Ending a relationship with a client is never an easy thing to do – no matter what the circumstances might be.
Tomorrow I need to let a client go.
In my case this will be a “no fault” severance; but it’s still not something I’m looking forward to.
Now, some of you might belong to the “business is business” camp; however, relationships with customers and clients are just that – relationships. And relationships involve complex human emotions. When it comes to letting a client go those emotions can be all over the map – even conflict with each other. In my view, that’s because ending a relationship with a client in many ways is the end of a living thing. If you don’t end the relationship, it continues and therefore “stays alive” – if you end a relationship, even a business relationship, it “dies.”
No matter what the cause – the emotional turmoil when considering ending any relationship, including a business relationship, often mirror stages similar to those Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified as the “Five Stages of Grief.”
Yes, you’re likely to grieve ending relationships with clients – even those who turned out to be real trouble makers. You’ve invested a lot of emotion and energy into the relationship. You’ve likely integrated the relationship into the image you have or yourself and your business.
Being aware of the stages of grief can help you to end relationships are no longer working in ways that protect the integrity of the way you do business.
Denial – Not Just a River in Egypt
We’re all familiar with denial. This is the refusal to accept facts as they are. We humans have a tendency to use denial as a defense mechanism to try to reduce stress. In the case of letting a client go, if we deny any cause or reason to do so exists, we don’t have to deal with it. How long we stay in denial varies; however, taking too long to recognize a problem exists allows more time for the problem (and our stress) to get worse.
There are times when it is all too apparent we need to end a relationship with client (i.e. they don’t honor the contract, you find out they engage in unethical business practices) which will hopefully shorten the length of time you remain in the limbo of denial. Other times, you may just keep denying feelings that “things aren’t right” which means you are in the danger zone of letting things get worse before taking steps to make them better. Trust me, if you feel something isn’t right, there’s a good chance you are experiencing denial about the true nature of the relationship.
Anger – I Can’t Believe You (or I) Did That!
Anger shows up in one of two ways – either you’re angry with someone else, or you’re angry with yourself. For instance a client’s expectation that you have a responsibility to deliver more service without being paid than described in the scope of the contract makes you angry. Or, you’re angry at yourself because you lost new business because you’d committed to providing more service without pay to an existing client.
Anger is a powerful emotion, but it is also an emotion that can get in the way of making reasonable assessments and rational decisions. If you’re feeling anger associated with or directed towards a client, take a deep breath and a few steps back. Instead of letting your anger dictate your response, use an objective tool (for instance a mini SWOT analysis of the situation.) Doing so will not only assist in making a rational decision, but also behave in a professional manner.
Bargaining – Let’s Make a Deal
When facing death it is common for people to attempt to bargain with the God they believe in. “If you let me (or someone else) live, I promise I’ll do (fill in the blank.)” When contending with the end of a relationship, people are often so uncomfortable with the idea of ending the relationship that they first attempt to bargain compromises that can allow the relationship to continue, bargains that, while made with the intention of making things “better”, don’t always serve the best interest of either party. Those “bargains” can be between you and the other person, or they can be bargains you make with yourself.
Bargaining can certainly make good business sense in situations where you’re contemplating ending a relationship with a client. However, as with anger, using objective tools such as SWOT or discussing the situation with a knowledgeable, yet neutral, third-party is a good idea. If you don’t you can end up making compromises that aren’t true solutions; compromises can also just extend the period of time you spend in denial. Compromises that aren’t true solutions can also serve to make you angry.
Depression – This is Happening Now
Being depressed at the idea of having to go through the process of letting a client go may not seem to be a positive thing, but it can be. Allowing yourself to feel emotions that range from a sense of sadness, loss of energy, as well as a sense of “loss” means you’re actually in a space preparing yourself for the inevitable. Denial, anger, and bargaining are all focused on putting the notion of ending the relationship off thereby keeping it in the realm of a “future event” that is not happening now.
Strange as it may sound, when you get a bit depressed over an existing situation, this can be the first step to making decisions that lead to positive solutions. However, feelings of depression must be handled carefully as depression can motivate – but it can also paralyze. If you aren’t careful, depression can develop into feelings of hopelessness and bleed into your “world view” of your business. If you find yourself “stuck” in depressive mode, make it your business to get feedback from a mentor.
Acceptance – It is What it Is
Acceptance is one of the most powerful emotions when it comes to getting things done. That notion can appear rather counterintuitive. Acknowledging “It is what it is” seems to negate any idea of doing anything to make the situation different. However, it’s pretty difficult to do anything that produces positive change in situations we either deny exist, are too angry to think rationally about, engage in continuous yet fruitless bargaining, or are stuck in paralyzing depression.
Accepting “It is what it is” means one of two things: acknowledging that we have the power to change a situation or acknowledging that we don’t. Either way, acceptance allows us to move on, to progress, to take action.
In the case of the client I’m letting go it is due to a change in focus of my practice. There’s no longer a contract in place, so it is an “at will” situation – meaning I needed to decide whether or not create a new contract. I began by denying that there would be an issue providing service outside my focus to this client (this was motivated by the fact that I liked the client and didn’t want to “let them down”), then I got angry at myself for continuing to work for the client (yes, without a contract in place) even though that meant robbing myself of other opportunities that fit my now evolved business model because I felt “obligated” to help them, then I made a bargain with myself that I’d just complete this one last project, and then I got depressed as I realized that I was only putting off the inevitable by continuing to work with the client.
FINALLY I accepted that continuing the relationship wasn’t fair to myself or the client because I wasn’t passionate about the relationship and passion is the fuel that makes what I provide my clients unique. Passion is what drives me to meet my client’s needs and solve their problems in meaningful, effective ways. Passion is what creates the exceptional quality I deliver my clients.
Fortunately, I came to accept that by not ending the relationship I wasn’t doing anyone any “favors” – instead I was acting out of ego (they need me) and without integrity. Acting with integrity is a value that drives everything I do in my business and in my life. Integrity guides my behavior and lets me know when I get off track.
Fortunately, I did no harm to myself or my client as I didn’t linger in any stage for too long a period of time. But only because I had an idea of what was happening.
Hopefully, reading this will allow you to quickly recognize, allow yourself to grieve, and then end relationships with clients when necessary in a professional manner that serves the best interests of your client and your business.