Time to Fire Your Client

By Nina Kaufman, Esq.

When the relationship’s not working, it’s time to cut the ties.

It’s 11 o’clock on a Friday night, and you’re furious. Once again, a major client has called at the last minute and needs you to finesse a campaign. A campaign that absolutely, positively has to launch on Monday.

Come Monday, the campaign is done and the client is pleased. But you’re not. You muse over strong coffee, “Is it time to fire this client?”

When to Fire
Deciding to fire a client is never easy, but the reason is simple: You’re deeply unhappy. Dissatisfaction can stem from several factors:

No. 1: The client owes you money or repeatedly pays v-e-r-y late. ‘Nuff said.

No. 2: The client drives you crazy. Like always calling at the last minute. Or mismanaging his business. Shilonda Downing, who runs Virtual Work Team in Flossmoor, Ill., dropped a client who repeatedly dumped on her the sales work his lazy brother-in-law (his director of sales) was supposed to do. “I offered to find sales staff for him, but he wouldn’t budge.”

Micromanagement is another sanity challenge. Angil Tarach-Ritchey, RN, deals with both clients and their families in her private-duty home-care agency, Visiting Angels. “One adult son demanded our experienced caregivers follow his minute-by-minute instructions for his elderly mother’s care — regardless of her needs.” Crazy-making can include dilly-dallying or shifting priorities.

Data-Scribe’s Leila Johnson tells of a client that changed its focus eight months into a project and couldn’t deliver the 20 percent of content needed to complete it. “This project should have been completed in four months; one year later, we still couldn’t finish.”

No. 3 is abuse. When Sara Shake of Exposed PR and Events received an errant text message, all bets were off. “The client sent a message — intended for another –bashing me and my company with explicit language and name-calling.” She got even (and out of the relationship) by forwarding it to his business partner … who just happened to be his wife.

Delivering Bad News
Although business owners differ on the medium (in person, by telephone, in writing), they agree on the message: Your business and the client’s are no longer a “fit.”

Misfits may be financial: You’re raising your fees and are no longer in the client’s budget, a tactic that Laura Posey, CEO of Dancing Elephants, has used. “It lets clients feel that I’m the one changing, not that they’re at fault. In truth, my business is changing. I no longer work with people like them without a steep fee increase to make it worthwhile,” she adds.

Jan Zobel, tax preparer and author of Minding Her Own Business: the Self-Employed Woman’s Guide to Taxes and Recordkeeping, fires clients when a new edition of her book is published. “I know the publicity I’ll need to do during tax season makes it harder for me to prepare as many returns.”

When you do break the news, keep it brief. “Be careful not to be apologetic or long-winded,” says Angelique Rewers, who coaches women entrepreneurs to be “Richer. Smarter. Happier.” “Says Rewers, “This isn’t a negotiation. I made a decision and need to communicate it in a kind, clear and professional manner.” She recommends practicing what you will say before delivering the news. “Show appreciation for the work they’ve entrusted to you, but let them know you are no longer available going forward,” she notes.

Both Posey and Rewers offer to introduce clients to competitors. Rewers adds, “Clients appreciate the recommendation to other resources.” Zobel, who uses “firing letters” to break the news, provides contact information for two to three other tax preparers. She also carefully times her news. “I give them plenty of notice, so they’re not left in the lurch,” Zobel says.

Written Agreements Make It Easier
While some business owners don’t have written contracts, those who do say it makes the firing process much smoother. Jimme’ Peters, head of 24-7 Consulting, was grateful for the “out” in her agreement. “When we chose not to renew, we could gracefully finish the term of the contract. The fired client is one of our references for new business, as he still wants us back.”

The prospect of firing a client can be daunting in a tight economy. However, for home-care provider Tarach-Ritchey, keeping great staff far outweighs the monetary benefit of any one client. Posey notes that “in the long run, a poor-fit client will only be unhappy and tell lots of people about it. I’d rather free up time to work with someone I like.” Dianne Durkin of corporate  training company Loyalty Factor agrees: “It’s much better having happy clients who will speak  highly of you with honesty and integrity than clients who are upset, bitter or angry.”

Whatever the reason you need to fire a client, have courage and do it. When asked how they’d handle the situation differently in the future, Rewers, Johnson and Durkin all responded, “I’d fire them a lot sooner.”

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