How to Lose a Client in 10 Days
(A Tongue-in-Cheek View!)
Note: This is an attempt at humor. This is not a serious article (one friend of mine thought it was…serious)
The advertising great David Ogilvy wrote that every ad agency should fire a major client each year. Independence and selectivity, in fact, are among the hallmarks of great client advisors. “Experts for hire” will work for anyone, whereas great client advisors are selective about which clients they will accept. Sometimes, though, you take on a client that you wish you had turned down. How do you gracefully get rid of a client, however? It seems rather blunt to call him up and say, “We don’t want to work for you anymore,” or more subtly, “Scram!” A far better approach is to have the client leave of his own free will. As Ben Franklin wrote, “People are best convinced by ideas that they come to by themselves.”
So for those of you seeking to get rid of an obnoxious or otherwise undesirable client, here is a guide to losing him in merely 10 days:
Before You Start
If you’ve agreed to work for a client but haven’t yet started the job, there are several last-minute strategies that may get you off the hook before you’re in too deep. First, scare the daylights out of your soon-to-be client by providing gratuitous references that are, well, scary. Normally, you want to exploit a well-known psychological phenomenon called “positive association”—simply put, we tend to think more highly of professionals who are associated with people and companies that we admire. It’s easy to turn this concept on its head:
“Bill, I’d like to share with you the outline of a corporate ethics course I co-taught with former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling…”; or, “I’m sending you a copy of an economic model I developed for Uday Hussein, showing that Iraq’s GNP actually increased significantly under his father’s policies…”
If that doesn’t work, do some early work to undermine trust. One of the best ways to destroy integrity, and therefore trust, is to act inconsistently, unreliably, and to miss commitments. So call your client and say:
“John, I know I committed to starting this work on September 15th. I’m aware of how important that start date is to you. But I’m just not going to be available until October 28th. No, it’s not a question of other client commitments. I’ve been invited to a golf junket in Las Vegas with some old buddies from my college fraternity, and I just couldn’t say no to a week of heavy drinking and slot machines.”
DAY 1: Bait and Switch
In this uncertain economic climate characterized by low trust, clients want to know that the professionals they deal with during the up-front sale aren’t going to make outrageous promises and then disappear—the old “bait and switch.” So do exactly that. Here’s some sample wording for this delicate client discussion:
Client: “Uh, I enjoyed meeting your associate. He has an unusual accent when he speaks English. Actually, does he speak English?”
You: “Tomas is highly motivated to serve you. He learned many “life lessons” during his three years in exile from his home country, which were spent in the forest. Lessons that I know will apply to your business. I’ll check back next month to see how it’s going.”
DAY 2: Violate All of Your Client’s Cultural Norms
All companies have unspoken cultural norms that guide day-to-day behavior and decision-making. You can demonstrate a complete lack of empathy and flexibility by immediately violating as many of these as you can identify. You may want to set these out in a chart for easy reference:
|Suit and tie||Lederhosen with sandals|
|Consensus-driven||Dictatorial: “My way or the highway”|
|People come first||People are expendable slugs|
|Keep the CEO in the loop||Circulate secret, highly critical reports to key board members|
|Our business is different and requires tailored approaches||Deliver generic documents which have old client names still visible under peeled, fading patches of “whiteout”|
|Systematic: “Plan, do, review”||Overload the organization with multiple, competing, disorganized initiatives|
DAY 3: Become unresponsive
For many clients, ease of access and responsiveness are important qualities in an outside professional firm or vendor. A good “quick hit” guaranteed to infuriate your client is to simply stop answering his phone calls, e-mail, and other communications. Here’s what a sample exchange might look like:
Client e-mail: “Please call immediately, the entire billing system has crashed and in three days we’ll be out of business.”
Your e-mail answer: “Out of office reply: Simon Cagey is at a Zen meditation retreat for the next five days and will not have access to e-mail or telephone until November 14th. If there is an urgent problem please consult our 24-hour web-based FAQ service.”
DAY 4: Undermine trust
Trust is based on integrity—which you already wrecked before even starting work—and also on competence. Clients need to feel assured that you have real competence in the areas you’ve pitched to them. A good way to undermine their belief in your competence, besides just radically screwing up the job, is to leave behind some “interesting” books on day 5 of the engagement. Here are some suggested titles you might scatter around the office you’ve been assigned:
“Law for the Non-Lawyer”
“Starting Your Own Consulting Practice with No Experience”
“Information Systems for Morons”
“How to Lie with Statistics”
“How to Sell Almost Anything”
“Ponzi: Tricks of the World’s Greatest Swindler”
DAY 5: Demonstrate that You Cannot See the Forest for the Trees
Clients treasure big-picture thinking, or synthesis. Professionals who can synthesize well are adept at asking provocative questions which help a client reframe her problems, see the patterns, and identify priorities. They see the “whole” picture and put their product or service within that context.
