When you work for yourself, you put a lot of time and energy into finding and keeping clients. Freelancers often feel – wrongly – that they should take whatever work comes their way and that clients choose them, not the other way round.
As for breaking up with a client, that would be ‘terrifying’, ‘impossible’, ‘mortifying’, or ‘unprofessional’, wouldn’t it? At least that’s what people ask me.
“I can’t do that!” I’ve heard trainers lament. “What will people think of me if I walk away from a client like that?”
The question you should be asking is, “What will it cost me in terms of my business, health, wellbeing and happiness if I stay?”
No longer a good fit
In truth, you will inevitably hit a point in your business when a particular client is no longer a good fit for you, even if they were exactly right once upon a time.
You might find that they constantly haggle about your rates, shift the goalposts of your brief, push against the boundaries you’ve set in terms of your availability or the services you offer, or not value what you do.
It may even be that they just don’t reflect the direction you want to take your business in any more.
And that’s OK.
The client/freelancer relationship is between two parties and it has to work for both of you to continue. You have the right to call it to an end if it’s no longer working for you.
Breaking up with a client without burning your bridges
Of course, there is a right way to break up with a client, as well as many wrong ways.
Unless there really is bad blood between you and the client, I’m sure you’ll want to end the relationship without burning your bridges. And even if there is bad blood, I always think the best way is to take the higher moral ground and walk away with your dignity intact.
How can you do this?
It’s OK to tell a client that you no longer feel you are the right fit for their business and vice versa.
You might want to explain that your business is moving in a different direction or even discuss that the client is clearly struggling with their budget or that you feel the scope of what’s expected has shifted significantly since you began working together.
Although breaking up with a client can make you feel extremely emotional and vulnerable, it’s important to remain polite and to keep calm and in control of the situation.
Keep to the point
You are in charge of your own business and you have the right to walk away from a relationship that doesn’t fit with your direction or values any more. Remember, you don’t have to justify yourself or come up with excuses or give away lots of personal details.
I find it is enough to say that I no longer feel the working relationship is the best option for either party. You might want to discuss how you both seem to have different expectations or give specific examples to illustrate why you feel the relationship is no longer right, but try to avoid finger pointing and blame.
Give reasonable notice
Unless your relationship with a client has become impossible, I’d always recommend giving your client as much notice as possible that you intend to part ways.
If you’re in the middle of a training contract, for example, you might want to let your client know that you will see the current project through to the end but that you will then by moving on.
Offer to refer them to someone else or manage the transition to a new trainer
To help soften the blow and if it feels like an appropriate thing to do, you might want to offer to refer your client to another trainer within your network. Mind you, if you know the client is a nightmare to work with, you probably won’t want to throw a peer into the lion’s den!
Another option is to offer to manage the transition period until another trainer can take over. This often works if you still have a good relationship with the client. It gives both sides the opportunity to wind things down and handover to a third party.
Follow up in writing
If you will be staying on to complete a current project for the client you’re breaking up with, it’s sensible to put things in writing. You just need to outline what you have agreed to do, the transition plan, any outstanding payments and when your working relationship with the client will end.
Thank the client
Again, unless the relationship has really taken a sour turn, it’s important to thank the client for their business.
You never know what the future holds and who knows who in this world, so it’s important to walk away amicably in case you cross paths with your client or their contacts in the future.
Have you ever had to break up with a client? How did it go? Do you have any tips I haven’t included? Perhaps you’ve wanted to break up with a client but haven’t dared. I’d love to hear more about your experiences on this tricky topic in the Comments below.