Breaking up is hard to do: Why businesses need to occasionally fire clients

Tree Chopping at University
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I believe in finding good quality clients and building long-lasting relationships with them in which I can provide high value, high ROI content in exchange for collaboration and profitability.

In the past I’ve let clients go because I realized that I could no longer offer them the quality, value, and ROI they were looking for. Today, I had to “fire” two clients because they no longer fit within the framework I’ve just outlined in the paragraph above: One of my clients was no longer collaborative and the other was no longer profitable. Lest you think that I walk around like an executioner with an axe in my hand, let me assure you that I am not. In fact, I’m looking out for my own business and for theirs, and you would do well to prune your client tree from time to time as well. Your business and your clients with thank you — both the clients who remain and the clients who have to move on.

Popular business literature would have us believe that we need to bend over backwards for our clients. While I agree — to a point — that businesses should do whatever they can to keep their clients happy, there are two related myths that are incorrect:

  1. Your client is always right
  2. You need to keep your clients for life

I don’t believe the client is always right. That’s not to say that they are completely wrong (we’re not talking about a strict dichotomy here). But if clients were always right, they wouldn’t need my services. They pay me because we both know they are not always right but I can help them get that way (at least in the one area that I know I’m right). If my clients believed that they were always right, they wouldn’t trust me to deliver the sometimes honest feedback that they need to hear from me.

I don’t believe you need to keep your clients for life. I have a bunch of clients and I hope to keep most of them for life. They are awesome! I consider them more than clients but rather good friends. But I don’t feel that way about all of my clients and I know that not all of my clients feel that way about me. Which is fine. Those that are interested in developing a mutually profitable, collaborative relationship will see that I will do almost anything to keep them happy. There are others who do not feel compelled to develop a mutually profitable, collaborative relationship and those are the clients that are better served by someone else.

Overall, this “pruning” of your client list is good for business and it’s good for both the clients who remain and the clients who are sent packing (although it sometimes sucks to fire a client).

  • You’ll end up with more time to serve clients who do want to work with you and for whom you can deliver good quality work
  • You’ll end up making more money (in the case of clients you are working at a loss to serve)
  • You’ll enjoy your work more (because frequently the clients you first want to “fire” are the ones who are the most time consuming, negative, or focused on the transaction.
  • You’ll provide better service to your remaining clients because you won’t be stressed, distracted, and derailed by the client you’re letting go.
  • Your clients who remain with you will appreciate the additional care they get from you.
  • The clients who have to move on may not appreciate being ejected but will end up happier with someone who can work in a way that meshes with their needs and expectations better than you could.

Pruning the client tree is uncomfortable work but it is good to do from time to time.

Make a 3 columned list on a piece of paper.

In the left-side column, list all of your awesome clients — the ones you would fight tooth and nail to keep; the ones you would happily bend over backwards to serve; the ones you might actually shed a tear over if they told you they didn’t need your services any more. Take a moment and schedule time to engage with them even more than you normally have. You don’t need to tell them that they are left-side-column clients, but you can show it by going the extra mile.

In the right-side column, list the clients you NEED to get rid of as soon as possible; the ones who you can’t deliver high value, high ROI work to; the ones who aren’t interested in a long-term, collaborative, mutually profitable project. Make a plan to let each one go:  Some of those relationships can be ended right away with a professional phone call or email while other relationships will to be wrapped up with the completion of a project.

In the middle column, list the people who are on the edge. They could be great clients or they could be in the ejection seat and you’re torn about where to put them. Now form a plan for these clients. What will make them great clients? If you make adequate changes in the relationship to move them from the middle column to the left-side column, you’ve won! If you can’t make the changes necessary to turn that client into a left-side-column client then move them to the right-side column and let them go. And you’ve still won!

In my experience, my stress level is directly proportionate to the number of clients in the middle column! The fewer I have there, the happier I am (and the happier my left-side-column clients are). That’s because the ones in the right-side usually are clients I’m taking action on to professionally end the relationship, but the clients in the middle are in a sort-of netherworld where I feel stress but have no idea what to make of the relationship. Take action to either improve those relationships or end them — and everyone will win in this scenario (even if it involves some short-term unpleasantness).

Ive talked about “firing” clients here but don’t misread the actual act of firing. It’s not a Donald Trump “you’re fired” situation. I’m using that term as short-hand for the act of severing the relationship. There are professional ways of encouraging a client to move on.

  • Email or phone are both acceptable. I’ve used both. If you’re really nervous and afraid you’ll back down then email is better. I tend to use the communication medium that was primarily used during our business relationship.
  • Keep it short and professional.
  • Be honest. If you can’t offer them the value they need, tell them. If they are no longer profitable for you, tell them. I’ve had great talks with clients who moved from the right-side column to the left-side column after a conversation about what was going wrong and what needed to happen to make both parties happy. In other words, don’t use the “it’s not you, it’s me” cop-out.
  • Letting a client go is a type of “sale” so show them why it’s in their best interest to work with another professional.
  • Never ever fire a client based on emotion. If you get a nasty email from them, give yourself some time to cool off. It could be worth firing them over, but it might not be; you don’t want to make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment.
  • In my experience, the clients who are in the right-side column on your list are often the same ones would would put you in the right-side column on their list of business relationships! This is a two-way street! Remember that and use that to your advantage when you start the severing process. If your firing them comes as a complete surprise to them, perhaps a conversation about value, collaboration, and profitability are in order first.
  • If a client relationship is starting to turn sour — and I don’t mean just that you aren’t enjoying working with them but rather that there is a rising tension because of a miscommunication — name the situation and use that as a catalyst for change.
  • Keep in mind that any client you are firing likely has similar feelings about some of their own clients. You can raise this as a point in your defense saying that in their own business they would do the same if it made sense for them.

This is not a diatribe directed at anyone in particular, and I was planning to write this blog post long before I fired those 2 clients today.

  • If you are a past client of mine and you are reading this and wondering if you were fired for one of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, let me point out that I don’t “fire” all of my clients. Sometimes the relationship simply comes to an end because we both completed what we hoped to achieve from the project. I’m speaking specifically about situations that are no longer aligning with the way each party wants to do business.
  • If you know that you are one of my clients who has been let go, please know that I have no hard feelings about you personally and I wish you all the best. I’ve been writing for a long, long time and my decisions are purely business decisions not personal ones. It may not have seemed like it at the time but I truly did have your business’ best interest in mind when I decided that we couldn’t work together.
  • If you’re a client and you’re wondering which column you’re in, I don’t mind if you ask. As I mentioned, I will happily work with clients to make sure that we are in a win-win relationship. As long as I can provide you with value and ROI, and as long as you are collaborative and profitable, we can work together.

The metaphor of a business as a tree is very appropriate and if we want to enjoy the fruit of profit, we will need to periodically trim the branches. The tree doesn’t like it when we do that but the end result is always better.

Published by Aaron Hoos

Aaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He is the author of The Sales Funnel Bible and other books.

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