The only constant is change. And when it comes to client relations, sometimes one of your outgrows the relationship and it comes time to break up. Breaking up is never easy, but when you know the relationship is no longer working, then you have to face facts and tell your client, “I’m sorry, but it’s over.”
I have had a lot of those moments in the past few weeks. With the coming of the New Year, there are changes in strategy, budget, staff, and what used to be a great working relationship suddenly changes. Here’s a litany of my recent client break-up experiences:
- New company direction and budget reset for 2012 – marketing and PR support is no longer a priority.
- New marketing executive who decides to bring in his own team.
- Economy has reduced the client’s budget to the point where you lose money working for them at a reduced rate.
- The client’s demands are starting to take up more of your time, but they won’t allocate more budget and they are increasingly slow to pay your invoices.
Any of these sound familiar? Working with clients can be a lot like dating. As long as the relationship has mutual benefit then you continue to work together, but if one or the other party becomes disenchanted, well… I actually see it as part of my mission to help my clients outgrow my services. If I am good at my job, the client company’s business will expand to the point where they need more marketing and PR resources, which means it’s time to hire more in-house staff or bring in a bigger firm. I’m always satisfied when that happens because it means I have done my job and they client has evolved to the next level. It’s all part of the business lifecycle.
Still, breaking up is always hard to do. When it becomes clear that the working relationship is no longer of mutual benefit, it’s time to part company. Sometimes you will find that a client wants too much, or is detracting from more profitable work, or is just too difficult to work with. Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 indicates that 20 percent of your clients probably make up 80 percent of the workload. They also should make up 80 percent of your profits, but not necessarily contribute 80 percent of the headaches.
When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s always difficult. You don’t want to turn away business, even if it gets in the way of finding something more lucrative. Somehow, the idea of firing a client seems to bad for business, when in reality, getting rid of a bad client is the best thing you can do for your operation.
So how do you do it? Be professional and be up front. We all like to avoid conflict, and that leads to unclear communications and passive-aggressive behavior that just makes things more difficult. You want to end the relationship in a way that you both have respect for one another, and so you can use that soon-to-be-former client as a reference later on. Here are some tips I’ve borrowed from Nellie Akalp of CorpNet that you should find useful.
1. Remove emotion from the equation. I know I tend to get pissed off at clients for any number of reasons. Don’t make decisions when you feel angry or hurt; it will be the wrong decision. Instead, assess the client relationship calmly and rationally and weigh the pros and cons before you decide to part ways. If you find your ego being bruised time and again by the same client, then listen to your instincts.
2. Honor the contract. My contracts have a termination clause – typically from two weeks to 30 days. Be sure you have fulfilled your part of your contract and honored all of your obligations. It’s good business and will help you secure a reference if you need one, and keep you out of trouble. Beside, it’s just the right thing to do.
3. Schedule a meeting. It’s so easy to send an email or leave a voice mail message. It’s also a cowardly way to avoid confrontation. Schedule a personal meeting or at least a phone call to explain your position, come to a mutual understanding, and discuss any transition. Meeting face-to-face may be uncomfortable but it’s the right thing to do. (You wouldn’t dump your girlfriend with a text message or PostIt would you?)
4. Be succinct. Don’t rehash all the reasons you are firing the client, or all the good work you have done in the past. What’s the point? Just keep it short and sweet.
5. Give sufficient notice. Don’t walk out in the middle of a project. Don’t leave the client in a bind by dropping everything. Honor the spirit as well as the specific terms of your contract and provide the best service you can right up to the end. That shows professionalism and a genuine desire to see your client succeed.
6. Help with a transition. Offer alternative resources. Prepare all the material you need to help the client hand off the work to another resource. Acknowledge your contribution by offering to pass on what you have done and what you have learned so others who follow don’t have to start from scratch.
Once you recognize the party’s over, leave gracefully. The professionalism of your exit and how you choose to terminate a client relationship says a lot about you, your firm, and your professionalism, and may make the difference in building your brand reputation or making an enemy with unkind words that may follow you to your next gig.