How to fire a customer (and have them come back later)

She was sixteen and an amazing girl. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to break up with her.

I had spent a weekend away and thought long and hard about the situation and it was time to end this serious relationship. Yes, when you're sixteen, any relationship feels serious.

So I did what we've all seen in the movies:

  • I practiced my opening lines.
  • I made it my fault (“it's me, not you”).
  • I imagined what she might say in response.
  • And I prepared responses for her responses.

When I got home, I called her up and suggested we go out. I did not say, “I think we should talk.” I knew better.

Have you ever had to fire a customer?

I don't know if you've ever had to fire a client, but it can feel just like those moments when I was sixteen.

  • You get nervous.
  • You don't know what to say.
  • You don't want to be a jerk, but you may have feelings.
  • You start rehearsing in your head. A lot.

In the end, here's the reality – it's not easy because it's not something you do a lot. And so you show up with little experience, let your fear come thru, and that only makes things worse.

So let's step into how to fire a client in a way that leaves you and them with dignity.

First, who are we talking about firing?

There are several different kinds of clients you might want to fire.

The person who doesn't pay you. This is a person who keeps telling you the check is in the mail. But what you know is that they're a liar. Because even the USPS doesn't take months. So you can't trust this person and you can't keep investing in work that isn't getting paid for.

The person who keeps moving the goal posts. Every time you feel like you're close to finishing a project, they make changes (and don't want change orders, they just want more free work). You never feel like you get any closure and you're worried that your profits are disappearing.

The person who bothers you. Maybe you signed up a client and then they put someone else in place to be your key contact. Now you realize that you're not having any fun anymore and you're tired of a person who just really bothers you. It doesn't matter how much they're paying.

The person who talks too much. Every now and then you get a customer who isn't just paying you for your work. They're paying for your friendship – or so it seems. They call at all hours of the day. They want to talk. All. The. Time. And every time you answer the phone, you know your profit is running away.

I could go on, but you get the point. The issue could be them. The issue could be you. Or it could be the particular match. Whatever the case may be, these are the kinds of situations you find yourself in, and now it's time to fire them.

No matter what, you don't want to burn bridges

Here's the thing. The world we live in is small. Seriously.

[Tweet “The world we live in is small. Who you fire today might hire you tomorrow.”]

That means you never know if someone you fire today may want to hire you tomorrow. Figuratively, that is.

So the trick is to not fire a client in a way that destroys not only the current relationship but also a person's dignity.

We do business with people. They have real feelings. Those feelings can be hurt. Even in business.

So your goal should be to close a chapter in a relationship, not burn the entire book.

[Tweet “Your goal should be to close a chapter in a relationship, not burn the entire book.”]

How to fire a customer – the actual conversation

To do this right, I use a five step process that I started developing when I was sixteen.

  1. You need to be able to summarize the current status or dynamic.
  2. You need to go back to an earlier time and describe your expectations.
  3. You need to highlight the poor alignment between today's situation and earlier expectations.
  4. You need to then excuse yourself from the current situation and relationship.
  5. You need to articulate next steps.

Notice what you're not doing. You're not jumping to the “it's me, not you.” The truth is, it's partly you (and those expectations you have) and partly them (changed dynamic). So you want to be honest about it.

What you're doing is leaving people with their dignity.

Let's walk thru a quick example

What I thought I would do is show you how one of those earlier examples would translate into the five-step process written above.

The person who doesn't pay you.

Hey Bill, I'd like to talk to you about the situation we're in right now. As of last Monday, you're account is significantly past due. When we started working together, we were excited to work on such an interesting project. At this point, that excitement isn't enough to warrant working for free – which is what the team has been doing for the last several weeks. So at this point, I need to move them on to an active project. When we've received the balance that's due, we can talk again about whether it makes sense to spin the team back up and keep working together.

That's a 30 second conversation if you're on the phone. It's full enough to highlight all the issues, yet not so long that it feels like you're belaboring the point.

[Tweet “When you fire a client, you need to focus on changing the situation, not the person.”]

When we go on (and on, and on) about a situation that isn't working, we're quietly suggesting that it's not the situation that sucks, but that it's a person who does.

When you fire a client, you need to focus on changing the situation, not the person.

It's the situation that needs to change

As I sat there with my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, I quickly realized that all my preparation for this conversation had been useless. I had dreamed up lots of angry words, but at the moment, I didn't feel anger.

I felt a bit of sadness because the reality was that we'd both changed over time (months were a long time in those days).

So I highlighted that what I really wanted was the situation to shift. It's wasn't directed at her. It was directed at our situation.

And in so doing, I left each of us with all our own dignity intact.

A fact that was clear over the next year as we broke up and got back together four more times.

But isn't that what we want when we close off a chapter with a client? The ability to circle back and work together if the circumstances are right?

I think so. What about you?