10 ways NOT to break up with a client

Ian Lurie
You're fired

Breaking up is hard to do.

But, as Portent’s President says, people remember how you enter, and how you leave. So ending a business relationship on as positive a note as possible is important. Even if the company in question never hires you back, employees change jobs, and you want them to think well of you when they land at their new position.

Here’s what you should never, ever, ever say:

  1. “You need to calm down.” Really? ‘Cause chances are I’m really, really pissed at this point, and patronizing me isn’t going to help.
  2. “We can’t give you your account data – it’s in our sekrit widget box system thingy.” Ever heard of export?
  3. “We’ll have to charge you $xxxxxx to get you your files.” Noooo not exactly. Unless a contract says otherwise, work you do for my company is a work for hire. That means it’s mine, not yours.
  4. “I’m going to tell everyone how evil/nasty/sucky/stupid you are!!!!” That will only make you look evil/nasty/stupid. Focus on things you can control, like getting a new client.
  5. “You’ll regret this.” Who the hell are you? Don Corleone?
  6. “What about the time I swam a crocodile-infested moat, got your log files back, saved you and your company 3 times over, and then swam back again? YOU OWE ME!” Maybe. Maybe not. Unfortunately, you’re being sacked now. If you’ve really done all that great stuff for me, I probably feel terrible, and am being forced to fire you for financial/other reasons. Don’t make it worse, ok?
  7. “You guys are your own worst enemy.” Actually, I think you just topped the list.
  8. “You’ll fail without us!!!” If so, and you’re a consultant, then you didn’t do your job. Or I’m so stupid you can’t help us anyway, and you can dance on the rotting corpse of my company in a few months. Regardless, pointing it out doesn’t really do anyone any good, does it?
  9. “You’re not smart enough to work with us!!!!” Actually said by someone we let go. If true, then why are you scratching out a living working with us? Why not go cure cancer or build an advanced armored flying suit or something?
  10. “I’ll have to lay off nn employees if you fire us.” K this one really does tug at the heartstrings—it’s not your employees fault, most likely, that your company got fired. But I have to do what’s right for my company. Again, the guilt trip doesn’t work.

The need to vent

I know that, when you get fired, you’re steaming mad. I sure as hell am. I’m mad at myself, my client, probably a few members of my team, my least favorite politician of the moment, E Coli bacteria and my right knee, which clicks and pops ever since surgery.

But the truth is, bad things happen. Companies get fired. Blame, in the end, doesn’t do anyone any good, because people buy pleasure.

So find other ways to vent. I go ride my bicycle up steep hills until I’m ready to throw up, or maim StarCraft II players, or punch furniture (doesn’t usually turn out well).

Just do your best to avoid venting at the client. There will be times when you can’t help it. Move on. Maybe even apologize. But definitely move on.

And try not to vent online. Or, if you really can’t stop yourself, make it really, really anonymous. It’s amazing how sometimes, clients you didn’t even think could use a computer suddenly find your angry quote on Clients from Hell.

The better way

The right way to end a client relationship? Try this template:

“I’m really sorry we have to part ways. If you have any questions or need help with the transition, please give us a call. And, if you need help in the future, let us know. Thank you for your business.”

If you’re being axed because of something other than performance—budget, bottlenecks or a cancelled project—maybe even add in “I think we did some great stuff together.”

That will leave everyone as close to happy as possible.

Remember, people remember how you enter, and how you leave.

Everyone who’s about to comment, writing all the times I’ve lost my cool when firing a client, or being fired by a client, you’re right. I’m far from perfect. But I’ve learned a thing or two. Emulating my stupidity makes you, well, stupid.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. My motto, in life and business, (not that I always live up to it) is “There’s no excuse for rudeness”. You are so right, none of the 10 things you listed are going to get you the gig back, so take the high road, be polite and move on.

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