Most of the time, an entrepreneur’s efforts are focused on finding clients -- but then there’s that one client who warrants being let go. You know the signs: Every time you interact with him or her, you feel irritated. Or perhaps it’s just a simple case of your being tired of dealing with chronic late payments.
Once you’ve decided that you absolutely want to let the problem client go, the question becomes how to do so. Releasing a client takes finesse, if you want to avoid hassles such as bad reviews or negative talk within your industry. Here’s what you need to know about the right way to let go of a client:
1. When possible, finish agreed-upon work.
It’s always easier to release a relationship when all parties do so cleanly. The client will be more irritated if you simply cut ties without any warning, leaving him or her to find another person to finish the job. There are two times when it’s not worth it to complete a contract -- if the client isn’t paying on time or treats you or your employees disrespectfully.
Otherwise, do what you can to honor all aspects of contracts.
2. Set up a time to have the conversation.
Unless your primary mode of communication with this client has always been via email, conversations are always best done in live speech (no matter how awkward that might feel). Suggest a phone call with the client to discuss “final project details” and arrange a specific time. This conversation is best held when all aspects of the project are complete or nearly so.
3. Before the call, prepare a script.
When a conversation feels awkward, preparing what you want to say beforehand keeps you focused and reduces anxiety. The script should contain three parts: first, any positives that could be acknowledged; second, the news that you won’t be working together moving forward; third, referrals to other providers who might be a good match for the client.
Here's a sample:
“I wanted to say what an honor it was that you chose our firm for this project. I know that you had several other options to consider, and when we learned that you wanted to work with us, we were beyond excited. As you know, our most recent project recently ended and we’ve decided that we’re not going to renew working together, at this time. However, I know that you’ve got a lot of work in the pipeline and so I wanted to see if you’d like me to put you in touch with ABC Other Firm. I highly recommend its services.”
This script could be easily modified for those who have solo practitioner firms businesses or who frequently work with vendors or client-services representatives.
4. Decide how to phrase any criticisms.
The client's representative is likely to press for details when he or she hears that you’re severing the relationship. Some say that honesty is always the best policy, but take care. Brutal honesty is rarely received well.
If the client's representative seems to be open to what you may share, then go ahead and be direct, tempered with kindness. Be careful not to phrase things as the client’s fault. Instead phrase give the feedback as a business decision: “I felt that when we talked about the direction this project was going in, there was often a sharp difference of opinion, and our firm feels we do our best work when we have more creative control.”
If the client presses further for details, yet you know that he or she isn’t likely to be open to your feedback, there’s little point in being specific with your opinion that the client was difficult to work with. Debating with a client about the validity of your viewpoint just wastes time. In that case, keep it vague yet respectful: “This project taught us a lot. It illuminated the fact that our firm really wants to go in a different direction on future projects, one where we’re able to leave more of our firm’s individual mark on the client work.”
5. Pinpoint what wasn’t working to learn from it.
When this step is overlooked, it’s inevitable that with time, you’ll find yourself in the same situation, again -- perhaps even with a customer who presents the exact problem as before. So take the time now to yourself what wasn’t working with this client relationship and pinpoint when you first realized the relationship was problematic. Taking the time to clarify means that next time you have a similar feeling with a client, you can make a different choice.
When done right, releasing a client can turn out to be beneficial for both parties. You benefit from releasing a customer who wasn’t right for your business and the client gains so that the company can work with someone who’s genuinely enthusiastic about having this account. As uncomfortable as these conversations can be, when you make the choice to release a client with respect and kindness, you’re going to feel better as you drop the baggage from your business.