To eliminate the possibility that your client will be attracted to your big-picture thinking, infuriate them with misguided, narrow-minded analysis. It the client’s strategy is to reposition its product as a premier brand, tell him to cut prices and advertise heavily on Internet porn sites. If your client’s philosophy is to settle litigation out of court, tell him—in front of the CEO—that he’s a “chicken” and “spineless” for refusing to fight it out in front of a jury. Produce reams of detailed, mind-numbing analysis which has nothing to do with the real issues at hand.
DAY 6: Misrepresent Your Capabilities
In researching my most recent book, Making Rain, which is about developing client loyalty, I interviewed a number of CEOs about their use of outside professionals. Many of them talked about the importance of trust and ethics, and how important it was, especially after the hype of the dot-com bubble years, for people to honestly represent their capabilities. By stretching the truth—or even just making up qualifications and experience—you can dramatically raise the odds that a client will decide to dump you. If you’re a lawyer, tell your client that you are really his “business advisor” and can advise on virtually every aspect of his operations. If you are an accountant and serve as your client’s auditor, suggest that your independence will in no way be compromised if you take over the internal audit function and in addition sell him “home grown” software based on an esoteric, closed architecture. If you’re a consultant, and your specialty is developing corporate strategy, tell your client with a straight face that he should entrust you with a massive corporate change program involving training tens of thousands of front-line employees—or better yet, with a huge toxic waste dump cleanup project on the California-Nevada border.
DAY 7: Be Totally Indiscrete
Many of the executives I have interviewed for my research have mentioned discretion—or lack of it—as a key issue in building trust in an outside professional. In short, if you want to be pulled into your client’s inner circle and treated like a trusted advisor rather than a vendor, you must exercise complete discretion—you should always keep confidences and confidentiality.
So when your client pulls you aside and says, “By the way, that proposed acquisition I mentioned to you yesterday—of course it’s totally confidential,” your response should be immediate: “Don’t worry—since leaving Martha Stewart, my broker only trades through dealers based in the Cayman Islands.”
DAY 8: Demonstrate a Complete Lack of Conviction
When you advise a client, you must resonate with conviction—with a deep belief not just in the facts and your conclusions but in broader set of personal values and mission. The opposite is frightening to clients.
A case-in-point: Years ago I was on vacation with my family in a small town in southern Italy. Our 6 month-old baby got an ear infection, and we called the local town doctor, a handsome young man with Ray-Ban sunglasses and an impeccable white smile. After examining my daughter, he began writing prescriptions. But each time, he’d mutter, “No” to himself and crumple up the small piece of prescription paper. Pretty soon there was a pile of six crumpled prescriptions on the table, and he was still writing. My anxiety level went through the roof as the young doctor dithered endlessly, unable to decide on a medication.
So on day 8, show your client that you are utterly confused about what advice to give him. For example:
“You might try reorganizing. Well, sometimes that’s a real mess. Forget it. Have you considered reengineering? That worked about ten years ago. How about going from ‘good to great’? Actually, you need culture change—why don’t you become a ‘learning’ organization? Do you have any cheese handy?”
DAY 9: Tell your client the current scope of work cannot possibly fix the problem
A client’s biggest fear is that you’ll arrive, like the first ant at a picnic, and never leave, charging him gazillions of dollars in fees for the next ten years or until he’s fired for spending too much on external professionals.
So inflame this fear immediately—don’t wait until the end of the engagement:
“Bill, I know that Tomas has only been collecting data for a few days, but it’s already apparent that the scope of our work won’t even scratch the surface of your problems. I’d like to bring in the rest of Tomas’ family from the refugee processing center in order to put more arms and legs against this monster. Of course we’ll have to triple the monthly billing level…”
DAY 10: Declare victory
On this day you unleash your secret weapon. Having tormented your client for the last nine days, you hand him an out—you give him “peace with honor.” You declare victory, ask for a reference letter, and leave. Here’s what you might say:
“Bill, I have some very good news. Miracles do happen. You are cured. Remember that ‘low hanging fruit’ I told you we were going to go out and harvest in the first week of our work together? Well, once we shoved aside your exhausted employees, we found about fifty crates of rotting oranges and grapefruits. Congratulations! I’ve already e-mailed your boss with the news.”
That’s it! You can now devote your energies to serving other more worthwhile and likeable clients who will better appreciate the value you can add. Or even better, you can take a week off.