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How to fire bad clients

by | Oct 1, 2022

Last week’s email – ‘Why you should let bad clients go’ – totally jinxed me (here’s a link, in case you’re the sorta monster that doesn’t read every single one of these 😤). I hit send, checked my inbox, and was greeted with a client tirade. They were essentially mad at me for something a totally different consultant suggested they do and had sent three paragraphs of unnecessary rudeness. And, being scolded isn’t exactly why I went into business for myself. I understand business and taxes are stressful, and people are bound to get emotional, but unnecessary rudeness is the fastest way to wind up on my shitlist.

But, even when clients are outright rude, firing a client is tough. It’s much easier said than done. There’s going to be some level of confrontation, you might lose revenue (for example, I waived my fees for this now ex-client or they may refuse to pay outstanding fees), there could be fallout, and it’s just extra stress that we don’t need in our already stressful lives. But, sometimes, it can’t be avoided and you have to fire a client (especiallyyy in the case of them mistreating you or your employees). In those situations, you should take the high road and work to minimize any potential fallout.

 

Be polite yet firm :

Nothing good comes from name-calling. And, while a less-than-polite firing may feel cathartic, it doesn’t actually help the situation. You want to be polite to minimize potential fallout (eg, a drawn-out argument, damaging your reputation, a lawsuit, etc) and firm in your decision so there isn’t any backtracking or wiggle room. Write like your email might be read in court one day. It doesn’t need to be full of legal jargon, but it shouldn’t warrant a dirty look from your attorney, a judge, or your business insurance.

 

Ask someone else to proofread it :

It might just be me, but I can’t read an email’s tone when I’m too consumed by the problem. It could be a large pitch, a client I’m pissed at, or even just delivering bad news. When I’m too close to an issue, it clouds my objectivity. Ask a colleague to proofread your email to make sure it’s polite yet firm. Some people call this ‘asking their personal board of directors’. But, you don’t have to get official with it. Just a quick ‘hey, got a quick sec? I’m super pissed at this client. Can you proofread this? Is it polite yet firm? Or is it obvious I’m furious?’ to a trusted colleague or neutral party is enough.

Ignore their response (unless it genuinely needs to be answered):

Depending on the circumstances, your ex-client may get upset and they may take that out on you via a nasty email. But, don’t answer it or stoop to their level. Emotional situations can’t be fixed over email (and, you certainly shouldn’t call them). You should only answer them, if it’s necessary to offboard them. And, most importantly, if they threaten legal action, don’t answer without first contacting your business insurance or a lawyer. Depending on the type of insurance, they’ll probably require you to contact them the second things go south and legal action is threatened so they can step in and mitigate damage.

Don’t worry about a single bad review :

Bad reviews happen. No matter how well you do discovery, screen new clients, and communicate, things will inevitably go wrong from time to time and you’ll get a few bad reviews. Or, an ex-client may take their anger out on your Google reviews. But, a single bad review isn’t the end of the world. People are more trusting of a less-than-perfect rating (because, a perfect score implies that the reviews are fake or incentivized). And, you can salvage a bad review with a polite and reasonable response.

(Check out this issue, if you need help answering a bad review: Reader question: “How do I respond to a bad review?”)

 

Check your contracts :

I know. You’re using a proposal template with boilerplate legalese that you found online. You shouldn’t be. But, lawyers are expensive, so you are. And, you’ve probably never read the legalese. You should’ve, but you haven’t. This’d be a good time to double-check what everyone agreed to before you accidentally terminate to your detriment. (And, firing a client or not, you really should set some time aside to read your proposals anyway. Preferably have a lawyer read it too. That’d be pretty cool.) And, if you signed their contract, you absolutely should review it before dropping them.

Offboard them:

Firing a client doesn’t mean absolutely cutting ties and halting all work when you hit send on that termination email. You still need to offboard them (because, you’re a consummate professional after all). Handoff any work they’ve paid for and are entitled to, remove your access from their accounts, remove their access to your portal/docs, and give them the same next steps you’d give any other client you’re wrapping up with. Finish the engagement and wipe your hands of it.

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