August 3, 2015
Brittany Hodak, co-founder, Zinepak: ‘One of my favorite things to do when we’re setting the meeting is to invite somebody to a quick-serve restaurant. We have a policy at Zinepak where we only work with good people, and we fire a lot of clients for being difficult or horrible or impossible. If you invite somebody to meet you at a Chili’s, for instance, and they say, “Absolutely not, I would never go to a Chili’s,” it’s an easy way to say, “You know what, this is probably going to be a very difficult person to work with.”
You would be surprised how many people would say, ‘I’m not going to meet you for lunch at a Chipotle, that’s a terrible idea!’ And it’s kind of a really great way to gauge how much they actually care about being creative and innovative, and how much they care about their own status and how senior they are.1
How to Fire a Client in 6 Easy Steps
In the first article in this series, “Sometimes You Just Have to Fire A Client,” I provided five guidelines for deciding whether firing a client is a good idea and approaching the decision in a professional way. I discussed how to choose which clients to fire, and what to do with clients who represent so much value to your business you can’t afford to fire them, despite the problems they cause to your business in the second article, “Which Clients Should You Fire?” In this article, I’m going to get down to the nuts and bolts of how to fire a client.
STEP ONE: Always be polite!
One cannot ever understand the importance of being polite, professional, and (if at all possible) sincere at all times. Remember, an unhappy client or customer may post negative reviews online, discourage others from doing business with you, or otherwise harm your brand. At a minimum, the client is unlikely ever to spend money with you in the future if you burn the bridge. That might seem okay, now; but why close off a potential revenue stream if you don’t have to.
STEP TWO: Consider a referral.
Someone might be a great client for someone else, even if they are a client is terrible for you or for your business. Maybe someone else doesn’t mind whatever it is about that client that makes it miserable for you to work with them. If you think they would be compatible with another professional, vendor, or supplier, consider a friendly referral. Bonus points for a warm hand-off by personally introducing the client to the person or company to whom or to which you are referring them.
STEP THREE: Review your contract!
If you are using a written contract to govern your relationship with your client or customer, it should govern how that relationship should wind up. Do you need to send a written notice? How many days in advance do you have to give notice of your cancellation or termination of the relationship? Do you need to return any property, such as a client file, to the client?
For my fellow attorneys, please make sure your “clients get a well-organized file for the next lawyer to represent them, and you inform the clients that you will make yourself available to the next lawyer if there are any questions. This last item is in some ways self-serving because new counsel could see something in the file that, owing to the lawyer’s lack of familiarity with the matter, appears badly done and perhaps even reaching the level of malpractice. An explanation from you is very useful here before things spiral out of control.”2
STEP FOUR: End it quickly!
End it quickly. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “You should just do it like a BAND-AID: One motion, RIGHT OFF!” The point is: don’t procrastinate. Some people dread having difficult conversations. If you are one of those people, sit down and compose a letter. Give it the 24-hour rule (wait 24 hours after composing correspondence before sending it, to ensure you’ve thought through everything you want to say and are saying it the way you should), and then mail it after reviewing and editing it, if necessary.
STEP FIVE: Accommodate unstable clients.
Not everyone is an emotionally balanced, intelligent, well-adjusted person who is generally good, despite having some flaws. When you imagine your typical “problem” client, the distinction between what we think of as “normal” people and “problem” clients is probably thrown into stark relief. So, it’s a good idea to consider whether a client might just go off the rails as a result of your decision to end your relationship with them. Put in place some reasonable, common-sense precautions to help you manage such a situation, should it arise.
STEP SIX: Plan ahead, and make firing clients a regular process.
The time to start the process of firing a client is when you initially establish the client or customer relationship. In general, what you want to do is set reasonable expectations for your clients about how the relationship will be initialized, how it will operate, and how it will conclude. Using a good client intake form to collect client data in the beginning of the relationship, carefully reviewing and scrutinizing it, and then determining from the outset whether you’re the best professional to handle the client’s needs can reduce the likelihood you’ll need to fire clients.
Also, you should regularly review your client roster. Note whose accounts are under-performing. Note who is consuming a disproportionate share of resources. Note who is likely to cause other “problems” or force you to address expensive, time-consuming issues. Also, note who are your most valuable clients. Note who is not receiving enough attention. Note the customer or client relationships that make you happy to come to work (and maybe send these people a little ‘thank you’).
This kind of cost-benefit analysis should be done regularly. Some businesses do it every year, say, in the beginning of Quarter 4; some do it more often. The important thing is to make it a regularly scheduled event. Doing so will take some of the personal sting out of the decision to let go of a client. You can honestly tell them you reviewed their file as part of your business’s regular cost-benefit analysis, and you needed to reallocate resources elsewhere. Businesspeople will understand that; professionals will understand that. You probably don’t want to be doing business with the kind of people who will not understand that rationale, who will get upset, who will throw a tantrum, and who will go from being a “problem” client to a generally unpleasant former client.
In summary, do your initial due diligence on new clients, always be polite, consider a referral, review (and follow) your contract, end it quickly, accommodate unstable clients, and do all of these things as a regular business process to avoid having to “call out” problem clients on an individual basis (making things unnecessarily personal). Of course, if you need assistance in managing your client relationships from a legal perspective, or if you want help interpreting your client or customer contracts to see how to get out of them with as little fuss and expense as possible, Executive Legal Professionals, PLLC is prepared to help you. Feel free to contact us anytime online or by calling +1 (615) 669-6566.
1 Aspan, M. (2014, June 10). The New Rules of Business Lunches. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from http://www.inc.com/maria-aspan/the-new-rules-of-business-lunches.html
2 Leffler, D. (2010). BEING SOLO How to Fire a Client. Retrieved August 3, 2015, from http://www.americanbar.org/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/2010_jan_feb_leffler.html
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