You deserve to do work you love with clients you love. But sometimes, some clients are a real pain in the neck.
They don’t reply when you send things.
Or they are rude to your team.
They go against your suggestions and then expect you to clean up the mess.
Or they don’t send documents in on time and then complain when you can’t turn something around in two days.
Those clients aren’t the hardest ones to fire. It’s not that difficult to put boundaries in with a client when they are clearly crossing a line. For these clients, you can go ahead and skip to step 7 in this blog post.
Sometimes it’s not so cut and dry, and that’s when it becomes really hard. That’s when even saying you need to “fire” a client feels hard. The word “fire” seems harsh. Sometimes you have a good relationship with the client, you honestly wouldn’t mind meeting them outside of work but…
They aren’t quite a values fit.
Or they don’t want to follow your systems or processes.
Or they aren’t taking on your advice, or giving you the information you need to do your job well – to do your job the way you know is best.
I’ve worked with countless accountants who had to go through this process. I’ve gone through this process. The truth is…Every. Single. Firm. will at some point fire a client. Every. Single. Firm owner will think it kinda sucks. It feels stressful. It weighs heavy on you.
Maybe you’ve served them for a while and don’t want to abandon them. You’ve worked with them for a long time and feel like you’re letting them down.
You know they can’t do it themselves, or their situation is hard, or their finances are bad. You don’t want to make things harder.
Or…maybe you worry it’ll reflect badly on you.
We’ve worked out a system for the way the firms we work with separate themselves from clients, these nuanced ones that are truly difficult to fire, and we’ve found this works well for us here at PF as well.
1. Figure out why you want to fire them
Among all the possible reasons I’ve talked about above, the first thing to do is get really clear about why it is you don’t like working with this client. You may recognize that you dread them calling, or that you put off their work, but get really clear on why this is.
Is it because of the type of work you’re doing for them? Did you start out doing this kind of work but now realize it’s not your passion area, or you aren’t really that well equipped for it? What exactly are you doing for them and are you providing the same services for other clients?
Are they difficult to work with? Why? How do your interactions with this client differ from another client? How has communication been? Are there cultural reasons that communication may have not worked out well? Are there situations where communication broke down?
And is it that the work you do for them isn’t profitable? Are you actually making money on the client?
Get this “why” identified clearly in your head first and document it, as that will frame the rest of the steps.
2. Evaluate what they need from you or another accountant.
Next, turn the situation upside down. What does your client need from an accountant? From *any* accountant. What does this client need to make their accounting work for them or to provide them what they want?
Do they need someone with specific values or processes? Do they need specific skills? Do they need someone who specializes in their niche?
The purpose of this is two-fold. In the first place, you’re figuring out what needs to change for this client to be a “great” client. You’re identifying the underlying issues and problems and beginning to focus on what the relationship could be. You’re harkening back to what all our ideal clients always want to do – just help someone be successful. What would it look like for this client to be successful?
In the second place,, having this clear will help you advise this client going forward – you’ll be able to send your client away with some ideas on how they can get what they need from an accountant – even if it isn’t you. This step tends to help with that feeling of “letting them down” or “not being helpful”.
3. Consider what it might look like to be able to serve them well.
Keeping all of this in mind – why it’s not working for both sides – put together a plan for what would make the relationship work.
Would you be fine on profitability if you charged for more hand holding? Could you get the information you need if you had more regular meetings?
And what, specifically, would you need from them? Do they need to participate in training on a system you’re using? Or do they need clear boundaries and consequences around deadlines?
You might find there simply isn’t a way that this could work going forward, in which case it makes letting them go easier, but in most cases, there is some kind of plan you can identify that could work if they agreed.
Call it your last chance effort.
You want to be able to look back on this plan and say “I legitimately tried everything I could, I was as clear as I could possibly be.” Either the client will finally understand the system, or they will pay for extra meetings and you’ll get what you need, and the changes will be exactly what the client needed. OR, you’ll know that you did your very best and you couldn’t have done anything more.
4. Price out what it would look like to do the above
A key step that will give your “last ditch effort” plan more likelihood of succeeding is properly pricing it out. Your last ditch plan, especially if you’re having issues of profitability, needs to not be priced the same way that you’ve priced services up to this point.
If you need more meetings, what do you properly need to charge?
Do you need to take into consideration a “difficult to work with fee”? Most firms will have some clients that you’re providing the exact same services for as other clients, but these specific clients are just slightly harder to work with. The “difficult to work with fee” could be just an extra 10% you add to make sure your time and energy are properly compensated.
