In the article, “When Do You Say ‘No’ to New Business” I talked about situations in which the wisest course of action is to stop working with a client.
This post responds to the natural follow-up question, “once you make that decision, how do you deliver it in a way that is clear, truthful, and professional?”
A Real-life Example
The best way to talk about how you handle this issue is to describe what I did in an actual situation.
The client was a family-owned insurance agency located in Tampa, Florida. They hired me to help focus their brand and message, create a free product, and set up a direct mail campaign using the new marketing elements.
Although the owners, a father (“Client Sr”) and son (“Client Jr”), seemed happy overall with what I was doing, Client Sr. had final approval on the marketing materials and he never seemed satisfied with the copy. His reviews would show up days after they were due and he often asked for lots of revisions which delayed the project even more.
When I brought up the delays and revisions, the Client Sr. and Client Jr. assured me they were pleased with the job I was doing. They apologized for creating delays, told me I was “wonderful,” and asked that I continue managing the project.
Three months later with our agreement expiring in a couple days, I received an email from the owners saying, “What will it take to complete the project this week. We will not consider any extensions, new contracts, or requests until the project is done.”
The tone of this email seemed so disconnected from all my earlier meetings that I called Client Sr. and Junior to find out what the heck was going on.
I spoke with Client Jr. (Client Sr was out of town) who apologized for the letter’s tone. He told me his dad came up through insurance sales and didn’t understand or feel comfortable with marketing. In fact his dad felt they would have been better off making cold calls rather than bringing in a marketing consultant.
Client Sr. told Junior he was sending me an email but Junior didn’t actually see what Senior had written until now.
Client Jr said he’d like me to work with them to complete the mailing and he was sure he could get his father to agree to keep me on for another three months.
I told Client Jr. I would consider his offer and would talk with them the next week when he and his dad were both available.
My Point of View
I know I’m making the dad sound like an ogre but in truth he wasn’t a bad guy. During the time I worked with him, he was respectful and listened to what I had to say.
But stress has a way of bringing out how people really feel. The agency was growing, a good thing, but it was putting a lot of stress on the owners. “Rolling up your sleeves and picking up the phone” had always worked for Client Sr. and he thought it was crazy to spend time and money “cultivating” relationships.
There was clearly a conflict in values between the owners and hiring me made the conflict painfully clear. Because I couldn’t do my job in this situation, I decided that leaving was the best decision and planned to tell the owner my decision when we met.
How to Say It : A “Bad News Sandwich”
To tell the owners my decision I used what I call a “Bad News Sandwich.” Here’s how it works:
- Open with the positive
- Share the negative
- Close with the positive
Open with the Positive
I told the owners that nearly all the major marketing pieces were in place and the remaining elements were assigned to their staff. They could start mailing letters to prospective clients within the week.
Share the Negative
I then told the owners I felt there wasn’t a good fit between what they needed and what I offered. Specifically, I said:
- I’m a coach and I’m there to implement in addition to making recommendations.
- The delays were a real problem and a problem I had no control over.
- I do what I do because making a contribution is important to me. If they don’t value my work or use what I offer I’m not contributing and that doesn’t feel good.
The lack of fit meant I would not continue on the project.
Note: I spoke directly to why I was leaving. My purpose wasn’t to make them feel bad or defensive but I wasn’t going to fluff over my reasons for leaving either.
Close on a Positive Note
I told the owners, they could call me if they had any questions about the marketing or if they needed me to refer other marketing resources.
I also told them they had a great staff and a great foundation for growth (all true).
When the dad said “If you know anyone who needs our services, we’ll take good care of them” I told him, absolutely, I would because they DID a good job for their customers.
And on that note, we ended the relationship.