How to Break Up with a Difficult Client

Kristi Carignan

Freelancers and private contractors are usually ecstatic about their clients, especially in these precarious times when work isn't always guaranteed. However, in some situations, a client relationship can turn sour. If you feel anxious about a client and the work is starting to feel like more effort than it's worth, it might be time to break up. 

But how do you break up with such a client in a professional manner? Some industries are small, and you don't want to burn bridges or ruin your reputation. When ending the business relationship, you’ll want to remain positive and kind, all the while doing what is best for you. Breaking up with a difficult client is a careful balancing act. 

Warning signs it is time to break up with a client 

Before we get into the practicalities of how to break up with a client, it's well worth asking how you know when it is time to do so. Here are a few signs that it might be time to end the business relationship. 

  • You're over accommodating the client: While most freelancers are happy to do a favor here and there, some clients keep pushing the boundaries and going well beyond what was agreed upon and expected. If you find yourself going the extra mile again and again with little regard for your time (or finances), accepting calls at midnight on a Saturday, and constantly having to remind them of your contract, it might be time to cut ties. 
  • Payments are always late: While an occasional late payment can be overlooked, perpetually late payments can wreak havoc for a freelancer. It is a two-way street, and they need to respect their obligations too. If you find yourself in a financial pickle and constantly anxious about when payments will arrive, it might be time to end the working relationship. 
  • There is a lack of respect: Another sure sign that it is time to end a working relationship is when you feel disrespected. If you are being poorly treated, it is time to end the relationship and find clients who will respect you and your craft. 

So, how do you do it practically?

1. Have clarity 

Before you have the conversation, it is vital to clarify why you're ending the client relationship. Take some time out to reflect on your business vision and goals and understand why this particular relationship isn't supporting you in achieving them. 

2. Check contractual obligations 

Before you have a chat, make sure you are clear about any contractual obligations. If you have agreed to finish specific tasks or have a one-month notice clause in the contract, be sure to honor these commitments first. This keeps things above board and ensures that integrity is retained. 

3. Write it out 

A great way to plan what you are going to say is to write a script of sorts. While you don't need to follow it verbatim, it will give you a clear idea of how the conversation might go and the crucial points you want to raise. You can either call your client if you wish to have a person-to-person chat or send them an email detailing your reasons, giving fair notice, and asking for their input. It's essential to hear the client out too and to make it feel like a two-way conversation, even if you have decided not to continue the working relationship. 

4. Be honest but keep it simple 

Honesty and candor are respected attributes in any business interaction. When ending the client relationship, be clear about your move and next steps. However, you can also keep it simple. "We're moving in different directions," "I am focusing on bigger, on-site projects," "a bigger firm might be able to better meet your needs" are compelling reasons yet don't go into excessive detail. 

5. Offer a referral contact 

A great way to not leave your client in the lurch is to offer referrals of freelancers or companies who could support them. This can certainly soften the blow of the business break-up. Of course, if the reason you're ending the relationship is because of rudeness or failed payments, you might not wish to inflict the same situation on someone else. However, if it was a case of visions not aligning or work moving in a different direction, this is a great way to end on a good note. 

Use an online management tool to support your goals 

Freelancer platforms offer private contractors a centralized space through which to conduct all their business tasks and communications.  Centralized platforms like Indy offer freelancers a one-stop-shop for all their business needs. The full suite of nine tools covers everything that freelancers need to handle, from invoices and calendars to time tracking and client communication

Since the platform can keep a clear record of all communications, projects, invoices, and payments, it offers great insight into client relationships. Having this information a mere click away allows freelancers to analyze client relationships effectively and shows which projects are working and which ones aren't. Suppose you want to end a working relationship. In that case, you can reflect on the particular project or client and glean better insight into what wasn't working - for example, unpaid invoices, late payments, continuous communication after office hours, or a lack of respect. 

Moreover, you will have specific time stamps and dates to work with, enabling you to build your case and supply proof if needed about why the relationship wasn't working. 

The Takeaway 

Breaking up with a client is never easy, and sometimes it can be pretty anxiety-provoking. Nonetheless, with the right approach and online tools, you can do so with respect and integrity. Building your own business is also about creating the kind of life you want to live, and part of that is about discerning who you want to work with. Following these top tips will help you end working relationships respectfully to embark on healthier and happier projects down the line.

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Kristi Carignan

Kristi Carignan has written on a variety of subjects including B2B, tech, marketing and more for the past 20 years. She has freelanced for dozens of international companies and organizations.


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