Breaking Up (with Clients) is Hard to Do

Self-employed consultants can’t risk becoming disengaged from their client work, especially if they want to maintain their professional brand; i.e., reputation and credibility.

They can, however, voluntarily leave a client. While this is a viable option, it’s not easily made.

Consider this situation that a colleague described to me.

“I quit my long term client – even in this terrible market. Doing projects with them was ruining my health and after seven years of various engagements, the last one was just too much to tolerate and I left. They have become a horrible entity – not paying bills, imposing a terrible climate of fear and austerity on their people, making consultants and contractors beg for seriously eroded wages …

Its employees have also felt this pain, exist in an environment of fear and anger, and are nowhere near the can-do proud enthusiastic workforce I was introduced to when I first started consulting with this client. The company imposed extreme austerity measures on its workforce … while sitting on huge reserve assets and bragging to Wall Street about how they could weather this recession just fine.

I am proud of myself for quitting. I’ve had other small projects over the last several years, mostly  at this client. But now I need to learn to do something else …”

In my own 20+ years experience as a consultant, I know how difficult it is to walk away from a client, especially in such a tight market. (To those of you considering the ‘glamour’ of going solo, keep in mind: everyday you’re self-employed, you wake up unemployed!) So I’m proud of my friend for having the courage to leave and preserve her mental & physical health, despite the economic uncertainty.

Fellow consultants who care to share: what did it take for you to voluntarily leave a client?


4 replies on “Breaking Up (with Clients) is Hard to Do”

Dear Chris, Angelique, and Yvonne:
Thanks for sharing your invaluable experience-based advice. I hope some of this is taught in entrepreurial programs as most business owners will encounter this situation at one time or another.

Great post, Sybil. I’ve ‘resigned’ from clients before. Mostly after discovering they weren’t completely honest in what they wanted from me, and I was not going to be able to deliver what they really expected. But one client was verbally abusive and a tyrant and I had no problem saying good-bye to that one!
Being an entrepreneur means always being on the search for the next good client. They’re out there – it’s a matter of networking, supporting other small biz owners, and being true to yourself. Don’t let clients bully you!

Funny you should cover this topic. I recently wrote a blog post about five client types you should absolutely fire — and then I chickened out from posting it — fearful that my X-clients would know I was talking about THEM! LOL.
At any rate, a good business owner should ALWAYS be letting the “bottom” 10% of their client base go so that they can make room to bring in new, higher-paying and/or more rewarding clients. This is a continuous, ongoing process that is a MUST if a business is to continue to grow.
Perhaps I’ll have to go ahead and post that blog article after all.
( But in summary, here are a few clients you should absolutely fire:
– Any client that is not willing to pay for your value, either b/c they think things should take less time, they want “freebie” hours or they are always negotiating your rates down
– Any client that is extremely high maintenance as it will destroy your profitability
– Any client that believes EVERYTHING is an emergency, forcing you to put other client work on hold to address their needs
Hope that helps! -Angelique

Over 17 years of business under my own flag, I’ve been fortunate to have a great many wonderful clients. But there were four that I had to resign.
One asked me to violate ethical standards and threatened to withhold payment when I refused to issue a report in a format that they could further edit in order to mislead investors and regulators.
I had to resign another because they were so slow paying. (We’re talking 4-6 months slow.) They were the source of a lot of work, and in that most of the work we were doing was for the federal government they were actually breaking the law when they sat on my invoices after they had been paid by the feds. Resigning this client was a very costly decision–they accounted for almost a quarter of my work in those years–but I simply could not carry their overhead for that long, especially after I learned that they were essentially financing their own ongoing operations on the backs of their subcontractors.
The last two were clients who simply wasted and abused my time. They occupied days and sometimes weeks of time with frivolous, unbillable meetings. I’m willing to put in a lot of unbillable time on behalf of clients in the name of becoming a trusted ally and creating goodwill. But both of these clients abused that courtesy, one knowingly and one as a result of its own dysfunctional organization.

Leave a Reply