Breaking up with client

If you read our previous article on finding the “Right Client”, you will know that not every client is the right fit for your law firm. And if that is case with one of your clients, it may be time to send out the dreaded “Dear John” letter. And breaking up with a client is also like breaking up a romance. It needs to be handled with kid gloves, with the least amount of damage done to the person receiving the “break up” news.

But let’s be honest, if you have reached the point where you feel that the relationship is not going anywhere (or not going anywhere good for your law firm) with your goals not aligning to those of your clients, it is a sure red flag that it is time to move on. Inevitably, you will have a tugging feeling of obligation to do what is your right for your client but also to do what is right for your firm. And that can make you feel trapped. But it is important, especially at this stage, to keep in mind your client strategies – remembering the type of client you want to work with, doing the type of work you want to do. And living your best life. If the client causing you stress or concern is not meeting the criteria as set out in your evaluation method, (such as the “Quadrant” provided by Hadar Incorporated), it is high time that you sit down and attend to your ‘Dear John” letter.

Sarah Stealy Reed in an article titled It’s not me, it’s you. When to break up with a customer put it perfectly – 

“As with many relationships, yours began blissfully. There was a bright future—shared goals, milestones to reach, and mutual respect. There was an intensity to do right by one another; there was a passion for success.

And as with many relationships, the breakup was long in coming”.

And as Liad Hadar of Hadar Incorporated puts it – 

“Once you have identified the Right Client for your firm, given that it is inevitable that there will be change within your law firm, as well as your client’s business, you should constantly assess whether your clients continue to fall within The Quadrant. If they do not, then you owe it to your firm, your team and to your client to have an honest and transparent discussion on how to end the relationship – for everyone’s benefit. Aside from The Quadrant, use your emotional intelligence and rely on your instinct. If you receive an email, call or other communication from a client and it causes you to feel negative or demoralized, you have to trust that feeling and realise that this client is simply no longer for you and vice versa. Don’t focus on the fees that will be “lost”, focus on the intangible positivity, which brings with it long-term financial success. Spend your time and energy on the clients that inspire you and naturally make you want to work tirelessly with them as this will lead to overall and genuine happiness, satisfaction and success for all involved!”

And that is the crux of the matter – clients should be the source of revenue, recommendations, and repeat business. But sometimes they are also the cause of heartache, sleepless nights, and mental drain. The wrong customer can feel less like a business partnership and more like a miserable personal relationship. And the reality is, not every professional relationship will turn out to be mutually beneficial, and at some point you may find it necessary to part ways with a client. This can be stressful when the time comes, especially if you have a longstanding relationship. But it is not only a normal part of doing business, it is also healthy and will fit your strategy of attracting and retaining the Right Client.

But what if you are not sure?

Look, breaking up is hard to do. We all know it. We have all been through it –both personally and professionally. And we all acknowledge that it “sucks”. People often advise one to write a pro and con list. Which does work. However, if you have applied your evaluation method properly (as covered in our previous article), it may be best to simply ask yourself the following three questions (taken from Breaking up with a Client: How to Leave without Burning Bridges) – 

  1. “What is causing me the most dissatisfaction working with this client, and can it be fixed? For example, is it that they’re not paying your invoices on time and a system could be put in place to solve the problem. Or is it that you feel undervalued and don’t fit in with their business culture?
  2. Would you feel better if you took a break from this client? If you’ve been working for a client for a long time, or on a big project, sometimes just taking a few weeks away can solve a lot of your problems and you can return feeling refreshed. Would it be worth trying this before you part ways?
  3. Does leaving this client help you achieve your overall goal? If you’re working towards something specific, does leaving the client bring you closer to that goal or further away. Sometimes the most important work sucks for a time, but is worth it in the long run”.

These questions will help clarify why you feel that you want to move on and if you truly are out of other options. It will also put your mind (and conscience) at ease and enable you to take the next step.

You are convinced – they gotta go!

As writer Paulo Coelho, in The Zahir said – 

“It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.”

