of clients that would better realize Amy's future vision and better position her for future growth. And sure enough, that's what happened.

Related: 3 Customer Nightmares and What I Learned From Them

5 ways to avoid letting your biggest client become your biggest challenge

How can you avoid the situation Amy found herself in? Well, there are ways to evade the struggle from arising in the first place, and they all involve regular analysis of each business relationship in your client base and being honest with yourself about whether you've become too dependent on one particular client and whether they've become too dependent on you:

  1. Whenever a client's workload expands, increase your rates mindfully. Explain what added value will accompany the higher cost, show evidence (if you can) of current market rates in your industry, and offer manageable options for your client so that pricing remains fair on both sides.
  2. Have quarterly, semi-annual, or annual discussions about the ROI, the KPIs and the deliverables to ensure everyone's on the same page about what's being accomplished for the client. Be proactive rather than reactive about what the client is seeking and what you're providing. Don't wait for an illness to administer the medicine — take preventative measures from the start, even when the relationship seems healthy.
  3. Accept that some client relationships aren't meant to last forever. Sometimes, you outgrow a client, and that's okay. If they're not contributing to the growth of your enterprise, it's a purely business decision to move on. For the rosebush to thrive, you have to trim it occasionally.
  4. Don't freak out. If you're the one who's decided to let go of the client, view that as the positive step that it is. It's a form of self-care, only a professional one: You're putting your business first, and that's how it will excel.
  5. Once you've unmoored yourself from a limiting anchor, you're free to sail forward at your own pace, along your own route. So don't attach yourself to potentially problematic new clients just for promised revenue. Once you can do so, stay focused on who you want to work with, not who you fear you must work with, and then stay the course! No exceptions. That's how your business — and its bottom line — will become exceptional.
Emily Reynolds Bergh

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder at R Public Relations Firm

Emily Reynolds Bergh — vintage-shoe hoarder, cycling junkie, & lover of pink drinks — is a marketing & PR pro with 15+ years of experience under her belt. Now the founder & owner of the award-winning R Public Relations based in New York, she’s been featured in numerous publications & podcasts.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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