The client is always right, right? Well, in some cases, the answer might actually be: no.Providing a wonderful user experience and going above and beyond? I’ll all about that life ensuring a quality outcome when someone invests their money and time into something I offer. But there are going to be times when you actually do need to call it quits and let ’em know: “I’m just not that into you anymore.”
Breaking up with bad clients? It’s rough. It isn’t fun for any party involved, and if you care about the work you do (since you’re reading this, I know you do), then it breaks your heart a little when things don’t work out with a client — even if that client has been making your dream job feel more like a nightmare.
So, let’s get into it! Let’s talk about when it’s appropriate to break up with clients, and the best way to do it in order to protect yourself and leave with as little burnt bridges as possible. Because I know you’re a tough cookie, but we all have a breaking point.
How can you tell it’s time to break up with a client?
Just because a client is nagging you doesn’t mean it’s time to dump them. In fact, if a client is interfering with your process or bugging you all the time, it probably just means clear boundaries aren’t set and frankly, that’s usually your fault. Even though they’re paying you for your services, it’s okay to speak up and set a boundary to ensure the quality of the work and both of your sanity.
But, this can be tough. I used to hate giving my opinion or asserting my boundaries because I thought it meant I was being pushy and it would be off-putting to clients. In reality, though, it shows that you have a backbone and respect both their time and your own.
So, be clear. Tell them your office hours, how long it takes you to respond, the turnaround time for projects, deliverables, and acceptable ways for them to offer feedback. Be sure you also get all of this down in writing, preferably in your contract with the client so there are no uncertain terms between you.
If the client continues to disregard your boundaries — maybe they’re texting all hours of the night or asking for 6 rounds of edits when you offer only 2 — then it’s time for a conversation. I think that everyone can earn a second chance. If you’ve laid out your rules and they continue pushing them, hop on a quick call to gauge where they’re at.
Maybe they misunderstood your off-hours, or they didn’t realize they were over-stepping in some way. I think one fair warning (although, you don’t have to call it that with them) is totally warranted. After all, you took them on as a client because you saw something you admired in them, right? So have the conversation and give them a chance to remediate the issue.
There are two cases when you can take it to actual break-up level. The first? If they are being abusive, condescending, or sneaky in any way. This is huge for me because no one deserves to be treated with cruelty or disrespect, even if you’re getting paid for your time.
If the language elevates past respectful levels, or they consistently withhold payment, or passive aggression is constantly being flung your way, it’s time to say adios. And the second case where it’s okay to break-up with a client is if they’ve repeatedly crossed your boundaries, even after having a conversation to clear things up.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
5 tips for breaking up with a client peacefully
Okay, so now you’ve actually decided to take the plunge and peace the heck out of there. Now what? I always take these 5 steps to break up with a client as smoothly as possible.
Review your contracts. You want to be sure their contract doesn’t require you to provide a certain amount of notice before ending the partnership. If they do require something like 30 days notice, make sure you work that into your email by saying: “This is my 30 days notice that I am ending our partnership.” That way, they can’t legally withhold your remaining payments since you’re adhering to the terms.
Get it in writing. Unless you’re really close with the client and think it’ll translate better over a phone call, an email is best to layout your reasoning for ending the contract. It gets everything in writing and saves you from having to explain yourself if you’re dealing with a particularly hotheaded client. Even if you do call, make sure to follow up with an email to summarize what was discussed and what is to follow so you both have it in writing.
Use a compliment sandwich. Even if you’re frustrated with the client for their behavior, it is never, ever a good idea to retaliate and be rude to them. I like using a compliment sandwich (start with a compliment, break the bad news, end with another compliment) because it adds levity to an uncomfortable situation.
Don’t blame them. Again, you probably want to say, “You’ve been a pretty horrendous person to work with,” but that won’t do any good. You have to remember you don’t have control over their behavior, only how you act and react. Put the reasoning on yourself for needing to pivot, saying your business goals have changed or you need to refocus your energy. You can keep it vague, and it is more likely to keep the interaction respectful and calm.
Thank them and offer a referral if possible. I know, I know, the last thing you’ll WANT to do is say thank you, but being the bigger person will feel way better than saying, “Bye and see ya never!” Also, if you know someone who would better suit the client’s needs, it’s always great to leave a referral as a final act of service toward them.
See? That wasn’t so bad! When you keep it civil and put the focus on your needs changing, there’s really nothing for them to argue with. It makes a potentially uncomfortable situation manageable, and breaking up with bad clients will only open the door for more of your dream clients to step on through.