It’s OK to Divorce a Client

Way back when any new business starts, we all have a tendency to think any client or account that we land is a good thing.  After all, one of the reasons we are in business is to sell our product(s) or service (s), build a relationship with our clients, and create a source of revenue in exchange for delivering our product (s) or service (s).

When I started out, I did exactly that.  I remember a conversation with a new client, my second or third.  She was asking for a service that I wasn’t quite sure how to deliver, but I took the plunge with the false confidence of a newly minted entrepreneur and said, “Absolutely, we can deliver”, anxiously hoping she didn’t catch the way my eyes darted as I tried to figure out the how of delivering the work.  After several months, though, it became abundantly clear to me that: A) The client wasn’t forthcoming about all of the details and was somewhat erratic; B) I was having challenges staffing the service due to the ‘On-Demand’ model of the work; and C) I was losing my shirt on the transaction.    I remember having a conversation with a neighbor who had been an entrepreneur for several decades.  He was asking how it was going, and during the course of the conversation, he provided me with the nugget of advice that has stuck with me ever since:  “You know, it’s okay to divorce a client.”

What you say?  You mean not all business is good business? And, God forbid, with a nod to Stew Leonard*, you mean the customer may not always be right?  Heresy! Isn’t turning away clients or prospects antithetical to the reasons we are in business?  Not necessarily.

One of the keys that now guide many of my conversations with prospective clients as well as team members is cultural fit.  This is as important, or maybe even more so, for small businesses as it is for large corporations.  If there are personality conflicts, unrealistic expectations or you just plain dread working with them, maybe that is the time to recognize the ‘irreconcilable differences’ that should force the divorce.

But how do I know that the relationship is unsalvageable and that couples counseling won’t help?  Here are a few red-flags that it’s time to move on and metaphorically file those papers:

When You Just Can’t ‘Get Along’

One of the pluses of running your own company is that you can pick and choose with whom you elect to work, both clients and team members.  If dealing with an erratic client causes stress for you or your team member, it is time to sever the relationship.

When Their Behavior Creates a Negative Atmosphere Or Toxic Relationship

At this point in my life, I have endured many a negative person and survived many a toxic work relationship.  After all, I spent many years in the corporate world where negativity and toxicity often run rampant.  And, a side benefit of running my own business is I can control whether I will continue to put myself and/or my team in ‘harm’s way’ of having to continue to endure negativity and toxicity.  This is where “Just Say No” and move on guides the decision.

When They Continuously Engage In Scope Creep or Harbor Unrealistic Expectations

I am sure you have been there; the work as initially defined, scoped, and priced is ABC, but when ABC is delivered, the client really wanted XYZ.  Setting and managing expectations is one element that can make or break a relationship.  In addition, communication between and among all parties needs to be clear, frequent and documented.  Even with the latter, however, there are some clients that want the world and expect you to read their minds, not to mention to eat the cost of their un-communicated changes.

When They Continue To Nickel and Dime You

Ah, the pricing dilemma.  You know the value of your services and charge accordingly.  But there is always that awkward conversation with that one client or prospect who tries to bully you into giving them the moon and the stars for a deep, unrealistic discount. When I have this discussion with a client or prospect who is ‘kicking tires’ or comes back with, ‘but I only want to spend’ fifty cents an hour, for a service for which I charge fifty dollars an hour, I wish them well and direct them to other resources.  It may be trite, but you do get what you pay for (Note:  to have an amicable parting, the latter should be unspoken, or at best, only verbalized in your head).

Okay, so you recognize the signs and decide that it in the best interest of you, your team and your business to have an amicable parting of the ways.  Here are some suggestions on how to engineer a break-up that is acceptable to both parties, and is more tolerable than “It’s not you, it’s me”.

If Working Style is the Reason

I pride myself and my company on being flexible and being able to adapt to any client’s unique way of working, but every once in awhile, there is that one situation where you get the “spidey sense” that, no matter what, you are just not going to be able to work with this person.  You can try the “it’s not you, it’s me”, but it may be better to refer them to another firm who may be better suited to their style.

When Personalities Don’t Gel

In addition to being flexible and adaptable, I pride myself on being able to work with almost anyone.  Having said that, there is that one person who is so abrasive that even Mother Theresa would be hard pressed to be able to tolerate, but you need to swallow deeply and face it head on.  This situation can be challenging, but recognizing and acknowledging that you may not be the best solution for them and offering solutions or resources on who may be a better, more effective fit can help to smooth this transition.

When Money is the Driver

You know the value of your products or services.  For a client who cannot, or will not, acknowledge the value, it’s time to suggest alternative options that will enable them to exit the relationship with their dignity (and purse strings) intact while still allowing you the opportunity to extricate from the situation unsullied.

Providing outstanding customer service is a goal of any business (or should be).  Having said that, recognizing situations with clients that erode your culture, philosophy and way of doing business represent an opportunity to deliver outstanding customer service by severing the relationship with those clients and maintaining your brand promise – not to mention your sanity.



*Stew Leonard Corporate Philosophy (Tax fraud and short-weighting issues notwithstanding):

Customer service

The store is notable for its customer-service policy, which greets shoppers at each store’s entrance etched into a three-ton rock:

  1. The customer is always right.
  2. If the customer is ever wrong, re-read rule #1.