How to fire a vendor (and still feel OK after doing it.)

How to fire a vendorI had to fire a vendor today.

When it comes to giving someone the ax, I am a far cry from Donald Trump. Did I get pleasure from the experience? Heck no. Did I lose sleep over the decision? Sure.

Did it need to be done? Yes.

Fortunately, I’ve (finally) learned when to fire someone – and how to do it well.

Chances are, you’ll have to fire someone someday. The writer who misses deadlines. The accountant who doesn’t return your calls. The consultant that isn’t teaching you anything new. It’s never easy – no matter why you have to let them go.

Looking back, I’ve made many “I should have fired them sooner” mistakes. There was the vendor who bad-mouthed me to clients and colleagues (and yes, my clients and colleagues told me what she said.). There was the flaky vendor who would do a half-assed job, make lots of mistakes, and would charge me for fixing the mistakes she made. And then there was the vendor who was so rude to clients that they refused to talk to her. At all.

In all of these cases, I gave everyone chance after chance. I sent supportive emails. We had “talks.” There would be a temporary short term improvement. Then, time would pass, old habits would kick in and we’d be back to square one. Or even square zero.

This time, I was definitely smarter and more methodical. It didn’t make the process psychologically easier, but it did make it smoother.

Here’s what I learned:

Figure out the core problem

Is the vendor missing deadlines? Are your emails to them going into a black hole…and you never hear from them in a timely manner?  Or, is it just that you aren’t “clicking” with the vendor, no matter how you try? There may be a list of issues, or just one main one. Be clear  about your reasons for wanting to let them go.

Do you want to work it out?

If the vendor lied to you, bad mouthed you or purposely did something to jeopardize your business, you got to let them go. Right now. I don’t care how much you like them, or if they’ve worked for you for years. Let them go. You can’t afford to work with people who don’t have your back.

If there’s room for improvement, determine your desired outcome. Maybe you need them to always get back to you by the end of the business day. Or, you want them to proof their work before sending it to you. Ask yourself what kind of behavior change you need, and when you need to see it.

Start documenting the problem

It’s easy to think, “Things aren’t that bad” and fool yourself into thinking things are OK. When you document the problem, you’re forced to acknowledge that, yes, it is a problem. It’s not a one time thing. It’s a long standing issue. Plus, the documentation helps during the next step, which is…

Talk to the vendor about it.

This is not the time to suffer in silence. If missing deadlines is unacceptable to you – tell them. Outline what deadlines they’ve missed and how that affects your business. If communication is an issue, tell them you need a faster response time – and be specific about what that means to you. I prefer to do this by email so I have the paper trail. Other people prefer to do this by phone and then they later send a follow-up email. It depends on your personal style and the relationship you have with the vendor.

You may learn that the vendor has been sick, is going through a divorce or having another problem that prevents them from giving their 100 percent. Be sympathetic, but remember that their problem isn’t your problem. It’s OK to cut them some slack. But it’s not OK to do it when it’s at the expense of your business or sanity.

I will have one – maybe two “talks” with the vendor. After that, my next step is to…

Set up consequences

Have you told the vendor what you need – and you’re still not getting it? Tell them that if things don’t improve by X date, you’ll have to let them go.  At this point, your vendor may quit. Or, she’ll promise to get back on track. Promises are nice – but action is what you’re looking for. If your vendor doesn’t fulfill his or her end of the bargain, it’s time to…

Say, “You’re fired.”

If things have reached this point, you have done everything you can do. The vendor, for whatever reason, can’t do what you need – so it’s time to let them go.

Send them an email and keep it professional, factual and friendly. Tell him or her why it’s happening, refer to past documentation and sever ties immediately. If they’re in the middle of a project, find someone else who can take over. The faster you (and your vendor) can move on, the faster it’s out of everyone’s lives.

Firing someone is never fun – but it is necessary. What tips would you add to this list?

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7 replies
  1. Amy C. Teeple
    Amy C. Teeple says:

    It’s true: professionally or personally, breaking up is hard to do!

    This is great advice Heather. I especially like the reminder that you need to document your issues. This gives you tangible evidence of the problem that you can review – it also may help you see patterns (or other issues) you hadn’t noticed or thought about before. And, of course, it gives you something concrete when you address the vendor.

    I think you covered the steps pretty well. One thing you need to remember is that firing a poor performer does not make you a bad person. You need to protect your business and your name.

  2. Kevin Carlton
    Kevin Carlton says:

    Totally agree with the tactful, diplomatic and carefully measured approach Heather.

    Although making enemies in business is perhaps unavoidable, you want to keep these to the absolute bare minimum.

    Otherwise, you never know when one of these enemies will come back to haunt you.

    • Heather Lloyd-Martin
      Heather Lloyd-Martin says:

      @Kevin – exactly. And there are ways to fire people without making enemies. In many cases, the vendor is pretty aware that things aren’t going well – so the news isn’t a big surprise. :)

      Burning bridges is NEVER a good idea. Like you said, it could come back to haunt you – and the online world is a pretty small one….


  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    I’ve dealt with a number of vendors who miss deadlines (whether it’s a few hours or days), and I’ve let it slide many times. But sooner or later you have to ask yourself if the vendor really cares about you and your business. If he did, he would be completing the work on time at or before the deadline. If there is no advance notice as to why the project will be late, then there’s no excuse. Fire away!

    • Heather Lloyd-Martin
      Heather Lloyd-Martin says:

      Exactly, Mike. I figure if I can make my deadlines, other vendors can make theirs. :) Sure, there are always “extenuating circumstances.” But, when deadlines continue to fly by, it’s time to take control and tell them goodbye.


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