It’s perhaps one of the weirdest moments an entrepreneur can face.
You’re making money––sometimes good money––from a client. But suddenly, it’s just not worth it anymore. Something clicks, breaks, shifts… whatever your metaphor, something is different now and you need to fire that client. Immediately.
It’s a tough spot, both for the potential revenue loss and hit to your reputation if the client badmouths you in the future. However, it can be done with dignity while minimizing damage. Here’s a process you can follow.
Step 1: Assess what’s no longer worth it
Do you actually know why you want to fire this client? You need a specific answer, not just because knowing the deeper reason makes the other steps easier, but you might also realize you don’t need to fire that client at all.
For this step, run a client diagnostic. Think about:
- The work you’re doing: Do you like it?
- Interpersonal relationships with your client: Do you get along?
- Money: Are you paid fairly?
- Scope: Have there been wild swings lately?
- Expectations: Are they fair and clearly set?
There may be more circumstances that apply to your situation, but these are a good start. Keep digging as to why your gut might be telling you to fire this client.
Once you know the real reason beyond a gut feeling, you can ask yourself a simple question: do you actually need to fire them or can you reset with them in some way?
If you can’t reset, firing is a valid path. But it’s worth asking the question first since firing a client can be a painful process.
Step 2: Identify a natural breakpoint
The key to firing a client successfully is acting with care the whole time (even if the client doesn’t act with care toward you).
First up: find a natural breakpoint to end the relationship. These breakpoints mean you’ve handed in everything you were supposed to, so you have defensibility when it comes to sending that final invoice.
The two main natural breakpoints are:
- The end of a project for project-based work.
- The end of a month or quarter for retainer-based work.
While it’s ideal to break things off in between major work with the client––meaning you don’t leave any deliverables un-delivered––you might also need to find a faster breakpoint if your client is abusive, ghosting you, or not providing the materials you need in order to do your work. If this is your situation, you can often use any of those issues as your breakpoint. Don’t accept or tolerate abuse, ever.
Step 3: As soon as you deliver your final work, inform your client you can’t work with them any longer
Sometimes, client relationships are mutually bad. You don’t want to continue and neither does your client. In other cases, though, the client thinks everything is fine and you’re the one who needs to end things for one reason or another.
In either case, the best time to tell a client you’re no longer going to work with them is upon delivery of the last piece of work before your breakpoint from step two. With this method, you can couch your “firing” in the deliverable which helps soften the blow.
At this point, you might be asked why you’re leaving. How honest you are is up to you. You can cite capacity, concerns you can no longer provide the deliverables they need, or indicate your business is evolving and you no longer do that kind of work. Or don’t give a reason at all––it’s not your obligation to provide one.
If you provide a reason, tell the truth. This doesn’t mean you need to tell them everything, but if you’re claiming it’s a capacity issue then are seen advertising for more work, it looks bad on you. You don’t want to get caught in a lie.
Step 4: Genuinely try to fill the gap you will create
Firing clients that wanted to continue working with you is going to cause a gap in their work. Not only are your deliverables no longer getting done, but you might also cause a future work gap if their future plans included you.
While it’s not your problem per se, acting in good faith means doing everything you can to fill the gap you’re leaving. As altruistic as this sounds, it’s actually a self-preservation technique: you save your reputation and eliminate all opportunities for this client to badmouth you.
Some things you can do:
- Make an introduction to another service provider in your network.
- Share the client’s new call for service providers.
- Recommend a technology that can help them with some of the workload.
- Develop standard operating procedures for your work to make it easier for someone else to take over.
You’re not obligated to do these things (unless it’s in your contract), so you’re doing it out of care and self-preservation. But whatever you do, don’t offer something you’re not willing to deliver. For example, if you’re firing an abusive client, don’t offer to introduce your network to them––that would be poison for your reputation and harmful to the next person who works with them.
Step 5: Get ready for emotions
You need to be ready for anything, as some people take this kind of thing very personally and might bite back. They may insult you, demean you, or even threaten you. Never return that emotion. Stay calm, focused on the facts, and feel good about the fact you no longer have to deal with them.
Clients may also respond with overly-positive emotions, which can often be a shield hiding deeper pain. These responses will often include seemingly innocuous calls to stay in touch or even trying to bring you back for future projects on the spot. Don’t fall for this trap and remember why you fired the client to begin with.
In any case, getting ready for an emotional response means practicing not engaging with emotion. Respectfully disengage after you deliver everything you owe them.
Step 6: Move forward
After telling a client you can’t work with them any longer, you need to move on. There still may be a lingering step in terms of final deliverables or invoices, but after that it needs to be a clean cut.
A few things to think about:
- Never speak poorly about your former client. It will only make you look bad.
- Remember why you fired them and take it as a lesson. Don’t work with clients in the future that exhibit the same characteristics.
- You may reconnect with that client later on and find you have a great future relationship in another capacity or on a different project. But don’t bet on that––leave it as a surprise from the universe.
After ending work with a client, particularly if the relationship went sour, you may also want to remove their brand, logo, and testimonials from your website or marketing materials. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon to have a bit of trouble collecting the final invoice. Just stay calm, persistent, and polite. It’ll get resolved 95 per cent of the time, but five per cent of outliers, you might have to accept the loss depending on how valuable the invoice is versus the cost of a collections agency.
It’s about the future, not the past
Respecting the past is critical, but at the end of the day your job to your clients is to deliver. If you can’t deliver any longer, for any reason, then “firing” them is an act of kindness and honesty, provided you do it in a kind and honest way.
After the situation passes though, you need to look to the future. You fired that client for a reason, and now you have less revenue, but more time. That might be perfect for you and your lifestyle goals, but you may also need to look for another client or focus on other revenue-generating opportunities.
Whatever your situation, what’s done is done and now it’s time to only think about one thing: what’s next.
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