Archive for November 25th, 2009

Dear Danielle: How Do I End a Difficult Relationship with a Client?

Dear Danielle:

How do I end a relationship with a difficult client without burning bridges? This was a brand new retainer client. We’d finished the contract process and I had just received my deposit. I’d actually been talking to this client for three months about working together and I was so glad to finally close the deal. This client had lots of energy and seemed to be wonderful on the telephone and in email and on chat. We went through the contract process fine, no issues. I felt we would have a long-term relationship with lots of exciting projects to work on. But in one of our first exchanges, she got very nasty with me. She threatened that if I couldn’t do this, she’d do it herself or find someone else. Up until this point, she had been very nice. Ultimately, I refunded her deposit, but I was not really sure how to address the email to her regarding the tone of her letter, why I was refunding her deposit or how to explain why she needed to do these tasks in a way that worked for me, too. As you know, threatening to “do it myself or get someone else” doesn’t really bode well for furthering the relationship. I don’t like working with people like that nor do I really need the work that much. But I still feel guilty. I always feel guilty about these issues. She has emailed me more than once asking for another chance. I just don’t feel like we’d be a good fit at this point. I have recommended someone else to her who is probably more willing to put up with this type of thing. The situation is basically over, but I’d like to know what someone like you would do so maybe I’ll stop feeling guilty. Should I give people like that more of a chance or not? –NB

In answer to your last question (should you give people like that more of a chance?), given the context you’ve described, my answer is no, absolutely not.

This person showed her true colors and no matter what the circumstance, you are never obligated to work with anyone you don’t want to.

What’s going on is you are second-guessing yourself and beating yourself up.

I think you handled this just fine. I would have done the same thing: refunded her money and politely indicated that we weren’t going to be a fit after all.

As you recognize, the kind of behavior you describe right out of the gate doesn’t bode well for a happy, healthy working relationship.

As service providers, we simply can’t afford to work with anyone who makes us miserable.

It’s unhealthy for both you and the business, as well as the client. You can’t honestly take good care of any client you silently resent or allow to mistreat you. You’d always be waiting for the next shoe to drop and walking on eggshells.

As far as ending a relationship without burning bridges, you only have domain over your own actions.

It can be tempting to point out all the things a client did wrong or let’em have it in a letter.

But really, going into all the details serves no useful purpose and it’s a negative waste of your time and energy.

It’s enough to be unfailingly professional and simply explain that you no longer see a fit (or however you would say that in your own words) and wish them well.

Refunding the client’s deposit was a very honorable and ethical thing to do as well.

How the client chooses to view or handle things after that is out of your control and none of your business. ;)

I see this as a very healthy experience for you. It shows that you value yourself as much as you value any client.

Don’t second-guess things. There’s no right or wrong answer.

If you saw fit to try and regroup with this client, have some conversation about how you expect to be treated and bring some clarity about how dissatisfaction should be expressed so that neither of you feels demeaned or mistreated, in an effort to make the relationship work, that would have been perfectly okay, too.

But your gut told you this wasn’t a relationship you wanted to invest in any further and you trusted and honored that. That’s very healthy.

As far as feeling guilty, that’s something only you have control over. It comes from that little, niggling Negative Nelly in the back of all our heads, the one that tells us we’re not good enough, make us feel that our needs and desires are less important than everyone else’s. That voice.

We all have to work at stifling our inner naysayer and not allow it to interfere with taking good care of ourselves.

And that you did!

You honored what was right for you and you did everything you could to do right by this client in ending the relationship. Celebrate that, girl!

You can’t beat yourself up for taking on a client who didn’t turn out to be a fit. You had every indication that this was going to be a great client to work with.

We can only do what we can to make educated decisions in accepting the best-fitting clients as possible into our practices, but none of us has a crystal ball.

We aren’t going to make perfect choices or do things perfectly 100% of the time.

We’re all going to make mistakes, missteps, have things turn out in ways we didn’t expect.

You have to say, so what. The world will continue to go ’round and you always get to start over.

At the same time, be sure and reflect on everything and see where you can glean other business nuggets. There’s always something we can learn from experiences that we think are all bad.

  • You might see spots where you can tighten up your client qualifying and selection process.
  • You might have a better idea of the kinds of red flags you want to be more conscious of in the future.
  • You might find that there are other questions you want to ask in your consultation process.
  • Maybe you can beef up your explanations of how things work, take more ownership of your processes so the client has the proper understandings and knows what to expect.
  • Maybe there are collaboration tools or services you can begin using (like Dropbox and KeepAndShare, for example) to make it simpler and easier for clients to work with you.

There are all kinds of things you can take away from this and use to improve your business, service and client selection for the next time.

I think you’re on a great path to a very happy administrative support practice that ultimately will serve clients well because of it.

PS: As a side note, I notice you use the term “deposit.” If this is a retainer client, why are you accepting a deposit? Perhaps you meant retainer and just misspoke, but I did want to clarify that a retainer is a full fee paid in advance (typically at the start of each month). There are no deposits when it comes to retainers as by definition they are considered fully earned and paid upfront fee. If a client is truly committed to working together, they are going to pay. You can’t waste your time on those who can’t commit or aren’t really invested in the relationship. Otherwise, it’s another area where you’d be setting a bad precedent in the relationship right from the start which will ultimately undermine its success.