The End of the Road

Break the news the right way. Six steps to successfully cut ties with problematic or unprofitable clients.

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Over a hundred of her clients only use her services once a year. They expect champagne service on a beer budget, and they pull her attention away from the people she works with regularly. This group is weighing her down, and after some soul searching, she’s decided they’ve got to go. Her business is running her, and it’s not working.

Plain and simple, he doesn’t like working with them. They pay late, they always look for extras, and they’re generally unpleasant. Life’s too short, he doesn’t need the work, and today is the day he’s pulling the plug.

They pay their bills on time, they’re as regular as clockwork, and they’re no longer profitable. They’ve been great clients, and she dreads having to tell them they’re no longer a fit. Nevertheless, due to resource constraints, it’s got to be done.

From time to time and for myriad reasons, service providers, such as snow and ice management professionals, must let a client or class of clients go. As with any other difficult conversation, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make the decision and break the news.

Step One: Be Methodical

Snap judgments can feel good in real time. Later, however, many people come to regret actions they’ve taken in the heat of the moment. So, when the thought of leaving a client enters your mind, take a step back and ask yourself why. Does the client not fit with your business model anymore? Does the person bring you down in some way? Does helping the client take away from more important work? If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, it’s time to think about what you will accept, what you won’t, and what types of clients make sense for where you are now and where you want to be in the next few years. Once you have clear criteria, you have something against which you can evaluate.

Step Two: Is the Relationship Over?

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After you’re clear about what you want and the kind of client that fits the bill, you must decide if the relationship is finished or if it has rehab potential. For example, if a client pays late and it’s making the relationship unpleasant, a frank conversation may solve the problem. On the other hand, if the client doesn’t value you or his or her business is no longer part of your core service, you may want to say goodbye. Alternatively, consider revising your fees. Some people may be perfectly happy to pay to stay.

Step Three: A Clean Break Or An Alternative

When a client’s behavior is perfectly fine but the client no longer fits, sending them in another direction may make sense. When you do, however, you need to be clear you are out of the picture and not a go between for managing the new relationship. In other words, if something goes wrong, you’re not involved.

On the other hand, if the client you need to break up with is abusive, it hardly makes sense to recommend a colleague. After all, would you want people sending toxic clients your way?

Step Four: Choose the Right Time

When you make a split is as important as how. For instance, if you’re an accountant and just before tax time you make a break with clients who only use you at tax time, you’re going to make a lot of people angrier than they need to be. When possible, provide ample warning.

Step Five: Be Short and Direct

When you break the news, keep the explanation brief. “Karen, I have some updates about my business and where my focus is for the coming year. We’ve been shifting our attention to full-service clients for quite some time. Full-service clients are people who need us every month and not just once a year. You should know this is the last year I’m going to be handling clients who do not need our full services. Based on what I understand from working with you, I don’t think full service is something you need. Am I correct?”

Or, if the breakup is a result of a client’s behavior, the message may be a little different. “Roger, for our services to work, we need clients who respond when we ask for their feedback. We don’t have the resources to manage the follow up required when we don’t hear anything. Because feedback isn’t happening and it’s been an ongoing issue, we’re going to step away from the relationship.”

Step Six: Stand Firm and Stay Calm

Some people take a split well, and others don’t. No matter the reaction, you should stay calm and stick by your carefully reasoned decision.

No matter the reason, splits in business are rarely fun when they’re happening. Once they’re over, however, they can free you to tackle new challenges and do the work that makes you happiest and most successful.
October 2022
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