The Art of Firing a Client
How to end professional relationships, professionally
Ending a relationship - whether with a friend, a romantic partner or a client - is never easy. Maybe you’re someone like me who struggles with boundaries and conflict who finds the thought of severing any tie (no matter how necessary it may be) almost unbearable. The reality is, when you are self-employed and working with a variety of clients, you are bound to uncover a dud at some point. Yes, working relationships take time to fine-tune, so feedback before firing is always the best first option. However, some client relationships are too toxic to remedy.
How do you know it’s time to call it quits? The reasons are endless and entirely personal but some deal breakers I’ve come up against include: disregarding terms of a contract, disrespecting personal and professional boundaries, creative conflict (the unhealthy kind), devaluing time and skill, and failing to pay on time (or at all). Aside from these obvious no-go’s, my intuition has always given me a strong sign when a client relationship or project wasn’t serving me anymore. As nerve-wracking and unpleasant as a client breakup can be, I try to focus on the detriments of holding onto something that isn’t working: the impact on my other clients and work that I love, the blow to my wellness, mental health and overall sense of balance.
Once you’re ready to rip the bandaid off, there are considerate, proactive and professional ways to end the client relationship. It doesn’t have to be awkward and you and your client can both walk away with your heads held high and no bridges burnt. Note: these tips apply to anyone who works with anyone—not just freelance writers and entrepreneurs. Read on and prep yourself to say no and create space in your life for relationships and work that light you up.
Timing is Everything
Have you ever been on the brink of sharing bad news with someone and come up with every excuse in the book to postpone spilling the beans? I can’t do it on a Monday, I will ruin their week! I obviously can’t tell them Friday, their weekend will be shot to hell. It’s human nature to avoid tough conversations, but when it comes to ending a client relationship, the sooner you do it, the better. Timing also means giving as much notice as possible so you set your client up for success and end things on a good note. Of course, there may be certain circumstances where you need to GTFO quickly, but in a perfect world, you would give your client two weeks to a month so they can plan ahead and work on hiring someone new.
Honesty is the Best Policy
There is always the temptation of going the it’s not you, it’s me route when ending a client relationship. That being said, if there is feedback you can honestly share with the client around why you are stepping away from the work, it is always best to be up front so you can both learn something from the situation. While this should be done professionally and respectfully, if the reason why you are ending a relationship with a client is because they never paid on time or they repeatedly extended the scope of projects, then they deserve to know. Think of it this way—by sharing your feedback, you have a chance to teach the client so they are less apt to continue doing this with other contractors. Also, being 100% honest about why you are severing a relationship allows you to own the narrative around the situation. If you take the easy route and provide a generic I have too much on the go excuse (when there is, in fact, another reason), your client could interpret this as being unprofessional and flaky and potentially, share this with other valuable people in your network.
Get it in Writing
When it comes time to have the conversation, having the courage to meet in person or get on the phone is always classier than emailing (or, heaven forbid, texting). That said, when ending a client relationship, as you would with terminating a full-time position, it is always best to get it in writing. This means simply sending a follow-up email after the conversation to outline any action items and reiterate the timing of your departure. This also covers your butt if there are any issues with withholding payment after your contract is over.
The World is a Small Town
At the end of the day, how you treat people is everything. This is especially true for the self-employed whose livelihoods are supported by their professional networks that feed them work and ultimately, pay their bills. So, when ending a client relationship, no matter how much of a nightmare they may have been, remember this: everyone talks. By failing to provide honest feedback or leaving a client high and dry, you may inadvertently tarnish your reputation and take yourself out of the running for amazing opportunities down the line. Be honest, be kind and be brave. Who knows what wonderful things will be on the other side of that five-minute tough conversation.