How to fire a bad client and take your power back in the process
I am sorry to have to end our relationship, but our situation has progressed to the point where it’s clear this isn’t working.
You’re a great company, and I know I could have done superb work for you. I wish you only the best of all success in the future.
I am destroying all relevant files for professional and personal privacy.
That last line is the killer.
I just sent an email much like that to a toxic client who, no matter how much we discussed, no matter how many times I asked, begged, pleaded or demanded, would not tell me who their target market was. Even just a segment of it.
This is key to me as a writer. I am no professional marketer. That’s all about data collection, management and strategy. I made this very clear to the client that my skill set is writing, and as a writer, I need to know who my audience is. A writer has to know who is sitting across from her at the kitchen table.
That is, if I am going to research and identify the right publications to the put the right articles in front of the right potential clients in order to produce results. Otherwise, it’s scattershot, PR fluff and a general waste of time and money.
You see where I’m going.
They loved the articles I’d done,wanted more, but demanded paying clients from my articles (that’s a tall order from a writer, but not outside the realm of possibility). I can’t deliver paying clients unless I know who to write for, so that my copy speaks right to their hearts and souls. No clarity, no outcome.
To wit: these particular clients- all of whom are Americans- have a superb adventure in a part of the world where you can see breathtakingly lovely, VERY rare birds. So, given that there are passionate, dedicated and very determined birders, who will do just about anything to see and record such sightings, it makes a terrific story to go on that adventure, write about it, interview the folks who went, tell their stories, and then publish this account in one of the many birding publications that exist. By selecting the area in the USA which is most likely to have folks willing to spend the time and dime to go on a very long journey to this part of the world, we are further narrowing our focus to the clients more likely to invest, as opposed to a little group in Iowa that goes out looking for local wildlife.
All clear, obvious, thoughtful. Good strategies, with help from my various coaches, both of whom specialize in marketing and travel writing. But apparently this kind of thinking was just too difficult to embrace for a client for whom any paying customer is good customer, which is an exceedingly poor business plan. Which is why this client is only limping along. But I digress.
Earlier this year I had flown to their country, and gotten sick. Nobody’s fault. However while there I researched and wrote and produced. We had copious conversations about marketing. I thought there was progress; sure were plenty of nods, but I got no direction.
I left after a month, barely healed, but better. Nobody’s fault. These things happen.
That was in January. I wrote a few more stories, then asked if I could come back and do the adventure for which I’d gotten ill. If I don’t go on the trip, it’s just a wee bit difficult to write about it.
“Not until we see ROI on your stories,” was the answer.
“Who is your market, so that I can point the stories in the right direction?”
“We have lots of different clients.”
“Okay pick a segment. Which one?”
“We want our stories.”
“Who am I writing for and for which publications (pick one, bird watching, conservation, Boomers, etc).”
This is the classic Catch-22. We won’t tell you what you need to know, but we want our products, but if the products don’t perform up to our standards, it’s your fault.
Sorry, I don’t play that game.
After a while, in order to protect both my sanity and my integrity about my work, I asked for help. A good friend gave it. When she has had to fire financial clients who manipulate, undermine or are patently dishonest with her, the Takeaway is what she uses.
The key, she said, is the bold phrase above. Destroy. Potent language.
Because with that, you are reclaiming your agency over whatever mess was created, and by destroying all the files, you have washed your hands. You no longer have information about them or their business. You’re free to move on. Next.
The Takeaway must be respectful. You’re allowed to chide a bit but that doesn’t mean you lambaste. Clarify your position. Then the killer line:
I am destroying all the files.
Not much more final than that.
The reason that felt so good was because for this whole year, my deep discomfort about this very confusing and confounding client led to a resentment that I couldn’t do quality work. That wasn’t my fault. It was theirs. But I kept wearing it. The unfinished articles hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles.
You and I cannot do good work for our clients without clarity. When a client withholds critical information, it’s a set up to fail. If you’ve ever had a manager point you at a nearly-impossible task and not give you specific directions but they still expect you to deliver, you know the feeling.
Not now. All gone. And by the way, I later found out that I was third professional woman that they had done this to. The experience damned near crushed the second one professionally. This is what I mean by toxic.
Got Toxic Client?
Use the Takeaway. If it’s a big deal, always and forever run it by your legal folks to make sure that a) you can, and b) you’re within your rights and c) it can’t come back to bite you for non-performance.
And a final note: this works with bad partners, too. In that case, just set a bonfire with all their belongings in the back yard, invite the neighbors and serve ribs.
Does the job, and it really, really, really tastes good.