We’ve all had that client. The one that gives you a knot in your stomach and keeps you up at night thinking you ate a hand grenade. Every time his name comes up on call display, you brace yourself for a new explosion. You’ve read the articles and done the math: you know you should fire him, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. You don’t want to be the person who bailed on a project; you don’t want to be the bad guy. Maybe you just need a bit of fiery inspiration to pull the pin…
You’re fired, 1920s-style
John Patterson was the founder of the National Cash Register Company, where he ran the show until his death in 1922. During his tenure, he fired his fair share of executives for a wide variety of reasons—often with great dramatic flair.
My top three favourite Patterson firings:
Charles Kettering, NCR’s head of research was fired, rehired, and fired again multiple times, a tactic Patterson used to let people know exactly where they stood. Kettering was a brilliant inventor, but that wasn’t enough to save his job when he almost fell off a horse during a team building exercise. Get outta here, you clumsy oaf!
Patterson let the entire accounting department go all at once when he felt their reports weren’t timely enough. He ordered the team to gather up their ledgers—the lifeblood of their positions—and led them down to the boiler room. There, he instructed each one to toss their ledgers into the fire, an act symbolic of his opinion of both the ledgers and the team.
His most famous firing—and perhaps where use of the word “fired” originated—was that of salesman Thomas Watson. After a disagreement over the direction of the company, Patterson sent Watson out to visit a customer. While he was gone, Patterson moved Watson’s desk, chair, and all his other stuff out to the front lawn. As Watson returned, he ceremoniously lit the whole pile on fire before his very eyes. Awesome.
When his actions didn’t make his feelings obvious, Patterson’s parting words never failed:
“There are just two things. Everything you say is wrong. Everything you do is wrong.”
So there you have it. You’re ready to pull the trigger, right?
Check for hot spots
Okay, fine. While Patterson’s approach has a certain appeal, it’s probably better left to history and daydreams. Real life requires a somewhat softer touch. Work is a professional setting and you should handle conflict calmly and politely; there’s no room for hot emotions or vengeful motives. If that’s how you’re feeling, you need to step back, talk it over with an objective third party, and sleep on it. Your decision probably won’t change by morning, but you’ll be in a much better mindset to act on it the right way.
During this consideration stage, ask yourself a few questions:
What does your contract have to say about getting out? Check it carefully. No contract? Uh oh. Now you know why everyone keeps telling you to use them.
Will the client be shocked? If yes, you may have a bit more work to do before you pull the trigger. You wouldn’t want a client to fire you from a project without warning or a chance to improve, so you owe the same courtesy to your clients. You may be pleasantly surprised. In my experience, you probably won’t be, but it’s still the right thing to do.
What is your role in the situation? A client relationship is like any other: there are two sides and each side plays a part. If there’s a problem, there’s a good chance it’s half your fault. Put yourself in your client’s shoes: is there something you need to do to make things better?
Is there a simple solution? Sometimes we get so caught up in wanting to fight back that we lose sight of a better option. For example, if it seems like the issue is a personal conflict, can you switch up your point of contact? When I ran a small agency with a partner, we tag teamed our work in order to put a fresh face in front of the client and give the relationship a kickstart. It didn’t always work, but it was always worth the effort.
Basic fire preparedness
So now you’ve taken a few thousand deep breaths and you know you aren’t making a rash decision. Time to burn some stuff to the ground, right? Not so fast. Put down the matches and approach this like a rational (non-arsonist) person. First we need to set the stage and pile up some office furniture, metaphorically speaking. Here are a few preparatory tips leading up to the blaze:
Before you even finalize your decision, consider the timing. Will firing your client right now leave him (or your own team) in a really tough position? Can you suffer through a bit longer to get the project to a better place to end things?
Choose the right format. A phone call is the default here, but it depends on your relationship with the client. If you’ve typically met in person, then a face-to-face may be warranted. On the other hand, if all your communication has been electronic, an email might work just fine.
Finally, prepare your script. Stick to the facts: this doesn’t have to be personal. Explain the situation directly, but without blame. You may need to bite firmly down on your tongue, but remember, we’re trying not to burn bridges here. Anticipate your client’s counter-arguments and be ready with some solid responses. Know in advance what—if anything—might make you reconsider your decision. Write it all out if you have to.
Extinguishing the flames
With these pieces in place, how else can you get through an uncomfortable firing and end on a decent note? Realistically, you probably won’t ever work together again, but that doesn’t mean your (former) client can’t have some positive memories of you. Who knows, he might even appreciate how you handled this whole thing and refer new business to you some day. I’ve never seen it happen, but let’s just go with it, okay? Here are a few ideas to help accomplish this lofty goal:
As much as you possibly can, focus on your client’s best interests. How will this move hurt him and how can you mitigate it? For example, can you give a couple weeks’ notice in order to wrap up any outstanding obligations first? Again, check your contract here.
Suggest alternative fixes (that don’t involve you). The obvious one here is to help him find another supplier that can pick up where you left off. Of course, you have to be careful about passing off your problems to another company. If a better fit exists, great. If your client is truly awful, don’t refer them on to anyone you care about (hint, hint).
Finally, put together a severance agreement in writing (AKA everything you’ve negotiated above) so there are no misunderstandings that could make him rise like a spiteful phoenix. No one wants that.
Sometimes firing clients is a necessary part of business—at least if you want to maintain your sanity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. I’ve been personally involved in firings where there was yelling (by the client), begging (also the client), and crying (both the client and me). No literal fire so far, fortunately. I can’t say for certain that none of the clients I fired harbour ill will towards me, but I can say that I feel pretty good about how I handled each one. More importantly, I sincerely like all of my current clients; I answer their phone calls with a smile and I sleep very well at night.
Hopefully the advice here gives you the confidence to cut your client ties in a way that is gentle and fair—you know, the exact opposite of how John Patterson would have handled it. Happy firing!