Dealing with nightmare clients—whether that means departing gracefully or salvaging the relationship—was the subject of a recent article on TechRepublic that has generated some great member feedback. One member offered standout advice, both in the discussion and in an e-mail interview with TechRepublic.

Terryn Barill, CEO and president of Terryn Barill, Inc., always includes a 30-day written notice cancellation clause in her contracts. On rare occasions, she must exercise that clause and follows a three-step method to ensure a clean break:

  1. Talk to the client and clearly state your intentions, for example, “I think it would be better for the team if I transitioned out.”
  2. Follow up with a written notice that uses the same terminology.
  3. Complete the transition by following through with all obligations and agreed-upon terms.

“Using this process, I have always been able to extricate myself from bad situations, while keeping client goodwill,” Barill said. “A clear transition plan implemented in a professional manner says that you care about the successful outcome of the project, even if you can’t be a part of it.”

The three-point plan
Barill developed her three-step approach during a “project from hell,” she said. She was hired to be the project director of a global project team comprised of members of her staff, her client’s staff, and another contractor’s staff.

“There was an extremely toxic person on the team…who created a hostile atmosphere from the very beginning. Consequently, I was never allowed to do my job, because the client was terrified of her and allowed her to poison the entire project,” Barill said.

Although it was difficult, Barill found ways to work around the troublesome team member and maintained a good relationship with the client’s manager, who was aware of the situation and valued Barill’s help in turning around “a bad situation.”

Step 1: State your intentions
Eventually, Barill realized that she could no longer continue on the project. She felt that it was her presence, in particular, that was causing problems for the ill-intentioned team member. That’s when she implemented step one of her three-step plan.

She met with the client and, as an alternative to simply ending the relationship altogether, suggested that another member of her firm take over as the project manager. The client agreed that a “change of face” might do some good.

“I felt that this solution would be best for the team because it would allow for an orderly and professional transition, they wouldn’t lose the skill sets, and it would be an opportunity to restructure the team to work better,” Barill said.

Step 2: Follow up in writing
In this case, since she was on-site often, she didn’t feel a certified letter was necessary. After agreeing to put another manager in place, Barill made “Transition Plan” an item on the weekly project update she sent the client. In that way, she was able to provide updates to key client managers during the transition.

In other cases, Barill said it’s wise to send a certified letter to the client reiterating your intentions to end the relationship and the terms of the agreement you reached with the client in your face-to-face meeting.

Barill provided the following list of key components of the client letter:

  • Include the same terminology in both the written and verbal communications. For example, don’t tell the client that you’re “transitioning” from the project verbally and then use the term “resign” in the letter.
  • Keep the letter as factual and objective as possible, and use examples to illustrate your points. For example, instead of saying “Pamela was hostile and unprofessional,” say “Pamela’s refusal to meet with me directly and her continued interruptions during group meetings has affected our ability to communicate.”
  • Wherever possible, tie your objections to items previously agreed to or required by the client. For example, “XYZ Co. requires that all projects over $100,000 have an approved project plan on file. We are now three months into this project, and Norman has not yet filed a project plan.”

Step 3: Live up to your obligations
Once the message is delivered in both verbal and written forms, Barill said that, to sever the relationship with the fewest problems possible, it’s important to meet all your firm’s obligations and live up to the expectations you’ve set for the client.

For example, in the case Barill described, she followed through by immediately communicating a transition plan and bringing in a prospective replacement. Another example might be returning all client materials and any materials you agreed to hand over during the course of your initial meeting about ending the relationship.

Get out and stay out?
Barill said that when she leaves a bad client relationship, she takes time to evaluate the situation.

“Basically, you have to make a determination of why things went wrong .Was it lack of planning? Lack of accountability? Wrong project structure? Personality conflicts? Some things are within your control and can be changed. Others aren’t, and can’t,” she said.

In situations that could be changed or fixed, Barill said she has renegotiated terms with a client after taking steps to terminate the relationship. Several times, clients have fired her because they didn’t like what she had to say, but returned, “once they figured out I was right,” she said.

“If I was asked to go back into the same situation with no changes, I would refuse. If there were no changes, what would indicate that there would be a different outcome?”