How to fire a client
“You’re fired!” What you need to know about firing a client
In the early stages most independent contractors and businesses encounter a learning curve when it comes to client procurement and business practices. They may need to find their footing in terms of understanding their own interests and strengths. Over time they start to understand what kind of clients mesh with their expertise, interests, temperament, ethical practices, and work style.
Perhaps you’ve heard some say, “I/we don’t take on new clients.” Don’t new clients bring in more work, more connections, more money? At some point in a person’s career or a business’s lifespan, there is a shift that occurs from needing and seeking clients to needing and seeking better clients. Perhaps at some point the seeking part leaves the equation, and the contractor or company is the one being sought by clients. And, perhaps, a business doesn’t need to take on new clients because they’ve found a sweet spot with their current clients.
In order to reach this enviable equilibrium with clients, sometimes certain clients need to go. Consultant Dorie Clark, who authored the Harvard Business Review article, A Consultant’s Guide to Firing a Client, shares, “I’ve been a consultant for the past nine years, and my client list today looks dramatically different than it did when I launched, in large part because of strategic decisions I made to let some clients go and take on others.”
The thought of firing clients makes some people shudder. It can feel like a risk. In many ways it is a risk, but the payoff can be great. It’s advantageous to take stock of the clients you’re currently working with. Are there clients who are temperamental or disrespectful, who drain time or money from your business, who require skills or services you’re not interested in providing, who aren’t willing to pay what you’re worth, who you’ve been working with as a favor (such as legacy clients)? In order to make room for new clients, who align with your skills and practices and pay what you’re worth, some old clients may need to go. In order to lighten your load, if you’re looking to become more lean, selective, or focused, some old clients may need to go.
Another anxiety around letting clients go is the conflict that could arise. The best way to fire a client is to do it in a respectful manner, remembering that your integrity and reputation are both on the line. Even if you’re dealing with an abusive client, take the high road. The Forbes article Four Reasons to Fire a Client also encourages this approach, “Remember to remain neutral, avoiding accusation, and whenever possible give your customer a referral to another provider.”
Here are 5 tips for successful culling of clients:
1. Do it in writing. Cover potential legal encounters. This is especially useful when citing the client’s breach of contract or working with a disrespectful or petulant client.
2. Be formal. Even if your relationship has felt informal at times, use professional language.
3. Be concise and clear. There is no reason to bring emotions into the mix and no reason to be ambiguous. Briefly state why the termination is occurring and when it will take place (e.g. on X date, by the end of the contract, immediately, etc.) This should be an air-tight document.
4. Be grateful. There’s no need to gush, but even if the relationship has been challenging, express an understanding that clients are the backbone of a business. A simple line like, “we’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with you…” will secure your integrity. After all, it’s not a lie. Most likely you did appreciate the opportunity, but opportunity and experience are two different things.
5. Be helpful. Don’t leave a client stranded. As previously mentioned, if possible, refer your client to another business. This leaves you in good standing with the client and also fosters connections with other businesses.
At the end of the day, how you handle firing a client could impact the relationships with current and potential clients, as well as your own employees. In a society in which transparency and information are demanded and more available, you want to be sure to end this relationship respectfully. Don’t be the one people are gossiping about, be the one people want to work with.
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