This is a good time to review your pricing policies with this specific client, but also to consider how your pricing processes need to be reviewed on a bigger picture level.
The outcome of this step is a new or updated quote for the client.
5. Make a list of clear expectations going forward
Once you’re clear on what you’re going to do and how that pricing will look, you need to be VERY clear about what you need from your client going forward.
And you need to document it.
The behaviors you need from your client need to be written down in a way that you can check against them as you move forward.
This might look something like this:
- On the first of the month, I’ll send over the expenses that haven’t been categorized. The client needs to reply by the 10th of the month with the information I need.
- The client needs to show up for annual reviews with this information: x, x, and x.
Make sure these behaviors are specific and comprehensive. This isn’t the time to hold back; this is the time to be honest and transparent. It’s also a good time to be generous with your view of the client. Instead of thinking “well, I could never have him do that, so the minimum is…” – expect that your client is capable of much more. Imagine that this client is capable of being your favorite client, and then lay out what that would mean.
6. Send the new proposal and be firm with the expectations.
Once you have the new package/proposal created and your list of expectations, send it to the client with a video, and with bullet points listed in writing.
Be firm and clear. Check how you can make sure you’re living up to your values. For example, two of our PF values are generosity and graciousness, which means that we avoid language that would shame. Another PF value is “take responsibility”, which means that we own where we have provided too much flexibility or haven’t done what we needed to do or stuck with our established systems.
It’s possible the client will make their own decision at this point to find someone else. In that case, based on what you thought through in step number 2, you can recommend them to another accountant or give them some ideas for what will make a good fit.
When the client agrees to the new terms and wants to try it, make sure to review in one month. This is when you’ll refer back to what you documented in step 5 to make sure the new arrangement is working. You may be pleasantly surprised. We have often found that with clear expectations and updates to services, a client who was causing headaches turns into a really great client! If this is the case, you can stop reading now and carry on happily.
If the relationship is still not working not working at the one-month check-in, you’re moving into step 7.
7. Fire a client in writing
Let’s say this out loud together: fire a client in writing. Clients who truly do need to be fired will need to be emailed rather than met with in person or video. Here’s why:
When in person, it’s really easy for clients to feel defensive and argue with you. This actually isn’t productive or helpful or worth your time after you’ve already made the decision.
Getting the decision in writing gives clients something to refer back to and read multiple times when they have questions or confusion.
When you write this email, leave no room for shaming or accusing the client and truly consider leaving out any points that the client might be compelled to argue with. While it is helpful to give a clear explanation, you’ll need to walk that line between explaining but not over-explaining or engaging in a conversation. Be succinct. Some ways to do this:
- Reference issues you both have recognized before
- Repeat back things the client has said that they feel aren’t working (without explaining why those aren’t working)
- Be vague regarding a philosophy or values mismatch – if this is the case – without referencing the specific values that mismatch and why as this can be emotion-filled
Here’s a template message:
Thanks for chatting with me last week. I always enjoy X. I really appreciate X.
I’ve been considering your needs a lot lately, and I’ve decided that it’s best we part ways.
I know from working with you that you’re looking for:
I’ve recognized that there are barriers to me providing that to you. (Consider giving a few vague reasons but keep in mind that there needs to not be space for arguing or accusing here.)
Going forward, I recommend that you X and X. I will refer you over to my colleague X. I’m happy to make an introduction if that would be helpful.
I know that there will be long-term benefits for business from the work we’ve done together in the areas of X and X.
Your last bill will be X and before then I will:
I wish you all the best going forward.
This email is not long,
8. Prevent it from happening again.
So, the client you wanted to fire has either moved on or is now counted among your best clients. Good work! Before you move on, evaluate whether there is something in your processes that needs to improve. In the same way that you can use client frustrations to improve your marketing, use your learnings from being frustrated with a client to improve your marketing and other processes. Can you try to prevent this from happening again?
Will you completely eliminate the need to fire clients? Probably never.
Still, it’s a good time to make sure that your qualifying processes are working.
- Why didn’t this client get prequalified out before they became a client?
- Have my qualifying processes changed since this client came on board?
- How do I need to change my qualifying processes in light of this experience?
To talk through your qualifying processes and craft marketing that will bring you only the clients you really love working with, sign up for Foundations. We’ll work through who your ideal clients are and create a marketing plan that will appeal to only them.