The Why and How of Firing Clients

“Web Worker” is a big tent. Some of us are building Web 2.0 and beyond, hopping from coffeehouse to meeting room and fueled by VC money. Some are telecommuting full-time for a single employer, working a job that’s traditional but for the fact that we don’t drive in to the office every day. And some are lashing together careers from some mix of freelance and consultant gigs, bouncing around online as we try to fill the needs of multiple clients over the course of a day.

If you’re in the latter group, you’re likely used to the eternal search for the new work needed to keep the cash flowing. But if you’ve spent your career focused only on client acquisition and retention, you’ve missed a very important skill: getting rid of bad clients.

Some people’s brains lock up at the very thought of firing a customer. This is a natural, but I think misguided, reaction that stems from two main sources. First, we’ve all had it drummed into us that “the customer is always right” – and if you truly take that to heart, it’s difficult to imagine that there could ever be a reason to get rid of a customer. Second, the customer is the one who keeps us eating. Playing with new technology and keeping up with the latest trends is fun, but if you don’t have invoices that someone else pays, it’s very difficult to buy groceries.

Nevertheless, if you take the time to think about it, you’ll realize that not all customers are created equal. We all know that some customers are a joy to work with: accommodating, enthusiastic, reasonable. Conversely, other customers make us dread the ringing phone. They’re demanding, annoying, and downright abusive. If you’re just starting out and scraping for every dime, you may not be in a position to be choosy. But if you’re an established web worker, it’s time to do a cost-benefit analysis and identify the clients that you would be better off without.

In general, you should seek to extricate yourself from relationships with customers who are more trouble than they’re worth. Among other things, this can mean:

  • Customers who are physically or verbally abusive
  • Customers who don’t pay their bills
  • Customers who expect you to throw in extra free work to keep their account
  • Customers who want you to undercut your standard rates
  • Customers who can’t supply specifications, design elements, or other materials on a timely basis
  • Customers who continuously express suspicion or distrust of your professional ethics

Ask yourself the question: is the money I make from this customer worth the effort it takes to serve them? Note that the answer to that question can change over time, as your client mix changes (or as your clients themselves change). It’s possible to outgrow a client, as well as to realize that you made a mistake in the first place.

If the time has come to part ways with a client, you should strive to do so in a polite and professional manner. While you can’t prevent an abusive ex-customer from saying bad things about you behind your back, there’s no sense in encouraging them to do so by being abusive yourself. Besides, it’s hard on the karma. Follow this checklist to sever the relationship as easily as possible:

  • End things in writing, not over the phone. You don’t want to leave any room for misunderstanding, and you don’t want to be argued into changing your mind. No good will come of continuing to work for a customer after you’ve told them you think they’re not worth your time.
  • Complete all work-in-progress, and have all work product ready to ship back to the customer.
  • Have a full invoice for work-to-date ready, and deliver it with the termination letter.
  • Offer a referral to other consultants who you think might be better suited to the customer, if possible. Ideally these should be firms who you know are actually hungry for the business. Some people suggest dumping unpleasant and abusive customers on competitors that you’d like to cause trouble for, but I personally prefer not to offer a referral at all in such cases.
  • Be honest. If you’re unhappy with the customer because of consistent late payment issues that you’ve been trying to address for months, don’t tell them that you’re moving to Alaska. It won’t do you any good to get a reputation for lying.

Conflict is rarely pleasant, and firing a customer is as unpleasant as firing an employee. But when you have to make the choice between living with a nagging pain for months and years, or quickly moving on in your career, you should do the right thing for your career. A professional relationship should be professional in both directions.

Have you had to go through a client firing? How did it work out for you?

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