Poet Jeffrey McDaniel once wrote, "I realize there's something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they're expert at letting things go."
Sometimes you need to fire your customer. It's not easy because it means loss of income or the implication of someone's failure (yours or theirs), and can even result in making a business enemy. After 19 years at the helm of my company, Corporate Rain International, I've given a client the pink slip only six times (and once it was simply for the sake of the client, who had become too busy and successful to use what my company had to offer). However, in terms of long-term branding and business reputation, it is a road that must be anticipated and prepared for consciously, and, hopefully, well before the event.
I remember reading a report four years ago called The Guardian Life Index: What Matters Most to America's Small Business Owners, which said that customers are priority numero uno for the vast majority of entrepreneurs. Makes sense given the cost and time commitment that goes into generating each piece of new business. And I personally strive mightily to maintain a servant's heart in all things business. Nevertheless, there does occasionally come a time to give certain clients the old heave-ho.
I think the most important reason to leave a client behind is a clash of cultures. My most important assets are my employees. Abuse of my associates by a client is a game-ender for me. I'm very proud of my team's consistent, seamless representation of my company's ethos, culture, and tone. It is hard won. It creates a business world I want to live in. My brand reputability depends on it. I suppose my feeling is that I can always get new clients, but maintaining a culturally consistent cadre of employees is much more important to the long-term health of my firm.
In fact, the customer is not "always right," particularly when a basic incongruity crops up in corporate culture between your client and your company. That is the time to gently disengage.
This is not to say there are not a litany of other annoying offenses like late payments, nickel-and-diming small matters clearly stipulated by contract, excessive non-productive client neediness, etc. (Pareto's Principle states that 20 percent of your clients make up 80 percent of the workload.)
Nevertheless, breaking up is hard to do. Here's how I try to do it.
- Don't make it personal. Don't justify yourself. Don't get your rocks off by articulating clearly your client's character flaws, no matter how delicious the temptation to excoriate might be.
- Do it face-to-face, if possible. Don't be a coward. It might be uncomfortable but it's just the honorable thing to do. It shows respect for yourself and your client.
- Fulfill your contract and even give extra. Do this for yourself--again, simply because it is the right thing to do. Even if you get no credit for it, it will leaven the innate tensions of the situation. It's worth it.
- Be simple and to the point. No reason to tell the departing client how wonderful you are.
- Generously help the client to adjust. Facilitate the hand-off.
One of the chief reasons I love entrepreneurship is simply that it is a vehicle for personal freedom. Anything that adumbrates that ain't worth it. Know who you are--where you can compromise and where you can't. It's different for all of us.
In her 2011 book, Impossible is Stupid, Osayi Osar-Emokpae says, "Quitting is not giving up, it's choosing to focus your attention on something more important. Quitting is not losing confidence, it's realizing that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time. Quitting is not making excuses, it's learning to be more productive, efficient, and effective instead. Quitting is letting go of things (or people) that are sucking the life out of you so you can do more things that bring you strength."
Well said, Osayi.