How to Fire a Customer

By Kristen Hayer

It is an unfortunate fact of life that things don’t always work out the way we planned. Friendships break, marriages end, employees get fired and, occasionally, one of your customers becomes a bad fit for your company. Perhaps the customer outgrew your company or vice versa. Perhaps the expectations that were set for the customer were unrealistic or undelivered. Whatever the cause every CSM will, at some point, need to let a customer go.  Here’s a method for making the break-up as professional as possible, and potentially saving customers who are going downhill.

Set Expectations

As soon as you know the relationship is no longer working, it is critical to have a candid conversation with the client.  While it can be tempting to leave the client alone and hope things get better on their own, this almost never works and often makes the situation worse.  Instead, schedule time with your client to talk about what is going on.  You need to understand what is happening from the customer’s perspective.

This conversation is a great time to spell out what a successful relationship looks like for both the customer and your company.  Ask questions like, “What were you hoping to achieve with our solution?” and “What initiatives did you expect our solution to support?”  Be sure to share your company’s expectations of the client as well, especially if there are areas where the customer is not a good fit.  Things like, “Our implementations typically take 2 weeks, but yours has been in process for 6 months because we can’t schedule meetings with your team.” are important to surface at this stage.

Involve Key Players

While your primary contact might be the right person to kick off this conversation with, it’s critical to involve any other key stakeholders.  Sometimes you’ll find that the person who signed off on the purchase has a much different perspective on your solution than the person you work with day-to-day.  Make sure you’re taking everyone’s viewpoint and expectations into account as you work through issues.

One important thing to note is that executives generally take a broader view of how a solution or vendor fits in with their company’s goals and vision.  They also tend to be removed from much of the detail on things like implementation and service delivery.  By including an executive-level contact in your initial conversation about fit, you may find that the fit is actually better than the feedback you’re hearing from your main contact.  In addition, executives can often resolve problems on their end more quickly.

Document Actions and Results

The next step in the process is to create a game plan to try and get things back on track.  Work with the customer to design a plan that clearly outlines both parties’ expectations and what each team needs to do to resolve any issues that can be fixed.  Define the time frame for an agreeable resolution that works for both groups.  Put everything in writing, ideally in a format that can be shared by both teams (Google Drive and Box are a couple of good options). While you’re in this phase, weekly or bi-weekly meetings with your customer to review progress are a smart idea.

As both teams start working through the action plan, document results.  Is your company missing deadlines or unable to deliver on commitments?  While it’s no fun to see that in writing, documenting your company’s failures is just as important as documenting problems on the customer’s end.  This is great information for your team to learn from, and may ultimately support your position that there is a poor fit between your client and company.

Create Transition Plan

If you’ve done all of the above, and things are still not working out, it’s time to pull the plug.  Before you break things off with your client, make sure you know exactly what needs to happen internally by creating a transition plan with your team. For organizations with complex or expensive solutions, letting a client go can materially impact revenue and operations teams. Be sure to run your transition plan by any teams who will need to deal with this change.

As you build the transition plan you should consider:

  • Timeline – How long will it take for the customer to find an alternative?
  • Contracts – What cancellation clauses are you and the client subject to?
  • Refunds – If you cancel, will you owe the customer money?
  • Support – How are you planning to support the client through the transition?

Communicate Clearly

Having frequent, candid discussions with your customer throughout this process should mean that this result is not a surprise.  That said, having the break up talk is never fun.  Just like ending a personal relationship, you should follow standard etiquette for this conversation:  Do this in person or over the phone, be polite but clear, and be prepared to discuss next steps.

It can help to write out what you want to say before the call.  A sample agenda:

  • Let the client know that you’re ending the relationship
  • Outline the reasons for the decision
  • Reinforce that you’re ending the relationship
  • Provide the client with your proposed transition plan
  • Ask the client if they would like to discuss the transition plan

Firing a customer should always be a last resort.  Setting clear expectations up front, providing a smooth on-boarding experience, and clear communication throughout the client’s lifecycle can help to prevent this situation in the first place. When it does happen, handling the situation professionally can prevent long-term damage to your relationships with the people involved, and leave the door open for referrals to companies who are a better fit. 

Customer Success playbooks are a great way to make sure that your CSMs know exactly what to do in every client situation.  The Success League is a consulting firm that works with executives who want to unlock the retention and revenue a top performing customer success team will bring to their business.