No, this is not an episode of The Apprentice, and we are most definitely not Donald Trump. But from time to time, as business owners, we’ve had to face the difficult reality that not all clients are the right fit, even if on paper they might have seemed so.
Over the years, I’ve found myself in this position twice, and in both cases, I struggled mightily with the right course of action. By nature, I’m not a confrontational person, and while I often say, “It’s business; it’s not personal,” I know that’s not entirely true for me. I build deep relationships with clients because it’s how I’m wired and it’s the way I work best. But in both of these cases, I found myself backed into a corner, unsupported, defensive, and on guard. Not great places to be, and definitely not the environment in which I do my best work.
In one case, I worked with a client for a solid year. From the get-go, I knew something was off; they did some things at the beginning of our contract that didn’t sit well with me, and while I was vocal about it, I pulled an Elsa and let it go. But throughout that year, things continued to go downhill despite my best efforts. At one point, it became clear that the relationship was steeped in dishonesty and that the client cared more about checking boxes than the impact of the work. Those two things – dishonesty and box-checking – are fundamentally incongruent with my personal and professional values… and yet, I still wrestled with whether or not to let this client go.
Why? On the surface, it seems like it would be a really simple decision, but it’s so easy to get caught up in your own head. I went from frustrated and disappointed at the working relationship being a hot mess to guilty and ashamed I couldn’t make it work to scared to walk away from the financial security of having this client. My thoughts about finances, my passion around the work itself, and a desire to see things through were at war with what I knew needed to happen. I needed to walk away from this client because I wasn’t at my best with them, and they were also going to suffer because of it.
As a business owner, you have to be smart and strategic about selecting your clients and equally smart about letting poor-fit clients go.
Recently, a similar situation has presented itself, and it has reinforced for me just how important it is to determine who you want to work with and why. As Christy said last week, you’re not for everyone, and everyone is not for you. And that’s 100% okay. As you think about who you want to work with, ask yourself:
What do I believe?
Who do I really want to work with?
Do I need my clients to believe and want those same things?
What do my clients believe?
Do we share a similar worldview?
Do they believe in the importance of ethics and integrity the way I do?
Do they have a sense of personal accountability?
Are they box-checkers? Are they in it just to make money?
Do they want to make a truly positive impact on the world?
These considerations dramatically shape your relationships. When you’re building client relationships and working through your intake process, you have to choose clients who also embody these values.
But what happens when you’ve done the hard upfront work only to see it go downhill?
Recently, I’ve had several of our Smart Girls raise concerns about clients, and these were some of the reasons they were struggling:
The client makes unreasonable demands. In many cases the demands go beyond the agreed upon contractual obligations.
The client is never satisfied with my work. No matter what I do, it’s not enough.
The client treats me poorly. They are unkind, disrespectful, and dishonest. I’ve been thrown under the bus more than once.
The client is consistently late to pay their invoices.
The client wastes my time – and theirs – by being unprepared for meetings or not following through on their actions. We can’t make any progress if they don’t actually do their part.
You can likely add to this list based on your own experiences, but at the end of the day, you have to decide how you want to be treated and what your expectations are for your client relationships. I know it can be tempting to justify their behavior, but you have to stop giving them a pass. Your brain will always try to convince you to stay because you need the income or their name on your resume, but those are lies. At the end of the day, you have to protect your personal and professional boundaries and hold people accountable.
In both cases I mentioned, I had to work through those thoughts. I had to determine whether the income was actually worth the toxic feelings, the wasted time and energy, or the effort I was having to make to overcompensate for these boundary breaches. True to my eternally optimistic nature, I hoped it would work out, that things would get better if I raised the issue. I wanted to believe it would go away, but it never did; the relationships continued to go downhill, and I continued to feel worse and worse about it.
And that’s how you know it’s not a good match. If you’ve communicated your concerns and they haven’t been met with acceptance and change, or at least real consideration, it’s time to say goodbye.
It may make sense and feel easier in the short term, but keeping them is cheating your business – and you – out of getting clients that are truly a good fit and that you’ll love.
As you take a hard look at a challenging client, make sure you evaluate if you’re letting them go for the right reasons. When you look at clients, you have to determine whether or not it’s a fundamental mismatch in values and you’re truly incompatible OR if it’s just a challenging situation that you wish were a little easier. If it’s just challenging, have the conversation. Be up front about your needs and wants and see if there’s any wiggle room. In my experience, the client is often feeling that same tension and will welcome a positive change. If it’s a fundamental mismatch and you’ve had the conversation and raised your concerns with no response, you may need to let them go.
Letting clients go isn’t an overnight thing. You have to make sure it’s the right time. In some cases, you may literally need the income, have remaining contractual obligations that only you can deliver on, or may leave them in the lurch if you cancel immediately. This is where you need to develop an exit strategy and be really proactive about it. Don’t let finances be your excuse. Trust me, it’s not fun or worth it.
Once you’ve made the decision to part ways, then you move into the HOW. This is where you’re really going to prep for the conversation. Here are 4 steps to help you frame your conversation.
1. Explain the situation with facts. Be polite and concise.
You don’t have to go into a lot of detail or justify your decision. The goal here is simply to put the facts on the table, politely and concisely.
2. Focus on their interests. Don’t make this about you, but rather on how this is in their best interest.
This is where I really want you to embrace the “It’s business, not personal” mantra. In situations like this, when there’s a values mismatch or you simply aren’t a good fit, you’re not going to be able to give your best to the client… and that means they can’t be at their best either. This is a case where it’s in everyone’s best interest to part ways.
3. Keep it professional. In business, it’s important to “keep the windows open” so to speak, and you never know who you’ll come in contact with years down the road.
The goal here is to set everyone up for success, so how you have this conversation, when, and what you say matters. As I said above, while this relationship may not be working for you, it’s also not really working for the client. So, don’t play the blame game or get emotional. In any industry, people talk and you want to be on the up and up here.
4. Set expectations for what they can expect and any help you can offer.
Partner with them on a good timeline and how you can support them until that agreed-upon date has come to an end. If you can, help them find a better a replacement. Your goal of ending the relationship should not leave them frantic and scrambling. Remember, it’s meant to be in both parties’ best interest. Lastly, make sure you complete all remaining work and document where you’ve left off to ensure a smooth transition. Ethics and professional integrity matter.
One thing to note: Professional courtesy dictates you end the relationship over phone, or better yet, in person. I tend to agree with this, but depending on the circumstances, email may be a better alternative. Use your best judgement here and think about how you would like to be on the receiving of a difficult conversation like this. Most likely, it’s going to be face-to-face.
If you’re struggling with how to pull this together, I created some scripts for you – 3 Powerful Scripts to End a Client Relationship. Feel free to download and customize it. Each relationship is personal, and you know the nuances to give it that personal and professional touch. And we added in a bonus Healthy Client Checklist because we know it’s important that you do this right.
Ending a client relationship really should be your last resort. So, if there’s a fundamental values mismatch or the relationship is beyond repair, it’s time to gently but firmly part ways. Manage it well and everyone wins. Be clear, concise, and firm. Once the decision has been made, do not waver or leave the conversation open for negotiation.
This is hard, heavy work, Smart Girls, but it’s important. If you need a sounding board or we can help you frame a conversation you need to have, please don’t hesitate to let us know! We’re happy to help.
Until next time, be present, be strong, be you!