It’s hard to imagine when you’re first starting out as a freelancer or business owner and cherishing every client that comes in, but sooner or later, you’re going to reach a point where you need to fire a client. It’s not a sign that you’ve done a bad job, and actually, realizing when something is going to end badly despite everyone’s best efforts is a sign you’re learning to choose good client – a vital part of succeeding. Even though this situation doesn’t often end up in court or involving lawyers, we’ve helped quite a few clients think through the process. In doing so, we’ve also found a few things that can often help ensure this difficult situation goes as smoothly as possible.
1. Plan for the worst from the get-go. – Make sure that the document that governs your relationship (terms and conditions, service agreement, independent contractor agreement, etc.) makes clear that you can terminate the relationship, and what is required of you if you do. If you (or your lawyer) didn’t draft the agreement make sure you review it before you mention ending the relationship so you know exactly what you have to do (or not do).
2. When you think you know, you know. Ending client relationships isn’t so much different from ending personal ones. You’ve likely never looked back on a relationship you ended and said “Wow, I wish I had stayed in that longer.” Generally it’s quite the opposite. The same is nearly always true with clients. Trust your gut. As soon as you start dreading work you generally enjoy with other clients, or start to sense that this person can not be made happy, it’s time to start planning your exit.
3. Keep it short and sweet. This is another guideline borrowed from personal break-ups. Once you’ve decided to pull the trigger on ending something, don’t drag it out. Plan how you want to deliver the news (in person or on the phone is generally best, but if you suspect the client may try to cause trouble down the road, do it in writing so you have a record of exactly what happened.
4. Help make the transition. Do everything you can to prepare the client for the transition to a new provider. Gather the work completed to date and send it to the client. Offer to chat with the new provider, but set a time limit on all of these offers. Don’t allow feelings of guilt to allows you to slip into continuing to work after ending the relationship.
5. Debrief afterward to find the problem. Once you’ve pulled the trigger and ended a relationship with a client (and told them, and taken care of the transition work) it’s tempting to put it behind you and never look back. But don’t do this. Take some time to really examine the entire transaction, and to be honest about what could have gone differently (and specifically what you could have changed) to make it work better. Sometimes the answer is just that the person was difficult, but even then there is likely something you can take with you into future client relationships to make them run more smoothly. And remember, it’s progress, not perfection. Once you’ve taken a look, feel free to move ahead and leave this one behind. Don’t dwell, you get better at this with every challenge!