Let's face it. Not all client relationships are matches made in heaven. When you find yourself in a situation like this, you have two choices: stick with it until the project or contract has ended (which could mean months) or find a way to leave the engagement gracefully while keeping your dignity and company's reputation intact. Divorcing a client is never easy – but sometimes it's necessary. Follow these four graceful exit strategies to make the transition as smooth as possible.
1. Have a conversation.
It's always important to communicate with your client, but even more so when you're thinking of ending the business relationship. No one – whether it's a significant other or a business partner – likes to be taken by surprise. When having this conversation, remember to stay calm and professional. You're not passing judgment or airing grievances. It can be as simple as, "Joe, I feel we'll all be better served if we turn the project/contract over to someone else. I wanted to be honest with you about where we're at and see if you have any thoughts."
From here, a few things might happen. The client might agree and feel relieved that you brought it up first. The client may ask you to reconsider and potentially give you reasons to do so. Or the client may balk and act upset. If clients balk, give them time to re-evaluate their reaction, which could include an accusation of abandonment. After some time to calm down, a client may end up agreeing with you or asking you to reconsider. If the client continues to act upset, then you know walking away is the right decision.
2. Fulfill your project and contract obligations.
After going through step one and deciding that dissolution of the business relationship is indeed the only way to go, make sure to provide your client with all deliverables for the next two to three weeks. Why? Think about it. In essence, you're working for the client. When an employee leaves, he or she usually, in good faith, offers two weeks' notice. Extend the same courtesy to your client, even if this means putting in some extra hours that you might not be fully compensated for. Better to fulfill your obligations than to give the client reason to badmouth you to potential prospects in the future. For example, if a client has a tradeshow coming up next month, and you inform the client you're ending the partnership at the end of this month, make sure you still fulfill all the deliverables you promised you would for this tradeshow.
3. Keep it professional – always.
Emotions run high during breakups. It's understandable that you and your client might experience many different feelings, such as resentment, bitterness, or disappointment, with the dissolution of the business relationship. While we can't control how we feel, we can control how we act. If you're interacting with the client and, for whatever reason, you're feeling as if you – or the client – might have a meltdown, disengage. Get out of the office, get off the phone, take a time out. You can be honest with what's going on: "Joe, I think it's best we talk about this at another time. Can we regroup and try again in 24 hours?" Of course, you would think that the client would try to do the same, but this might not happen. You also would expect that the client would pay his or her invoice promptly. Again, this might not happen. If the latter does occur, let an objective third party, such as a lawyer, handle the situation for you.
4. Conduct an Internal Post-Mortem.
It's important to understand what went wrong in the business relationship, mainly so you can avoid it with future clients. After you've taken care of your obligations with the client and the relationship has officially ended, get the account team together and discuss what worked and what didn't work. Was it the type of client or the client himself or herself? Was it a failure with communications? Expectations? Could you have done anything differently that might have averted the need to divorce? Keep notes on this post-mortem discussion and refer to them when meeting with prospects and crafting client contracts.
As the old song goes, breaking up is hard to do. But with these graceful exit strategies, you can be sure to keep your reputation intact, as well as your sanity.