Breaking Up with a Client

Happy 2018!

January offers a fresh start, a time when we make resolutions to do better, to be better. It’s also an opportunity to take stock of your business by asking three “W” questions:

  • WHAT: Are we doing the work we want to/should be doing?
  • WHO: Are we working for the right customer?
  • WHY: Is the work we are doing lucrative or moving us in the right direction?

Your business will evolve over time, as can a client’s needs, so what do you do when answers to these questions point to a client relationship that’s no longer working?

What would make you need to break up with a client?

Let’s face it: clients keep us in business. But sometimes, as in any relationship, it may be time to walk away. Breaking up is hard, especially when the other party contributes to your bottom line.

Consider this example:

Retail shop owner Claire hires marketing expert Sue to craft a strategy to increase the visibility of her store. Sue and Claire agree on objectives, budget, and schedule. Sue presents the plan to Claire, who gives her approval for Sue to proceed. Halfway through the execution of the plan, which is working as expected, Claire decides she wants to modify the approach, believing her new plan will magnify their results. As a professional marketer, Sue immediately sees issues with Claire’s adjustments and raises her concerns. Sue points out that not only will Claire’s strategy fail to achieve the agreed-upon objectives, it will also undermine the work they have done to-date. Sue tries unsuccessfully to reach a compromise with Claire, who insists that Sue move forward with executing her new (flawed) plan, with the expectation that it will produce amplified results. Sue is in a bind. Not only has her professional advice been ignored, but she knows that if she continues with Claire’s plan, it will not produce the desired outcomes, reflecting poorly on her.

Sue is clearly in a no-win situation, and her best option is to “break up” with Claire before her reputation is damaged. You may also need to break up with a client if:

  • Your client’s goals and/or the approach to reach them differ from your own.
  • Your professional partnership has stalled, with neither party experiencing growth.
  • You feel instinctively that an issue exists with the relationship. (Refer to our “Measuring the Hunch” blog post for ways to test your theory.)

How do you prepare for a break up?

Think of breaking up as pruning a shrub; you must cut off the old to allow new growth to flourish. These steps will walk you through what to consider prior to a breakup:

  • First, you must be able to clearly articulate the reasons for the breakup. If you cannot state why you want to dissolve the relationship, it’s in your best interests to reflect further on the decision.
  • Next, assess the impact of the breakup on both your and your client’s business. Be prepared to address any issues that may fall out. For example, if your client will require further support, be ready to make a recommendation for another service that could help them.
  • Then, prepare for the financial implications of the breakup. Fill your pipeline to replace lost income and adjust expenses as necessary.
  • Finally, prepare your internal team for the breakup. Ensure they communicate the same reasons for the breakup and that you are all on the same page with respect to timing.

It’s time to break up. How do you do it?

Follow these guidelines to make your client breakup as smooth as possible:

  • Don’t delay. Once you’ve prepared for the breakup, act quickly. The goal is start the new year fresh.
  • Express gratitude for your professional relationship to-date.
  • Explain the rationale for the breakup. Keep the reasons simple and avoid over-explaining.

After the breakup – what next?

Post-breakup is an excellent time for active self-reflection and recalibration. Ask yourself:

  • Where did this client relationship go off-course?
  • What could they or we have done differently?
  • How can we avoid the same mistakes moving forward?

Breaking up with a client is a big step.  By “pruning the branches,” you’re allowing for more energy and focus on growth and creativity.  What you learn from the breakup may propel you onto greater things, so be optimistic! It is a new year, after all!