Written by: Dorie Clark
The title of today’s MMD says “consultants” but most of the concepts apply to all customers and clients so don’t let the title fool you. And for what it is worth, I’ve had to let a few go over the years and gained a lot of respect from them in the process.
We all have limited time, and despite our best efforts at triage, email and meetings will probably always remain low-grade annoyances. But if you want to dramatically enhance your productivity, it pays to zero in on the biggest source of stress and wasted time: problematic clients.
Some entrepreneurs and executives fight to hold onto business at all costs, recognizing that it’s easier to retain a customer than to win a new one. That’s true, but many business leaders are loath to fire clients, even when it’s the right move. I’ve been a consultant for the past nine years, and my client list today looks dramatically different than it did when I launched, in large part because of strategic decisions I made to let some clients go and take on others. Here’s how to recognize when it’s time for your business relationship to end.
When you’re doing work you no longer want to do. In the early days of your business, almost any contract feels like a win. You may be willing to accept assignments outside your sweet spot. PR? Board development? Strategic planning? Sure, why not? But over time, you learn where you excel, and where you’d like to focus. In the early days of my consulting business, I worked with a prominent education nonprofit, helping them with communication projects, from messaging to media outreach. But over time, I became less interested in the tactical – calling up reporters to come to press conferences – and more interested in media and marketing strategy. They still needed the former, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore. If you have “legacy assignments” that no longer appeal or that don’t make strategic sense for your business, you’re better off referring them to someone else who’s eager for the work instead of doing a half-hearted job out of a misguided sense of loyalty or because you want the money.
When your client wastes your time. It’d be nice if everyone focused on results, not face time – but sadly, that’s not the case. (Even Best Buy, the originator of the innovative “Results Only Work Environment” program, later rescinded it.) There’s something to be said for small talk and “getting to know you” conversations (famed psychologist Robert Cialdini says neglecting these forms of relationship-building is one of the top mistakes that American professionals make). But if your clients push this too far, they’re taking money out of your pocket. I once had a consulting client who insisted that I attend her weekly staff meetings. It was a relatively lucrative contract, so I agreed; I assumed we’d be discussing strategic issues that were relevant to my work. Instead, I quickly discovered that everyone went around the table discussing everything they’d done the previous week, and everything they were going to do for the coming week. I knew more about their comings-and-goings than I did about my friends, family, or neighbors. When I spoke to the managing director and suggested my time could be better deployed elsewhere, she put her foot down: “You’re our consultant, and we want you at that meeting.” I continued to attend, but only until my initial contract ran out. If the client doesn’t respect your time, or your judgment about how best to help them, they’re treating you like a lackey.
When you’re locked into low fees. You may be working with a great client doing interesting projects, but if you’ve been collaborating for a while and have gained experience in the interim, you may have outgrown your existing fee structure. When I started as a consultant, I knew precious little about pricing; I’d guess wildly with scarce information to base things on besides my previous experience as a salaried employee. As I gained experience, I realized I’d been underpricing – but clients grow accustomed to having you at a certain rate and may be unwilling to accept new fees. As you learn more and grow your brand, you may need to move upmarket and work with a different set of clients who don’t blink at what you’re worth.
When your client is never satisfied. If you find your clients growing increasingly demanding, it’s worth a conversation. They might have unspoken expectations that you’re not meeting (because you don’t know they exist). It might be something easy to address, in which case you’ve spared yourself a potential rift. But equally important, you may discover that their desires are downright unrealistic. The same client who insisted I attend their staff meetings had enjoyed a years-long media bonanza prior to my work with them; a prominent newspaper editorialist was a huge fan of their work, and wrote about them regularly. She retired a month before I started my consulting contract, leaving a barren landscape of newspaper coverage…for which I was blamed. Until I succeeded in replicating the frequent media panegyrics that they’d previous enjoyed, they wouldn’t be satisfied. And that was never going to happen.
Firing a client is a difficult decision. But it doesn’t have to be awkward or contentious the way that firing an employee often is. For one thing, an employee generally expects ongoing employment, while you most likely have a fixed contract with your client (to deliver 50 airplanes, or create a marketing strategy, or provide six months of executive coaching). Unless your relationship has become toxic, it’s best to hang tough until your contract is up for renewal, and then gently explain to the client – who might be thinking the same thing – that this is the perfect point to wind down your engagement. If they require future assistance, you can recommend some good options – that aren’t you. After all, to make room for better, more strategic, and more lucrative clients, you have to be willing to let go of the ones that are holding you back.
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