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5 tips to help you prune toxic clients

Kristy Gusick, Align Marketing Group | August/September 2022 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated July 28, 2022

When we hear “pruning,” we often think of gardening. Pruning is selectively removing branches or buds from a tree or plant. The goal is to improve the plant’s structure and direct new, healthy growth. The same is true for pruning your clients. Removing toxic clients can free you and your firm to experience the joys of healthier client and staff relationships and increased profits.

What are the signs of a toxic client? Here are four quick ways to identify if you need to prune clients.
  1. Staff is burning out and/or you are experiencing high staff turnover.
  2. Net profits are decreasing and/or your firm is not growing.
  3. Excessive time is being spent on clients that are not profitable.
  4. Firm success! Yes — believe it or not, often when a firm is successful, it leads to too many relationships, clients or direct reports, and, in the end, the work quality suffers.

What prevents pruning?

If you think you have clients that need to be pruned, you’re not alone. Dealing with difficult clients is very common, and so is holding on to the relationship for too long. Sometimes we are stuck with a toxic client for reasons that are genuinely outside of our control. But more times than we realize, we are not executing an ending because of internal factors, not external ones.
Neuroscience research shows that your mind develops something akin to hardwiring and has adapted to accept some sort of “stuck reality.” It has become normal to be stuck with bad clients and put up with a situation that awaits a necessary ending. Here are some of the most common reasons we don’t prune toxic clients.
  • You have a fear of losing money.
  • You’re avoiding conflict — or you’re simply afraid to have the conversation.
  • You feel a huge amount of responsibility to all your clients.
  • It feels too “mean” to fire a client.
  • You’re concerned no one else will be able to or want to help your client.
  • You have a false sense of hope that the client will improve or will change.
  • You’re unsure how to prune a client.

Pruning pays off

While it can be unpleasant to prune a client, one key piece to remember is that pruning pays off. After you’ve pruned a toxic client, you will have more time for your current clients and the bandwidth to accept a better (and more profitable) new client to your firm. Or you will simply just be able to spend more time on your current clients. You will also experience greater enjoyment as you’re not hemorrhaging mental energy and money on bad-for-business clients.

Strategies for pruning

As with anything else when it comes to owning and running a successful practice, you have to create a solid plan. To help you build and implement a pruning practice at your firm, we recommend the following five steps to ensure your success.
Identify who needs to be pruned.
  • The first step in determining which clients need to be pruned is to rate them. Your rating system should reflect your firm’s values and goals and should rate clients both objectively and subjectively. We suggest doing this annually and using a report card system: A, B, C, D or F.
Have referrals available.
  • If the client isn’t a good fit for you and your practice, have referrals to other accounting professionals for the pruned client. It helps ease the transition to give referral sources (i.e., other CPA firms or solo accounting professionals) to your pruned clients.
  • In many cases, the client isn’t inherently toxic; it’s simply that the individual or business wasn’t a good fit for your firm, and you want to make sure they’ll be well taken care of in the future. Networking with fellow MNCPA members, for instance, can help you connect with other accounting firms or professionals who might be a perfect match.
Prepare, practice and roleplay.
  • Begin with the end in mind and create scripts based on your specific goal. We’ve provided specific examples below to get you started.
  • Determine whether an email or letter are better than phone to communicate to the soon-to-be pruned client.
  • The more you strategize about pruning the client, the more confidence you will have.
  • Write out your email or script and then practice it. As you practice, pruning will become easier. You will develop confidence from the pruning experience as well. Here are some examples of pruning practices that you can use.

Debrief your pruning process
  • Like any project, set aside time to discuss what went well and what can be improved about client pruning. Take the time to grieve or celebrate the specific pruned client. End the debrief process by visualizing how you want this process to go in the future.
Prune annually
  • Start by making client pruning a part of your annual planning and ongoing business development review. As it becomes a component of regular business processes, you will begin to recognize it as a part of your business strategy instead of seeing it as a problem.

Final takeaways

By consistently pruning toxic clients, you can restore growth, satisfaction and profits to your firm. Through proper planning and practice, pruning can become easier and a regular part of your business processes. You have control over the clients you work with, so empower yourself to make the changes necessary, both in your mindset and business processes, for the benefit of your firm. At the end of the day, not every client is a great client. And having great clients at your firm keeps your firm profitable and your team happy. Let the pruning begin!
Kristy Gusick is the founder of Align Marketing Group, where she and her team specialize in helping accounting and financial advisory firms with their marketing and business development efforts. You may reach her at or at 651-592-4662.