Awkward Business Conversations: How to Fire a Client
Welcome back to Awkward Conversations Week! As promised yesterday in turning down a potential client, today we’re going to talk about terminating an existing client relationship.
In preparation for writing this article, and to avoid reinventing the wheel, I pulled up my handy dandy search engine and searched for the phrase “how to fire a client”.
I found a lot, but I didn’t find much.
If you search that term – something I don’t recommend, by the way – you will find a lot of why you should fire a client, and you will find a lot of what you should do to avoid having to fire a particular client, and you will find a lot of what you should do to avoid attracting the types of clients you might later want to fire.
(For some reason, this reminds me of that old Rita Rudner quote. “Whenever I date a man, I think… is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?”)
When it comes to the actual firing part, though, support is a little thin on the ground.
In fact, the morality brigade seems to be coming out in full force – basically, you shouldn’t find yourself in this position in the first place. (Oh, and make sure to send them a thousand bucks to take Moths to a Flame TM, their magnetic client attraction class, while we’re talking about it. Then all your clients will be just dreamy.)
Maybe I have entitlement issues, and maybe the world has changed a little now that everyone and their Weimeraner has a coach, but I think that if you can’t stand working with someone, you should feel allowed to fire them. Knowing how to avoid this mess in the future is lovely. It’s particularly lovely in the future. Today, though, you have to fire this person, and you want to know how.
So, let’s go through a little disclaimer, and then we can get to the good stuff.
1. We are assuming you are in a line of work in which you are ethically permitted to fire a client.
2. We are assuming that firing them will not be in breach of your contract.
3. We are assuming that you do not owe them work.
You may owe them money, but you don’t owe them work.
For example, if they paid for several sessions at once, and you want to terminate the relationship, you owe them what they haven’t used but you don’t owe them what they have used. If they paid for a website and you’re quitting in the middle and leaving them with no website, you might owe them work as well. This varies based on your profession. If you’re not sure, search “how to fire a [line of work] client”. Design, copywriting, photography – they all have different rules and expectations. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re not a weird case.
4. We are assuming that your relationship primarily exists over email.
Most of what you see in the “How to fire a client” literature says that you should be a grown-up and fire them over the phone or in person.
In many online businesses, I don’t think that’s appropriate, for a few reasons.
First, if that’s not the medium in which they tend to do their administrative communication with you, you’re probably going to throw them off guard. They could be taking their kid to soccer practice right now. You call, you say, “Hey, Mike! It’s Jane. Is this a good time to talk?” They say yes, because they don’t know you’re about to fire them. Now you’ve screwed up Mike Jr’s soccer game. Way to go, meanie pants.
Second, it forces somebody to deal with a very unpleasant and unexpected situation on your timeframe, with no notice, and no time to compose themselves. This seems to be unnecessary in the modern era in which email is a perfectly acceptable medium for almost everything.
If my life coach called me up right now and fired me, I would be incredibly thrown by the interaction. If my life coach emailed me to make an appointment, and unbeknownst to me the purpose of the appointment was to fire me, I would spend three days wondering what the appointment was about, stressed as all get out, and then thrown when he got on the phone. Awesome.
Personally, I like email better. Counter-intuitively, I feel like it’s nicer.
5. We are assuming that you don’t think redemption is possible or desirable for you.
Yes, fixing the relationship is generally a better option. If they’re driving you crazy because they’re not reachable, or they never pay their invoices on time, or they keep procrastinating, yes – it would be preferable to train them before you fire them. (That’s tomorrow’s tutorial.) But we’re assuming that you’ve tried that, or that you don’t want to try it, or that it would be inappropriate under the circumstances.
I, for example, cannot work with aggressive or defensive people, and I don’t believe they (or I) think it’s my job to fix them. I can and will train you into paying your invoices. I can’t and won’t try to discipline you into killing your aggressive and defensive rationalization tendencies. I run a very comforting ship. If you are nervous about what I’m suggesting you do, for example, I expect you to say so like a grown-up and not retreat behind a wall of aggression. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the latter is a good idea, I don’t like you very much, and I don’t particularly want to redeem my relationship with you.
So, yes. If you can redeem it, do that first. We’re assuming that you’ve tried and failed, or you don’t want to.
(Or you’re firing them for reasons that have nothing to do with them. If you’re firing them because you just realized you hate being a life coach, that falls into the “not desirable for you” category and you can proceed.)
OK, based on all of these things, there are three main reasons you could want to fire a client.
First, you hate them. (Or you kind of hate them. Or you love them, but working with them makes you want to swallow a spoon.)
They have anger management issues. They’re expecting the impossible. They get wildly off track and then blame you for not meeting their original goals.
We had a client once who seemed to have early onset Alzheimers or a significantly impactful personality disorder. She was a wonderful, beautiful woman. She also got very confused when I asked her if she’d done something and then lied to cover up her confusion. She told me she’d had a newsletter for four years, and the following week told me she didn’t have a newsletter and never had. When I asked for clarification, she got combative and changed the subject. This type of thing would happen several times during a call.
Basically, this category is anybody you can’t stand working with, for whatever reason. It’s not the project you can’t stand – it’s them.
Second, they’ve changed. It’s not you, it’s them.
They had one set of goals or objectives, and that was within your scope of expertise. Now they’re doing something different, and you can’t or don’t want to help them.
This can be very tactical in nature. If you all of a sudden want to go on a massive press campaign, we’re probably not the consultants for you, for example. It can also be ethical or philosophical in nature. If you’re working with IttyBiz and a certain high profile splashy marketer at the same time, and they tell you you’re dead in the water if you don’t start doing high pressure sales webinars, well, we have an issue.
