How to break up with clients without burning any bridges

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In my last blog post I shared some tips on how to decide whether or not you should say goodbye to a difficult client.

I shared the four key questions I ask myself to help me decide if it’s worth sticking with it and making it work or if I should give up and walk away.

Now let’s look at the next step. Say you have decided that it is, in fact, time to ‘break up’ with one of your clients. What is the right way to do it?

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

Many of us live and work in relatively small communities where lots of people know each other. We don’t want to end things on a bad note and risk the client talking badly about us with other potential clients.

I don’t know about you, but I get most of my work through word of mouth. So even if I don’t like working for a particular client, I still want to make sure they have a good experience.

The last thing I want is for them to talk badly about me afterwards.

I did some research and talked to a few people to get some great tips on how to break up with clients without burning any bridges.

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Build up to it – don’t surprise them

This actually happened to me once when I was on the client side. We were working with a freelance designer and all of the sudden, without any real warning, the person told me that they no longer wanted to work for us.

It was a very stressful time at the company and, to be honest, we might have been a slightly more difficult client at the time. But the designer never complained, never indicated the situation wasn’t working for them, or that they didn’t enjoy the work.

Them walking away was a real shock and left us hanging at an already stressful time.

Obviously, I would never recommend that person to someone else. From that experience I learned to always make sure to let the client know early on if the situation is not working. I would suggest saying something like; “If […..] doesn’t change/happen, I am not sure we can work together going forward.”

Think about the timing – ie: don’t walk away 5 minutes before a major deadline

Another important aspect. Make sure you don’t leave a client hanging right when they need you most. If you walk away, do it at a time where they can find someone else before the next big deadline.

Suggest alternatives

This can be a bit tricky.

If they really are a difficult client, you don’t want to pass them on to your freelancer buddies. Think about why the relationship is not working. Maybe it’s because you don’t really buy into their ideas and goals and someone else would. Or, if you’re being honest, you need to admit that you might not have the right skills and someone else may be more suitable.

Another example could be that the client would be better off with a larger agency with more resources. Think about this and if you find there is someone better suited to help them, make a referral.

Make them feel like it’s in their best interest

When it’s time to actually tell the client, you might be tempted to just lay it all out for them and tell them how difficult they are to work with.

But will that help you in any way? It might make you feel better in the moment, but chances are that client won’t speak very highly of you afterwards.

Instead, explain the situation calmly and outline how someone else is likely better suited for them and ending the arrangement is in their best interest. Most likely the client has already noticed that things are not going well and they might be relieved that you suggest there is a better option for them.

Make the transition as easy as possible

Finally, when it’s time to make the transition, make it as easy as possible for the client. Don’t just walk away without doing a proper handover.

Ensure you leave all the ongoing work in a way that makes it easy for someone else to pick it up. That includes saving files in common formats, packaging design files to include all fonts and assets, leaving notes and explanations, and of course making sure you hand over everything you’ve done for them. Doing this will go a long way to making sure the client will remember you in a positive way.

I think what sums it all up is to always be fair! No matter how difficult the client has been, you are always better off leaving things on a good note.

That’s it. Those are my tips for breaking up with your client. I hope there is something in here that helps you next time you’re dealing with a difficult client.

I would love to hear what other tips you have and how you walk away from difficult clients. What has worked well for you and what hasn’t?  Leave your comments below.

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About Lisa Jansen

Lisa is a highly experienced marketing professional with a special interest in all things data, technology and innovation. Lisa has held several marketing roles with technology startups, entrepreneurial organisations and small businesses before launching her freelance career. As a Freelancer she now helps her clients develop and execute marketing strategies with a focus on digital and marketing automation.

Connect with Lisa on twitter or linkedin.

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Comments

  1. Great tips, Lisa! Right now I’m in a situation where I am considering breaking up with one of my clients.

    I indicated to them a couple of months back that even though I enjoy working for them, they are my lowest paying client and if that didn’t change I couldn’t give their work a high priority.

    Since then, they’ve started to give me more work and have promised to revisit my rate when they do raises at the end of June.

    It was really hard for me to tell them I’m not happy, but clients are not mind readers. If you don’t let them know what’s not working they will continue their bad behavior.

    Thanks so much for both of your articles, I’ve really enjoyed reading them 🙂

    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks so much for your feedback. It’s great to hear my articles help others.
      And I totally agree with you about having to let your clients know you’re not happy – as hard as that might be.

      All the best,

      Lisa

  2. Love the way you talk about “breaking up with clients”

  3. Totally agree – I’m in the middle of a client cutting down my time after many years of them being my main source of income. I’d never leave anyone up sxxt street without a paddle.

    No matter what has gone before, they’ll always recommend you if you treat them respectfully and professionally.

    • Hi Pete,

      Totally agree with you. I actually just had a lead last week from a client I ‘broke up with’ a few months ago. I referred them on to someone I thought more suitable and now they are sending me leads 🙂

      All the best.

      Lisa

  4. Don’t burn bridges. You never know when they might want to come back, even at a higher price point.

  5. I see some posts ere that refer to money as a problem. Well, it’s not always money. At least in my present situation. Although they are paying full freight, there seems to be a disconnect between us. At this point I’m torn between trying to massage them into being a better client or discontinue working with them so this article was a good primer on handling the dissolution. I missed the one before this so I will go back and review that one too.