So, if it’s time to let a client go, these tips from Forbes Coaches Council in the article titled Nine Ways to Effectively and Professionally ‘Break Up’ With A Client, can help you “tactfully and respectfully walk away without burning any bridges” –

  1. “Focus on why the change is necessary for you – gain clarity around your genuine reasons for ending the client relationship. Focus more on how your own goals, values, professional standards or ethics are impacted. Understanding why the change is necessary makes communicating it to the client somewhat less of a challenge, because you are able to articulate the source of the issue and hold strong to your decision without wavering;
  2. Write a script and practice it – rehearsing with a script will help build the verbal confidence you need to do this calmly and not create more tension. Winging it can create an emotional response during this difficult conversation. Elements of the script could be a quick summary of the engagement, the suggested path forward and a reassurance about some aspect of the relationship. Remove the emotion and practice this unemotionally;  
  3. Give them sufficient notice – when we want to part ways with a client, we are tempted to do it as soon as possible and be done with it. If you do not want to burn bridges, though, it is important to give the client enough time to transition off. They need time to find your replacement and deal with other implications of stopping their work with you. Depending on your business, it could take anything from a few weeks to a few months; 
  4. Be candid – the best clients understand that a great relationship is all about creating a win-win situation. They are happy that you are working with them, and you are happy to have them. Once that balance is out of whack, it is best to say so. Don’t worry about trying to find creative ways to say goodbye. Even a fired client will appreciate your candor, especially if you part ways before things go south;
  5. ‘Leave clean’ and don’t place blame – regardless of the reason for dropping the client, you want to “leave clean.” Provide a brief, clear and positive explanation for why you’re ending the relationship. Simple phrases such as “We’re moving in a different direction” or “Others may be better able to help you move forward” are best. This works because negative reasons for leaving always generate lingering bad feelings;
  6. Consider how they might speak about you in the future – whether parting ways with a client or an employee, always strive to leave them an evangelist for your leadership and brand. As I look to research companies, never is the first call to the current leader. It is always a former employee or client. They are the source of the truth data on character and professionalism. Think of this in every interaction. Will they be a positive reference? 
  7. Listen to their side of things – be empathetic, respectful and thoughtful. Why is this partnership no longer working? Offer solid reasons and ask for your client’s participation in a conversation that’s honest and factual, not emotional. Next, listen to what they have to say. You can learn a lot, and they deserve to be heard. Last, offer up a reasonable separation date so they are not left in a bad place in terms of the work;
  8. Leave them with recommendations for growth – maintaining effective client relationships is about achieving successful outcomes and positioning next-level steps. Once you’ve completed a client relationship, initiate a review of their success as a result of your help or coaching. Make recommendations about ways they can accomplish more elsewhere. This method focuses on their growth rather than the end of their relationship with you, and
  9. Offer a referral – have a candid conversation (in person or over the phone) about why this business partnership is no longer mutually beneficial. Thank the client for their business, and let them know you won’t be able to serve their needs. Most importantly, don’t burn bridges, because you never know how you might be working together again. Refer them to other companies or vendors that might be a better fit for them”. 

Now what?

If you have successfully and officially terminated the relationship with your client by undertaking the above steps and giving sufficient notice, giving them recommendations for growth and offering to provide them with referrals to alternative law firms, you will now find yourself in the “aftermath period”.

When you are preparing exit from a professional engagement, it is easy to let your standards slip. But do not let this happen! Be sure to deliver on what you promised and even over-deliver where (and if) possible. This will serve you well if you ever need to come back to this client or ask for a referral. Remember, we are trying our best to avoid burning bridges. 

On the flip side of the coin, it is important that you stand your ground. Continuing to work for clients often leads to ways for them to convince you to stay and to stop you from leaving. If you know that you have made the right decision, don’t give in. You are trying to build the best practice you possibly can and this entails having the right clients on your roster. There is a bigger picture. Remember that. 

You will thank yourself. Once this is all behind you and you have moved forward.

And if you need a little reminder on why “Breaking up with a client” can be good for you, remember this – 

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

Contributed by:
AJS Legal Accounting

Written by:
Alicia Koch


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