Growing pains.
March 29, 2011 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Help me fire *good* clients.

I am an independent contractor in a creative field. I have been doing this for awhile, and I have some great clients that have been with me for the long haul.

I've been fortunate to get involved in some bigger projects lately, and that combined with having a kid in preschool means that my hours are limited. I want/need to focus more on two or three big projects at a time rather than lots of small things that eat up hours here and there and don't really bring in much money. Several of my accounts have been with me for so long that their projects are mostly maintenance and small things here and there - the things I'd like to get away from.

How do I gracefully explain to some of my clients the reason I can no longer work with them, even though I'm still working with other clients? I don't want them to feel like I'm ditching them for bigger fish since they stuck with me back when I was hungry for work.
posted by TallulahBankhead to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A good way to handle having more work than you have time for is to adjust your prices. (You can do this apologetically if appropriate.)
posted by fritley at 7:24 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

honestly? honesty. what you said here really seems to be sufficient and straightforward. do you have someone new you can recommend for them? that might cushion the blow.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 7:26 PM on March 29, 2011

Find them a replacement.

Or, better, build your business: hire someone to do the work as your employee, while you manage the client relationship.
posted by orthogonality at 7:26 PM on March 29, 2011 [31 favorites]

What a delightful place to be. Congrats on your success. But always remember your success now is because of those clients and your experience with them. They're you're best advocate; don't loose that. Especially because, no matter how good it is now, you might need those folks if things don't continue to go so great. Not pessimism...just hedging bets.

Find someone trying to start out...the you from when you started. Someone reliable and hungry. Introduce them as "the business is expanding and I've brought on some folks to make sure I can give you the service you deserve". Give them the back history, the tribal knowledge, and make them responsible for maintenance on these clients. Engage with the client once a month or so to make sure they're still happy, let the new guy take on bigger gigs to pay the bills. Provide oversight, but let the new guy evolve.
posted by kjs3 at 7:29 PM on March 29, 2011 [9 favorites]

Orthogonality has a good idea: can you hire someone to do the maintenance? I'm not a small business owner so I'm not sure about the hassles, but if you can find someone reliable, you might find that they're helpful not only on the small maintenance things but also for the routine aspects of the bigger projects that you might not have time or interest to do.

If you do hire someone, pay them well--not necessarily what you would get, since you have overhead as well as experience they don't have, and they didn't have to build the relationship, but enough to make it worth their while. And if they bring in further business, reward them for that.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:37 PM on March 29, 2011

Raise your rates and subcontract the housekeeping stuff. But don't hire someone as an employee unless you really want all the hassle, tax-wise, that goes with it.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:56 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll echo the finding a replacement advice.

Also, let them know that you are doing this now because as some of your jobs get bigger you are concerned that eventually you could get distracted or overwhelmed and you don't want their maintenance or support to suffer. This is about you continuing to do your best to take care of them, by working with them to find someone they can rely on, now that you realize they won't always be able to rely on you.
posted by meinvt at 8:31 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The traditional method is to pass them off to a more junior but talented colleague within your circle of acquaintances.
posted by desuetude at 8:42 PM on March 29, 2011

Do not fire your good clients. Bad business, bad karma, bad all around.

On the other hand, clients are used to rate increases, and they are used to service providers bringing on new personnel to staff to their accounts. Either step would work for you, although combining both can be a stiff measure and probably should be avoided. Whatever you do, do NOT apologize or try to justify this by reference to your other clients, your business amibtions, or your personal life, none of which is your clients business and each of which could engender serious resentment of you.

I appreciate that clients demanding few hours can be frustrating. That's not easy to deal with; a demand for large monthly minimums would probably be seen as a transparent effort to fire them without actually having to do the dirty work. You might deal with it by asking for an annual contract, which would be both fair to the client and provide you with income security and predictability. ("Commencing July 1, 2011, to address needs for planning and budgeting, we will be providing maintenance services pursuant to annual contracts" etc.)
posted by MattD at 9:18 PM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Take them out for lunch (or make a phone call, depending). Tell them you've loved working with them and what's great abotu them and their businesses. Explain that you're moving to a new retainer or minimum project format. Explain that you can offer them a few options - the new format, a warm introduction to a trusted consultant who can offer them the more intimate consulting help with these projects, or that they can wrap the work up into a bigger project by doing ______. Tell them you absolutely value their business and the relationship and you'd like to make sure they continue to get great service. Throwing in the part about your child may also help, as some people really get the trade-offs you make as a parent. I would not talk about your business goals or anything like that. Just say this is what you're doing with your business and you really want to make sure things will work.

I have many clients I've handed off over the years. I get clients from other people doing the same thing. My competitors even hand clients to me. Sometimes, the fit is just better with a different firm. For example, I have a minimum project rate but I know some other people don't. I won't typically commute for more than 20 minutes for meetings. Other people will. But you wouldn't say it that way to the client.

I have some articles on firing clients on my website. Firing isn't always the best word for it, of course. It's really about relationships and fit.
posted by acoutu at 9:34 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like the lunch idea. Thank them for their business. Explain that some of your projects have grown and you're running out of time. Introduce them to potential replacements.
posted by theora55 at 8:29 AM on March 30, 2011

Was very close to your situation last year. I found a design firm who I felt to have equal talent and dedication to customer service as we had, phoned them up and asked if they'd mind me tossing a few clients their way. These were clients who had been with me since nearly day one, but it was a catch 22 - we couldn't afford to hire a staffer to manage them and they were great clients but took too long to pay.

We said to the good clients - It has been an extreme pleasure working with you, but we're growing faster than we're comfortable with, and we aren't the right firm anymore for your needs. Here's the name of the company we've vetted for you who *can and will* meet your needs - we talked to them and they'd love to take you on, here's the name of the guy who will be helping you make your transition.

We are still on great terms with past clients - if there's questions about legacy code or something that the other firm doesn't have a handle on, we always take their customer service calls and everyone is happy.

Hope it works out for you & well done with your success!
posted by empatterson at 10:32 PM on April 3, 2011

« Older Catholic Church + Jewish Music on Palm Sunday == ?...   |   Here's a joke: Knock, knock. Who's there? A dairy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.