“I finally fired my client.”
I was having brunch with a friend the other day when she blurted that one out. As an independent contractor, I knew that she was overwhelmed with work at year-end and needed to reduce her workload. As we talked about it, it became clear that she didn’t really fire the client, she just told her that she was no longer going to provide that particular service for the client. (This was the only client she did it for.) Then she told me that the client had “freaked out”, thinking that she would be “gone immediately” and leave the client high and dry. Well, I knew that couldn’t possibly be the case, so I started asking what happened.
My friend told me that she sent her client an email telling her that she had secured a replacement provider that was highly recommended, that she planned to work with the new provider until everything was working well, and that she would still be around to ask questions, since she would still be doing other work for client. “I did everything right, and she still panicked.”
Yes, she did do almost everything right. She took the clients work seriously, and planned for a successful transition. But the client was not happy. Why not?
Once again, it comes down to communication. My friend planned her actions well, but did not communicate the right message to the client. Quitting a job, a volunteer position, or a contract can be a particularly difficult communication task, fraught with emotions on both sides. Handling separations well will brand you as a professional, and preserve your reputation and your relationships into the future.
Don’t quite by email. No matter what the situation, quitting is always bad news, even when both parties are in agreement that it is best. That’s because the known is always safer than the unknown, and training a new person takes time and resources. In person is always best, but if you are not co-located, telephone or Skype is fine as well. The conversation should be brief and to the point, and then be followed up immediately by a specific communication in writing covering the discussion and agreements made. Why in person first? This will allow you to head off any panic due to misinformation or misunderstanding. But more than that, in-person interaction confers more trust and assurance than written communication.
Quit generously. Be as conscientious about the job when you are quitting as you were when you started. Give as much notice as possible. Give at least two weeks’ notice, and more if it is a high-profile or high-visibility position. Analyze the impact of your leaving on the organization, and assess what steps would be needed to ease the transition. Don’t “quit in place” – Do your best work until the very last hour. When “firing” a client, remember that according to every one of your clients, they are your only client. They don’t want to hear about your other clients, or how busy you are, or how you don’t want their work anymore. In my friend’s case, I suggested that she say “I will no longer be providing that particular service, but I have found you someone who does, and who’s work I recommend.” First, it works because it is 100% true, and also because it doesn’t reflect negatively on the client, making it possible to preserve the relationship.
Develop a transition plan. No one knows your responsibilities and your impact on the organization like you do. Think not just about the formal job description, but all the little adjustments you’ve made to improve your work and to make things happen more smoothly and successfully. If you can find a replacement for yourself, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t happen too often. Instead you can make recommendations for who can take over tasks. Don’t just say you will “sit with them”, but document what you are doing, and treat it like a training, having the new person work on tasks with you. If you don’t have anyone to transfer activities to before you leave, your written instructions will be invaluable to the organization after you’ve gone. Lastly, make sure your transition plan is customer-focused, not just on handing off everything on your desk. My friend had it right when she identified a qualified replacement, planned to work with the replacement on the assignments until the work was being completed to the same quality that she herself had done it. She focused not on when she could stop, but on providing a seamless experience for the customer with no loss of turnaround time or quality.
Prepare your script. Don’t “wing it”. Quitting is a negotiation, just like hiring is. Each party will have their interests at heart and try to get an agreement that meets their needs. You need to have a plan, and prepare a simple script that covers your plans and position. What should be included in your script? First, unless you have done something wrong, don’t apologize for leaving. Approach it as a business decision. Second, let them know how much notice you are giving and what your last day will be. Understand that they will probably want to negotiate the date, so be prepared with your latest possible date. However, be fair but firm – if you need to move on by a certain date, stick to that date. The remainder of the script will describe briefly but with specifics what transition activities you have planned.
Don’t burn bridges. As tempting as it is to tell the company what you really think in the exit interview, don’t do it. If you couldn’t change things while you were there, what makes you think your leaving will make the company “see the light?” Don’t get me wrong – there have been some contracts where I’ve carried the torch all the way up to the edge of the bank. But unless an assessment of some aspect of the organization was your job, they won’t listen anyway, and even if it was, the exit interview is not the place. So bite your tongue, thank them for the opportunities they have afforded, and wish them well. Also, social media is forever – don’t post bad things about your job, or the organization. Don’t post about how glad you are to be leaving. It is OK, however, to be excited about a new opportunity. Just leave the rest out. It’s a small world, and you may need a reference, a job, or a contract from someone connected to the organization in the future. A good professional reputation is priceless, and clients and employers are more likely to rehire and refer people who they like and respect, and who they feel like and respect them in return.