How to Tell a Time-Wasting Client, ‘You’re Fired!’

You aren’t necessarily suited to work with every buyer and seller that comes your way. When it’s time to end a business relationship, learn how to do it with finesse.
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Breaking up is hard to do.

There are many reasons for calling it quits with a client, though. Whether he or she won’t commit to a path forward for the transaction or stalls upon every request from a lender, appraiser, or contractor, you’ll likely need the skills to cut ties amicably with a time-waster at some point in your career. But while you’re accustomed to managing your clients’ emotions, you’ll also need to put a governor on your own in this sensitive and potentially contentious scenario.

One buyer’s constant indecisiveness led to a breaking point last October between the client and Justin Paulhamus, MRP, associate broker at M Squared Real Estate in Washington, D.C. Paulhamus showed the buyer about a dozen homes that matched her exact criteria. Still, she discarded every one and refused to look at 50 other listings Paulhamus had found on the MLS. “I asked questions differently and listened intently to her needs,” but no amount of diligence made the relationship easier, Paulhamus says. “It was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. I never experienced anything like this before.”

After numerous failed attempts to help the buyer find a home, Paulhamus lost faith that he could serve his client to her liking and decided it was time to end the relationship. But Paulhamus, who says his face is “very expressive” and sometimes betrays the neutral facade he endeavors to project with clients, found it difficult to manage his own emotions through the irritating ordeal. “Every time I met [the buyer], I had to consciously think about how I was carrying myself—thinking before speaking and ensuring my tone was as vanilla as possible,” he says.

Maintaining professionalism—even with a maddeningly irrational client—is of the utmost importance, Paulhamus says. So when he felt like firing his buyer on the spot after she rejected the twelfth home he showed her, Paulhamus let cooler heads prevail, taking the evening to calm down. They met for coffee the next day, and he explained that he couldn’t represent her any longer. After providing referrals to other agents, Paulhamus wished her the best and left. “I could tell by her face that she was a little surprised,” he says. “I was completely honest with her, and I could see she began to understand my perspective.

“Sometimes when you start down this path, you don’t realize how difficult a client may become. … That’s just real estate,” Paulhamus adds.

In some cases, clients may be up front with you about their picky or overbearing proclivities. This can be an advantage for you, giving you insight into their personality and the ability to make a quick decision about what you will and won’t put up with before the relationship gets too deep. Michael Hausam, team leader of The Hausam Group at Shore Capital Corp. in Huntington Beach, Calif., recalls a startling and somewhat hostile disclosure one client made to him in the spring of 2008 right after signing a service agreement. “You can expect that every single thing you do will be subject to a microscopic evaluation, and nothing escapes my inquiry and notice,” Hausam recalls the client—an attorney—saying to him. “I don’t trust you, nor anyone else, and as a result, I’m going to make this entire process of working together an absolute nightmare.”

The ink on the agreement hadn’t yet dried when Hausam suggested that he might not be the best agent to represent the client. He recalls couching the kiss-off like this: “You know what, I’m not sure that I’m the right fit for you. Thank you so much, but I think it might be better for you to find someone else who can give you exactly what you’re looking for.” Hausam says he didn’t specifically address the client’s attitude in an effort to avoid offending him and making an enemy who could possibly harm his business in the future. “What I wanted to say was, ‘You’re going to be a nightmare client from the darkest pit of hell, and I’d be a fool to work for you,’” he says. “I felt like I dodged a bullet.”

Other red flags about a customer take time to develop, says Seth Lejeune, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Fox & Roach, REALTORS®, in Collegeville, Pa. When clients take days to return calls or emails, Lejeune takes it as a sign that they are noncommittal to the real estate process and cuts off the relationship. “It is quite possible they are too busy, but the marketplace doesn’t care about how busy you are,” Lejeune says. “If it takes you a couple of days to get organized enough to return an email, there’s no way you’re going to be organized enough to jump at a property in an hour’s time.”

He keeps the split professional and puts it in writing, usually in a text. “This format allows me to keep it clear and concise,” Lejeune says. “In rare cases, I may have to leave a listing agreement, and that needs to be in writing.” Depending on the situation, he may also refer the client to another agent, explaining his workload and simply saying, “Good luck.” “I am fortunate to have built a book of business where I can choose who I work with, so firing clients [who aren’t productive to work with] is usually beneficial to my income,” he says.

Though it may hurt initially, firing a client is often for the best for both parties. “At first, it’s a stressful thought to have because it’s a sale you don’t get,” says Katie Messenger, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty East in Louisville, Ky. But she was relieved to let a client go in April 2016 who backed out of two offers at the last minute. The buyer eventually closed on a home with another agent more than a year later—after pulling out of numerous additional deals and spending thousands on inspections. “I ultimately came to the conclusion that the mental wear and tear, the gas money spent, and the potentially uncomfortable situations I would be in were not worth it,” Messenger says.

“While you’re running yourself ragged for a client who doesn’t respect your time, your industry, or whatever else you may be going through, you could be missing opportunities to work with people who value you,” she adds. “Once you learn that you have the ability to control your business and who gets to do business with you, it’s empowering.”

Red Flags of Time-Wasting Clients

Unless you’ve got a crystal ball, it’s often difficult to know up front whether a client is motivated and will bring you a successful sale. But there are a few signs that can help you determine whether the client will be worth your effort.

  • Insistence on delaying mortgage approval. Some buyers may push you to take them on showings or perform other actions as their real estate representative before they’ve spoken to a bank about getting preapproved for a mortgage. These buyers may say they know their financials are in good order and that they will have no problem getting approved. That’s a huge red flag, Lejeune says. They may be stalling because they’re afraid that, in fact, their financial profile isn’t good. “If they are worried about a slight ding on their credit, there’s no way they are prepared to make an investment in real estate,” he says. “I rarely show to people who haven’t at least spoken to a lender, as I see this as a huge indicator of motivation.”
  • Unwillingness to follow your advice. A seller, for example, who refuses to declutter or, most importantly, set a reasonable list price is showing you that they don’t trust your professional opinion. Clients who don’t trust you often make decisions that end up prolonging the sale and wasting your time, and in general, they can be difficult to work with, says Sterling Watkins, broker-owner of Help-U-Sell of Folsom in Folsom, Calif.
  • Refusal to abide by your service agreement. Agents commonly request that their clients agree to an exclusive service contract, meaning no other real estate professional can represent the client. Other typical clauses in a service agreement stipulate that the client should be preapproved for a mortgage or be able to show proof of funds before going out on showings, as well as live within a reasonable distance from the area in which they are looking to buy. Clients who balk at these rules may be likely to give you trouble in other parts of the business relationship.