One client of mine was told she should be doing early morning automated phone blasts – basically, automated telemarketing at 6 o’clock in the morning. Call your prospect list before the sun comes up and wake them up to an automated sales message. If you insist I help you with that, we’re probably going to have to part ways.
If you teach mindful yoga, and your client has decided that they want to aggressively go for the Mrs. Bikini USA championships, that goes in this category.
Third, you’ve changed. It’s not them, it’s you.
You’re not doing that kind of work anymore. You’re leaving the business. You came to Jesus.
This is the simplest, because it’s the one that has absolutely nothing to do with them. You’re not going to have to put it to them gently because there’s nothing to put gently. This one’s pretty easy and doesn’t cause most people to lose sleep. A wording template is helpful, but you’re not getting an ulcer over this one.
So! Shall we get to the templates?
How to fire a client, the template
I’ll give you a template to work with, and then we’ll go through three (admittedly silly) examples.
[The salutation. You can use whatever you normally use, or you can say "Dear". I like "Dear". It's a Dear John Letter, not a Hi John Letter.]
[The intro. The only real goal here is to transition to the second paragraph. As long as what you say isn't actively stupid or abrupt, you're fine. Nobody's paying attention anyway.]
[The setup. Succinctly summarize the current situation. Try to say something nice. White lie if you have to. You're allowed to say "I'm happy to see you're growing" even if you're not that happy at all. This is a firing letter, not marital counseling.]
[Feelings, baby. This is where you say how the situation described in the setup makes you feel. Make it about you. Nobody can argue with how you feel. Jerks might try, but it's a hard skill to master. If you've tried to train them in the past, put a reference to that here.]
[No negotiation summary. Based on how you feel, this is what we're going to do now. The feelings part can leave a lot of people thinking there's room to argue, negotiate, or otherwise engage in conflict. This part shuts that down. If it's appropriate to refer, do so here.]
[Positive closing. You are allowed to lie here. You are allowed to say that you wish them the best of luck even if you actually wish they get run over by the Heathrow Express. Do not offer anything you don't want them to take you up on.]
[More formal end than you usually use. I use "Yours, Naomi". This differentiates from my normal communication, which is "xx ND".]
Example 1: They’re an insufferable bastard.
I hope you’re well. I’m writing with a bit of bad news.
From our consultations so far, it looks like you’re very committed to growing Pat’s Awesome Sauces very aggressively. I can see you’re on the fast track, and want to continue getting faster. From what you’ve communicated to me, it seems like you are only comfortable with a guarantee that I can get you results on what I consider to be an extremely aggressive timeframe, and I know my reticence on this issue has caused you some upset in the past.
I find this very stressful, and it has reached the point where I don’t feel that we’re suitable working together anymore. I don’t feel I can give you what you need, and I feel like our interactions are becoming increasingly combative. When we spoke on February 11th, I mentioned that I didn’t feel like your deadlines were attainable, and I felt like you really brushed that off.
I would love to refer you to someone who could meet your needs more effectively but to be honest, I know of no colleagues who could get Pat’s Awesome Sauces decreed the official hot sauces for the White House within 90 days. I can’t in good conscience refer you to someone who I know won’t deliver what you’re looking for. Valerie has sent you a check that covers the remainder of your consulting hours.
I do wish you and your sauces the very best of luck in the future, and I, like you, look forward to the day when Pat’s Awesome Sauces are on every kitchen table in America.
Example 2: They’re out of your league, or changing direction.
I hope you’re well. I’m writing with a bit of bad news.
You have been making incredible progress. Truthfully, yours is among the greatest personal training success stories I’ve seen. I’m incredibly proud of your growth so far, and I think we both know that your ability is at this point surpassing my own. Your recent heavyweight boxing championship win has really cemented this.
It’s a bittersweet realization for me, but I feel like I’m not the person to take you further on your journey. My practice is devoted to helping beginners and those struggling to find their footing, particularly in pilates. I’m not a boxing coach, and I don’t feel good taking your money when what you need is so clearly outside my skill set.
I know how much you thrive in a coaching environment, and I’d love to see you with someone world class in the arena you’re looking for. I’ve asked Valerie to compile a list of coaches who might be better suited to the direction you’re moving in. Evander Holyfield said he would be thrilled to take your call anytime. Since we are at the end of your most recent package of hours, we don’t need to worry about any remaining administration or amount due on either side – we’re fair and square.
I so look forward to seeing you on TV again, and if there’s anything you ever need that’s in the realm of Pilates or yoga, I would be delighted to start back up.
Example 3: You have to go see about a girl.
I hope you’re well. I’ve got some news that could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it. :)
The short version is that as of this week, I’m retiring from coaching in the Pick Up Artist community. It’s a positive move for me because I just got engaged to a wonderful girl – and she’s not even pregnant! – and for obvious reasons, my direction in life isn’t compatible with this industry anymore.
Coaching with you has been a blast, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I will always look back with fondness at my days being your wingman in Tijuana, although I may not always look back at them out loud around my wife. Valerie has whipped up a list of other coaches suitable for someone in your league, which I’ve attached here.
I probably won’t see you around – I don’t think I’ll be hanging out in the same haunts anymore – but know I wish you the best. I’ll send you an invitation when we’ve got a date set. Can’t wait to see the girl you bring.
Can I tell you a secret? I teared up reading that last one out loud to Dave. There is something seriously wrong with me.
Now that I have spent SIX HOURS writing this, please share it with someone.