How to Fire a Client (and Why You Should)

*UPDATED POST* This is an oldie but a goodie – so much so that after a conversation with a biz friend today I decided to redo it for 2020!

“If you’re thinking about a client rather than your partner when you go to bed, you need a new job.”

That bit of wisdom allowed us as a company – and me as an owner – to finally cut the cord and say goodbye to clients who either had  unreasonable expectations, whose budgets and expectations were clearly way out of whack, or who were so unpleasant to deal with that doing business with them felt like a bad romantic relationship.

Most small business owners I work with have a list of those clients, and every one of them has the same reasons for staying in the relationship that has clearly lost its spark: having invested time that would feel wasted, a serious bout of impostor syndrome and low confidence, or a spirit of competitiveness (for many of our clients it’s often a mix of all three.)

So once you identify the clients who cost you money, cost you time, or (worse) cost you happiness, how do you gracefully let them go – in such a way that running into them at the grocery store isn’t awkward and painful?

I used this plan for a whole slew of clients over a year ago and it worked beautifully. I used it again this year and it worked just as well. I didn’t use it for one client and that relationship ended less well – mainly because I didn’t pull the trigger when the red flags were piling up.

Step one: The Clarity Conversation

Start the process of letting go by having a meeting where you ask the client to clarify the expectations, the issues, and the problems they are experiencing with you. You’ll need to get clarity yourself on the issues from your side, and really try to put yourself into their shoes to see how you either promised things you couldn’t deliver, or how their expectations have grown and morphed after they came on board.

Be clear on why you are firing them, but don’t communicate it.

They will probably start by telling you there’s no big problem, in which case you can reiterate their last few emails, text messages, or phone calls where they have expressed the lack of satisfaction with the product or service you were providing. Once you have gotten to a place of honesty, they will be more likely to open up and explain to you how they would like to see things running. Ask them “if you had a magic wand, and could give them exactly the results, product, service, offering– whatever it is it you are giving them – what would those results look like in real life terms?” Are they looking for a new client every two days without having to do any paid marketing? Are they looking to have their house sold in 3 days with you taking new photos weekly – every time they declutter and paint a room? Are they looking for results that work in an unreasonable (or absurd) amount of time with a budget that doesn’t allow for those results? Once you have that information, thank them and end the conversation.

Most clients become skittish when they realize they sound unreasonable, but this is not the time to let them off the hook. You might need to probe and prod a bit to get them to be clear about their expectations, but clarity is the name of the game in these situations. You need to know daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly what the actual expectations are down to the last item – from sales, to results, to communications, to every last task you are expected to perform.

Keep defensiveness and snark out of this conversation. This is a fact-finding mission only, and you don’t need to explain yourself or defend your actions. Keep your head cool, and put yourself in the position of impartial investigator – remember they’re giving you the fuel you need to fire them, so the more they unleash on you the better!

Step two: The Break-up Email

Having reviewed their expectations and the implications of those expectations, and accounting for budgetary restrictions (I haven’t met a business problem – besides natural unpleasantness – that enough money couldn’t fix), you’re now able to send them an email that outlines exactly where the issues were coming up, and state your decision to cut ties.

In the email, outline the expectations that were uncovered during your clarity conversation, and take responsibility for every part of the lack of clarity that you reasonably can.  You don’t need to – and shouldn’t – throw yourself under any client-driven busses, but make sure your response is kind, generous, and that you take accountability for your part of the mess. Since you’re putting this in writing, make it a piece of communication that you would be proud for your employees, your mom, and your worst enemy to read.

After clearly outlining the expectations they have, you can simply state that as you now understand their wishes, you aren’t able to provide those results, or work to those standards. (You can add “under your current budget” if they’re a client you would keep if they paid better, but it’s certainly not necessary. This is a Dear John letter, after all.)

Then, and this is a strong recommendation, refer them to a competitor that you genuinely think will do a good job. You can take the lead and offer to introduce them and get them up to speed on the project, along with communicating the clear expectations you now understand so well. The competitor can then make a proposal that takes into account the actual wishes, needs, and expectations of the client and with all the red flags presented right away. Remember that your worst client is somebody else’s ideal – and that with the clarity you are providing they can make the decision on whether to offer services, and how much to charge for the services they’ll be providing.

Step three: Ahhhhhhhhh…Sweet Release

Then the final step, the second you hit “Send”, pour yourself a glass of whatever you like to drink and then go to bed and sleep the sweet slumber of a person who stood up for themselves. The next morning, it’s a new day, and it’s time to take every ounce of creativity, energy, and time that you wasted spinning your wheels with the impossible client and use them to network, market and grow new amazing client relationships.

*Side note for anyone feeling panicked about temporary loss of income: when we cut ties with our impossible clients, a whole slew of new AWESOME clients have appeared out of the ether every time.*