Ask anyone who has been self-employed if they have ever had a “less than ideal client”. The answer will be a big fat yes, I guarantee it.  So how can you sack a client politely? Is it possible to do it with grace and dignity?

Now don’t get me wrong, by and large, the vast majority of clients you get are great. They value your work, they understand your skill and expertise, they let you do your job, they understand that you are an expert and they trust you. On the other end of the scale, the less than ideal ones, however, can become a serious pain in the bum.

Problem clients come in all shapes and sizes. Often you don’t even know they are a problem client when you take them on. There are the late payers and scheduled “no shows”. The ones who are demanding and don’t respect your time. And the ones who always want a discount but still want all your experience at the same time.

Remember, just because you need to earn a profit doesn’t mean it is in your best interest to serve everyone who walks in the door.

Here are a few ways to respectfully let go of clients who aren’t an asset for your business.

Know your deal breakers

As business owners it is essential we maintain professionalism at all times. Ideally, effective communication, that is, setting boundaries early on, respectfully and assertively, can help prevent a situation with a client getting out of hand.

Some entrepreneurs have a “three strikes, you’re out” policy before they sack a client, but ultimately I feel that just allowing unacceptable behaviour to continue. If there are things you won’t tolerate (for me, one of those things is dishonesty), then if that occurs, step up and confront the situation.

“If you are spending all your time managing less than ideal clients, you won’t have time to manage and attract your ideal clients.”

What is your communication style

Depending on your personality and the client in question, it may be easier to end a business relationship over email than in person or over the phone. Whichever option feels most comfortable to you, stay polite and on point.  But how you communicate should be made easier by having a termination clause in your contract or engagement letter.

If you email a client to let them know you won’t be working together anymore, you might invite them to call if they have any questions.

At that point, the hard part will be over which can take off the pressure and emotional stress.

If you do wish to have the discussion by phone, this can easily get out of hand when emotion takes over.  So make some dot points of things to cover, take the emotion out of it, and the phone call becomes over and done with easily.

Stick to the facts—or take the blame

If a client has become unreasonable, become defensive or has turned hostile in relation to your services, you could tell them:

  • you have decided to shift the focus of your business to a new niche
  • in order to maintain a high level of client care you have to refer some of your clients to other businesses
  • for personal reasons you are scaling back your workload

If you are comfortable being up front with the client, you can point out the issue in a neutral, factual way that allows them to save face (see my point above about writing a little note of the points you want to cover).  But this is not a bitch session, it is not a vent of all the problems, it is facts relevant to how you can service them adequately.

For example you might say: “we rely on our clients to pay on time so we can pay employees and continue to run our operations effectively.”

If you can find another professional willing to take on your client, you may be able to avoid any hard feelings when you part ways. But if you are passing this client on, please be up front with the other professional about the issues you have had. Sacking a client is not necessarily leaving on bad terms.  It is just not the right fit for you now. Where possible, you want them to still hold you in high regard, even if they are not using you.  So, where possible, think about offering them a separate support package during the transition (paid up front of course).

“To keep your dignity in tact, sacking a client is a business decision.  As hard as it is, you need to take the emotion out and review the facts.”

If the client is no longer the right fit, refer to your contract or engagement letter, and stay confident in the quality of the services your business has offered.  If you continually have to justify your skills and experience, the client is not valuing you, and it is best to part ways sooner rather than later.