by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | August 13, 2013

Some of the best advice I was given when I first became an independent planner was to remember that I no longer was a planner. I was now a business owner whose product happened to be that of planning meetings. That subtle but important distinction helped guide my early years of self-employment. By heeding that advice, I also soon learned that not all clients were clients I wanted to have.

Yet refusing to take on clients seemed to be against my interests of growing a business. The temptation to accept available business is strong, and few of us can afford to wait for clients who are just right. But actually, refusing certain clients can be the most powerful thing you do as a business owner. Here’s what I have identified as client-planner situations that should be avoided.

The client’s scope of work doesn’t suit your skills. You shouldn’t accept a client simply because you need the money, because you know their check will clear the bank, or because you’re just good enough to get the work done instead of being able to offer them true expertise. It’s a disservice to the client if you’re selling them mediocre work due to the mismatch, and it won’t establish you as the expert you need to be in your niche. In turn, your work for that client could negatively affect potential referrals and your reputation in the industry.

You’ve filled your time and can't take on an ideal client when one comes along. In this way, a poorly matched client will hold you back from your full potential as a business. You won’t be available to deliver the work you’re best at doing if the clients who aren’t fully aligned with your mission weigh you down and fill all of your available time. Don’t assume you can simply add extra staff on the fly if needed. While that may be an option, it’s also a major business decision and not one that should be made hastily.

You’ve never disliked your work more than when you are working for certain clients. Sometimes you can overlook a culture mismatch, a huge ego, a lack of vision in your client or any one of the many things that can make a workplace difficult. That’s a lot easier to do when the work is fulfilling. But if the work isn’t fulfilling, you will be made miserable by every other negative aspect of the experience, no matter how slight. And that’s no way to work for anyone, least of all for yourself.

A client brings out the worst in you. Good clients make you feel empowered and skillful. You’re in your element and doing your best work, and meeting every positive expectation you had of self-employment. Conversely, a client who represents discord, or who requires you to work uncomfortably, will breed negativity. And that’s the last thing you want to show to current or potential business.

I’m not suggesting that planning businesses should refuse every client who isn’t perfect. That’s neither realistic nor sustainable. But the work you’re doing has to be good enough to outweigh the risks inherent in being self-employed. If it’s not, you’re better off with the benefits of an employer behind you. My advice is to recognize where your boundaries lie and stay within them, even when doing so might mean walking away from a piece of business.

Have you ever had to quit a client? What did you learn from doing it, or not doing it? I’d love to hear your stories, either in the comments below or via email to