Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I'm a web copywriter, and my oldest client (I've been with her for 6+ years) is like a family member to me. A family member who drives me nuts, is incredibly high maintenance, and likes to take all the credit for my successes, but also one who I admire and appreciate. After all, it's primarily through her word-of-mouth that I've built my business over the years, and I am grateful. But now I have clients willing to pay me more than twice as much as I charge her, and I can't let her take up all of my work hours. It's time to let her go.
Is it possible to let her go in such a way that salvages our relationship? I am concerned that she'll take my leaving personally and become vindictive and spiteful (she's done it to others who've left her employment in the past).
Would you want to keep her as a client if she were willing to pay the higher rates you're charging other people? Because if so, that's where you should start.
You'd say something like this: '"Jane, I am so grateful for all the the help you've given me these last few years. As my business has grown, I've been raising my rates but have kept yours the same out of loyalty since you were my first client. I'm now at the point where I'm charging you half of what I'm charging everyone else, so I need to finally raise what I'm charging you. I'm charging $X now. I realize that might be more than you want to pay, and if that's the case, I can help you with a transition to someone new, and even refer you to a few people who might be good prospects for the work."
If she says that the new rates are too much for her, then you've solved the problem; you'll exit for that reason and ideally put her in touch with some other copywriters. But she might surprise you and be willing to pay your new rates, in which case you'll have solved the problem in a different way.
But if you wouldn't want to continue working with her even if she'd pay you double (or even more) and you're not positive she'd refuse the new prices, then there's no point in going down that road. In that case, you need a different explanation for your exit. The fact that you're expanding your clients could be a good one -- you could explain that you're committed to diversifying your client base (because not being overly dependent on any one client is a far more secure position for you to be in), and that means that you need to scale back on the time you're working on her projects.
Or, if you're worried that she'll say you can lower your hours with her, when your goal is zero hours with her, then you could instead say that after a lot of thought, you've made the decision to move more toward doing X type of work for clients (when what you do for her is Y), and that means that you'll need to transition fully out of the work you do with her by April (or whatever).
In all of these scenarios, you're gaming out what you think her response is likely to be and proactively heading it off any problems with your initial explanation. You're avoiding these conversations:
* You: "I'm raising my rates." Her: "I'll pay your new rate." (When you don't want to work with her at any price.)
* You: "I need to diversify my client base so can't spend the time you need on your work anymore." Her: "I'll take whatever time you can give me, even if it's not much." (When you don't want to give her any of your time.)
... Or, alternately, you can leave the door open for those results if they're results that you'd be okay with.
In other words, think through all the possible ways this could go, which ones you'd be okay with and which you wouldn't, and choose your approach accordingly.
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