Cutting Ties: Taking the Stress Away with a Client Offboarding Process

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As I build my team, I’m working with a fabulous coach, Podge Thomas. And one of the strategies she suggests is to create an “offboarding” strategy for new hires before you do anything else. If you’re anything like me, you might be thinking, “but isn’t that kind of backwards? Why would I plan to say ‘goodbye’ before I have a complete plan to bring someone in.”

But the logic actually makes a lot of sense and has inspired me to create a plan for “offboarding” clients too. Here’s Podge’s logic, as I understand it: sometimes when you hire someone, it doesn’t work out for various reasons and you may need to let them go very quickly after you’ve hired them. So, you’ll want to be ready with a process for making that happen. Makes sense to me!

Also, as a recent convert to creating business systems, I’m discovering that creating processes for complicated tasks in my business makes me more likely to follow through and any friction I can relieve around difficult tasks, in particular, is a win.

So, I want to share my client “offboarding” process.

It’s so hard to say goodbye…

Saying “goodbye” to a client is one of the hardest tasks I face as a business owner. I always want to put it off and it’s always heart-wrenching — no matter the circumstances. I have a lot of people-pleasing blood coursing through my veins, but more importantly, I’m good at what I do, I know it, and I hate to leave people in the lurch, as it were.

Nevertheless, I have cut ties with nine or ten clients at various stages of running my business. In this context, what I mean by “cutting ties” is ending work with a client who was happy and would have preferred to continue working together.

I’ve had to cut ties with clients for various reasons:

  • I needed to increase the price on my services beyond what was reasonable for them
  • I was making room in my schedule for new service offerings
  • I was shifting my business model
  • The work was misaligned with my core values
  • The work was misaligned with where I knew I wanted to take the business

Because it’s mentally hard for me, I’ve said some inelegant goodbye’s. Still, I’m proud that I’ve managed to part ways amicably with most.

If you feel similarly, you may also struggle with this. I often refer to it as “ripping off the band aid.” In many cases, I know it’s time (or past time) to make my move, but I stress myself out about all the worst case scenarios I can think of — slowly tugging at the edges of the band aid — instead of simply sending the email.

As hard as it is, having a process makes it easier.

My client “offboarding” process

Having an offboarding process may not make it mentally easier to cut ties with a good client, but when you don’t need to exert mental energy on logistics, it does mitigate the challenge. Here’s my process and some of what has helped me get through it with less mental anguish:

Step 1: Set a goal.

Having an external reason to cut ties with a client is useful. Of course, you can cut ties with a client for any reason, but I always connect that decision with a larger business goal because if I don’t have another reason, I might lose my nerve (my people-pleasing brain rears its head at the most inopportune moments).

For example, I recently sun-setted my blog only service because I’ve created a new service offering that includes monthly blogging. I no longer want to create blog articles as a stand-alone service. So I had to break the news to several “blog only” clients.

In this case, I set a goal of replacing that “blog only” revenue with revenue from the new service. Once that happened, I was ready to contact clients and let them know that they could move to the new service or we would have to part ways.

Why this helps: You can see ending your work with certain clients as a benchmark in your business. So the more you can do to stand firmly in the new stage of your business, the easier it is to let go of the remnants of the old stage.

Step 2: Set a deadline.

There are times when you hold yourself back from hitting your goal when you hold onto certain clients too long. If completing the work for a client is getting in the way of marketing your new service or meeting with prospective clients, then it may be time to cut the deadweight.

I find the end of the month to be a good time to cut ties. When I’m dragging my feet, I’ll choose a date two weeks before the last business day of the month and make that the day to send the email. Another strategy for bigger projects is to look at a milestone that you have coming up and decide to cut ties after that milestone is completed.

Why this helps: When you choose a date or some other “line in the sand,” you’ll feel a great sense of relief. Now you have something to work towards, instead of that crushing feeling of never-ending dread.

Step 3: Be ready to offer clients an alternative.

The other point to raise about the above example is that because I waited until I had my new service in place, I also had an alternative to offer clients. I hate to leave a client (or even a prospect) without any options. For this reason, I always try to come up with an alternative.

If you don’t have a new service to offer, maybe you would be happy to continue working with them for an increase in your price. Is there no price that would make the arrangement more palatable? Perhaps you can refer them out to others. I keep a running list of freelance writers and other service providers I know, so that if anyone asks for something I don’t, won’t, or can’t provide, I can share a few names of others who might be interested.

Why this helps: There are a lot of ways to please others. It would be exceedingly arrogant for me to believe I’m the only one who can deliver what any particular client needs. I’m good, but I’m not the best in the world. Remember, you don’t have to do the work yourself to be most helpful and in many cases, sending clients to others is best for everyone.

Step 4: Send the email.

There are two discussions in business that I prefer to get down on paper before having a conversation: money and cutting ties with clients. I always send an email clearly stating the price and details about my services before I get on a discovery call with prospects. And I always send an email letting clients know that I need to end our work together.

Once you’re ready, draft your email. Avoid listing all of your personal reasons or copiously justifying your choice. Remember, you aren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, you’re doing the graceful thing by telling them in person instead of ghosting them (which happens far too often).

Keep your email kind, short, and sweet. Thank them for being so easy to work with (even if this isn’t 100% truthful), express to them your appreciation, and offer them your alternative. If you have a contract, make sure you’re honoring the terms of the contract and how to break it, if you are. Finally, let them know the date when you’ll be finished and if there are any loose ends to tie up, tell them when you’ll need them to do their part.

Why this helps: It’s always good to put these thoughts in writing. If they want to get on a call to discuss things face-to-face, you can go into the call feeling relaxed because you’ve said what you need to say. If they don’t ask to get on a call, then the email is sufficient.

Cutting ties with a great client is never easy. But having an offboarding process can ease the friction that tips the scales in the direction of the status quo. When you’re ready, count to three and rip off that band aid!

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out what type of book you should write with the Your Book Type Quiz.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks.