Allen Weiss, management consulting guru, takes a fairly cold-blooded approach to getting rid of clients. He looks at the revenue stream from each client over the last two years and chops off the bottom 15%. Then he expands the top 5%. His premise is that you need to focus on the area of your market that stimulates your learning and expertise. If you are accepting the same types of assignments at the same fee structure today as you did two years ago, you are not growing as a consultant. You are also not increasing your bottom line. For those of us with a social justice perspective, however, this approach may not sit well. Some of our smallest clients actually provide the most interesting work and need us the most.
Still, sometimes we get more, or less, than we bargained for. We can find ourselves contemplating the very serious question, “How can I fire my client?” Project conditions that might force you to contemplate this dilemma include:
- The fees are beneath your current fee structure
- You can do the work with your eyes closed
- The project does not fit your business growth strategy
- You can’t attract staff or sub-contractors because the work is too boring
- The field you are working in is in a decline
- You have to work with difficult or offensive people
- Personnel are unethical or commit illegal acts
- There are heavy demands for travel, support and other logistics
- There is excessive staff turnover or a vacuum in leadership and too much falls to you.
I have had clients whose vision for the project shifted mid-stream, who asked too much, who were too needy, who don’t like the results being produced. When you and your work are no longer valued or when trust is broken, against all manner of good advice, it is possible to fire a client. But be strategic, your reputation is at stake.
Consider the following strategies:
- Don’t assume that you understand the problem. Perhaps you are framing it incorrectly. Hold your client close and have frequent meetings until you determine the real issues and concerns. Are there some over-riding interests that you have in common? Can you boot-strap these into prominence, leaving unresolved issues aside for the time being? Three months from now, these old issues may not seem so serious any more.
- Scope creep usually has to do with your own project management skills. Be scrupulous in your analysis of the problem. Is there something that you could be doing differently to make this project work?
- Off-load project responsibility to a colleague or sub-contractor. Provide them with sufficient training and then transition out of your role. Sometimes the problem is just a personality clash and someone else may hit it off with your difficult client. This can be tough to admit but you wanted out, didn’t you?
- Offer to build your client’s capacity, transferring needed skills to them. Fostering their independence can get you out of a boring assignment.
- Be professional. Never leave a client in the lurch. Look for a proper exit point such as the end of a contract year or project phase. Provide advance notice. Continue your excellent work until that end point and keep your thoughts to yourself.
- Hold a goodbye meeting to summarize the work performed. There should be no ambiguity about the way in which the relationship is severed. Both sides should feel a sense of resolution about the work performed and the price paid. Focus on the positive results and leave them feeling good about themselves.
- Reflect on the engagement. There are lessons to be learned although sometimes you would rather just move on. If you want to improve your practice, you need to face any underlying issues.
- Next time they ask, be unavailable. Learn to say no.
Has this question ever crossed your mind? What did you do about it and how did things turn out? Let’s start the conversation!
[Originally published in Ask Gail, an e-column for the Washington Evaluators, August 7, 2013]
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE. pp. 76-86.
Kubr, M. E. (2002). Management consulting: A guide to the profession (4th ed.). Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
Weiss, A. (2003). Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional's Guide to Growing a Practice. (Third edition ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.