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It’s not nice, but it happens! No matter how good your selection process is for winning clients, you will find yourself working with someone you don’t want to work with anymore.

They may not be paying their invoices on time, are consistently late to meetings, or, on occasion, not show up and do not think to message you.

Perhaps they are the ones holding up the project you’ve agreed to work on; you can’t move forward with what you’ve promised to deliver because they or one of their team members haven’t given you what you needed, and it’s mucked up your delivery schedule with your other clients.

And then there are the clients you’ve been working with for a while, but because of the shifts you are making into new offerings and pricing structure, you’re spending too much time and energy on the kind of clients you don’t want to work with any more.

Having to fire a client certainly isn’t a sign of success, but recognising that you have a problem with a client is certainly a sign that you are shifting your business and your CEO’s thinking forward. And if you don’t do anything about it now, it will become an even bigger problem over the coming months.

So, how do you go about firing a client? Especially when you’ve probably worked hard to get them. Honestly, you could do with the money and maybe not be in a position to refund anyone who may have paid upfront. I get it; it’s not a nice job to have to do.

Over the past 18 years of running my own coaching and training businesses, I’ve fortunately not had to fire many clients. But I remember in the early days how painful it was and how wrapped up emotionally I was in the whole process. I feel awful letting people down, and I simply hate conflict. But over the years, I’ve learnt how to deal with it so that both me and my client come out happy, because when I didn’t deal with it at the time, I let the situation get far trickier than it needed to be.

Here are my suggestions on how to deal with clients you want to fire.

1. Identify that you have a problem. Say it out loud to yourself and acknowledge that this is a problem you must sort out. This is an important first step because too often, especially if you are busy, it’s easier to ignore all the signs, and you begin to justify the situation and make allowances for your client’s behaviour. As soon as you allow your client to have this power over you, it’s amazing how servient you can become, i.e. doffing the proverbial cap with a yes sir, and no ma’am. When your professional boundaries start to slide like this, it can become very toxic very quickly and will impact how you work with your other clients.

2. Review the situation. Before you start ranting and raving about your terrible client, take a step back and review what may be happening. Have you addressed that your client hasn’t paid on time/been late for a meeting/not done their ‘homework’? What boundaries did you have at the start of the working relationship, and how clearly did you make these to your client? If you haven’t got clear terms and conditions, contract or service level agreements signed, then you have to take responsibility for not setting the working relationship boundaries clear in the first place. Get this sorted ASAP so you don’t fall foul of this again! If you have, then you have perfect grounds to set a meeting with your client (and I recommend that you do this outside of any agreed paid-for consulting/coaching time) to discuss how certain boundaries have slipped and how you can both get back on track.

3. Assume the best, always. In my experience, the few clients I have had to fire over the years were never bad people. Yes, they had bad behaviour, but when we discussed what was going on, it was usually a result of something in their personal life, such as a health crisis or stress levels, or they were struggling with cash flow. Is your client struggling to meet the agreed timeframe because of other work commitments? Have they got a problem at home that is taking their attention? Has their boss given them a different directive now clashing with the project you are working on?

4. Communication is key; and always best done in person. When in doubt, always pick up the phone or arrange a meeting. Don’t try to resolve a problem with a tricky client via email because typed words can be taken in so many ways. And definitely don’t use emojis to try to do this work for you, yes?! So yes, you may not like conflict as I very much don’t, but you can’t hide behind an email because you won’t get to the root of the problem.

5. Maybe you don’t need to fire the client. Which takes me to this important step in the process. When you get to the root of the problem, you may find that addressing this actually deepens your working relationship, and if you can both come to a solution, may ensure you have a brilliant client for life. Of course, have your bull shit radar on 😉 but if you remember step 3, most people aren’t out to screw you over!

6. Keep your decision quick and commercial. If you decide the best thing is to break your contract (which, of course, will depend on what is in your contract – see step 2 above!), then stay away from any emotional reasons and make the decision quickly. Remember, there are always two sides to every situation, and you don’t want to be caught up in a justification argument, i.e. he said/she said. State the facts, always confirm everything in an email, keep it clean, and refer back to your original contract/service level agreement set at the start of the relationship.

7. Do you need to offer a refund if they’ve paid upfront? Again, this decision needs to be taken commercially, not emotionally. If your contract states that no refund is needed, whether you or they cancel the contract, you may still want to review this and give them something (see my next point). I’ve always taken the ‘what’s fair for both of us?’ approach and even asked the client this question occasionally. You don’t need to justify, but you can lay down exactly what they have received, especially if your project/programme is top-heavy and most of the value was at the front end. Sometimes, the cleanest thing to do to break the relationship is to give something back so you can both move on (see my next and final point).

8. Finally, make it a win for your client, too. You don’t need to go above and beyond to find a replacement, for example, but they have to feel they have come out of this situation well, too. If they feel hard done by or are made to feel a bit like a prat or incompetent (especially if you’ve called out their bad behaviour, such as being late for meetings), you again run the risk of being caught up in a justification argument, or even worse, have them shame you publicly on social media, which can obviously get very messy. In my experience, the bad behaviour they have demonstrated with you is often the same bad behaviour they have with other suppliers and team members, so expecting the client to be remorseful or apologise is not something that’s going to happen. Let them win, too and you’ll find it easier to move on and get working with the clients you love to work with.

One of the big things I teach my clients is how to stay in a Power Partnership—the ability to recognise that neither you nor your client is better than the other. Yes, you may well be the expert that they are paying for, but you are both equal in the working relationship.

Feeling more powerful than your client will make you appear arrogant. Feeling less powerful than your client will make you appear a people-pleaser, doffing that proverbial cap with your yes, sir, no, ma’am tone.

So, if you are reviewing your clients right now and realising that you may have one or two clients you need to fire, step back and ask yourself first: Where are you in your Power Partnership?

You can fire a client today, but if you don’t realign your power state, you could be letting in another tricky client as fast as you’ve got rid of the last one.

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