Letting Clients Go

I’ve been running various sorts of consultancy businesses since the late 90s, and doing mostly digital agency stuff since the early 10s. I’ve worked with big brands and small, with startups and institutions older than my late great-grandfather. There’s been a lot of clients over the 20+ years I’ve been doing this, and I’ve learned a lot from both successes and failures. Mostly the latter, as we’re wont to do.

Saying goodbye to a client, by which I mean letting them go, boils down to four reasons:

  1. They’re unhappy with you, or the work you do together.
  2. You’re unhappy with them, for whatever reason.
  3. The work has stagnated and frustration brews.
  4. They’re total asshats.

The first two are sad, but sometimes a reality. Neither of them means that anyone’s really doing anything wrong, there could be a lot of perfectly valid reasons why unhappiness enters a client relationship. The only thing that matters when something like that happens is how you deal with it. Do you try to fix it – create unhappiness – or do you say goodbye and move on? How you do this is important, obviously, but that’s another story.

Number 3 – work stagnation – is awful. Everything might be right, stars aligned and whatnot, but the collective efforts of you and your client just isn’t good enough anymore. It won’t cut it, it’s boring, it sparks no emotion at all, it’s bland. That can happen, you’re spent in this setting, all of you are, so it’s better to say goodbye. These goodbyes are usually mutual, and thus friendly. They can lead to great things in the future, because no one wanted this particular outcome. There’s still happiness, if you will.

But the fourth, clients that are total asshats, or whatever profanity you want to use to describe their shortcomings, that’s just plain horrible. It’ll cost you time and money, but more importantly, it’ll drain you emotionally. Shit might hit the fan, so to speak, but that’s not the worst of it. It’s the effort you put in, knowing there’s nothing good coming out of it, ever. At best, it’s damage control. At worst, it’s a complete waste of time because, again, they’re asshats. Dealing with this is painful. If there’s a risk of asshattery with a client, excuse and recluse yourself post-haste. Nothing is worth that, no amount of money, because it could blow up at any time. And it’s a dirty bomb too, one that’ll stain you for a long time, one way or the other.

Sometimes you learn the asshattery nature of a client at a late stage, and you’ll have to choose wether to fight or flight. I say flight. Leave. Get out of there. Swallow your pride, accept the losses, and take that energy you’d otherwise spend dealing with crap, and put it to good use elsewhere instead. You’ll sleep better. Don’t fool yourself that your asshat client is burned by your decision to back away, it might even count as a win, but that doesn’t matter. Let them win, or think they did at least. You’re worth more than this, move on, spend your time and efforts elsewhere. They’ll get what’s coming, good or bad, either way, but you’re out of it and that’s all that matters.

Maintaining a sound client relationships is easy.

Yes, easy. Simple, even. Just be honest, say no when it’s warranted, and if the disagreements grow and happiness turns to unhappiness, then say your goodbyes. Do that in a simple and honest way, stating what’s wrong, admitting mistakes if there are any, and sticking to facts rather than emotions, and you’ll be fine. Your client will too, they might even respect you even more for it.

It’s not that hard, really. Just be a decent human being, is what I’m saying, and you’ll do fine.

Unless they’re asshats. Then you’ll be human, fume for a bit, and put that energy elsewhere. Because good riddance.