How to Break Up with a Client

how do you get rid of a customer that you don't want?

By Jess Dixon

In business relationships, as in romantic ones, there sometimes comes a time when things simply aren’t working out. This can happen for a whole host of reasons. Perhaps the project has expanded in scope beyond what you agreed and you can no longer dedicate enough time to it. Perhaps the client is routinely rude or dismissive to you, or always pays you late. Or perhaps you’ve simply decided to take your business in a different direction and focus on different things.

Whatever the reason, sooner or later there will likely come a time when you have to break up with a client. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do that. Here are a few things to bear in mind as you navigate the sometimes-messy process of ending a business relationship. 

If you handle it well, you should be able to keep a cordial professional relationship with the client, and maybe even count on them for a reference if they were happy with your work. 

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Remember it’s not personal

Okay, I know I started this article with an analogy about romantic relationships. But business is business, and it’s not personal. You don’t need to be emotional about it, and you shouldn’t expect them to be, either. Even if you like each other and have worked together well, it’s still just that: work. 

Approach it in the same way you’d tell your manager you were leaving if you worked for an employer. 

Give notice (but remember they might not take it)

It’s polite and professional to give notice rather than quitting on the spot (though if the client treats you badly, you have my full permission to quit immediately if you need to keep your sanity intact!) In most circumstances, it’s best to give some notice. 

You can either specify a notice period (e.g. “I’m planning to finish at the end of the month”) or ask for their input on how long it will take to hand things over to your replacement, and negotiate from there. 

But remember your client isn’t obligated to honour your notice period. Once they know you’re leaving, they might choose to end the contract there and then. Bear this in mind as you plan – will it impact your ability to pay your rent if you don’t get those extra few weeks of work? 

Suggest a sensible transition plan

Feel free to make suggestions for how you can make the transition easier for the client. This might involve interviewing or training a replacement, recommending other providers you know, explaining your processes to someone in their in-house team, or simply handing over files, documents, and passwords. 

Make sure that what you suggest is something you’re actually happy to deliver… and make sure they pay you for that time! 

Keep it brief

You don’t need to waffle or offer long explanations. Just keep things succinct and to the point. You can (and should) be friendly and polite in your break up call/email/Zoom chat, but just say what you need to say in as few words as possible. 

If you’re sending an email, write and proofread it in plenty of time. If you’re planning to have a phone or video call, write down some brief notes on what you want to say. You can even rehearse ahead of time, if you want to! 

Prepare for them to try to persuade you to stay

In many cases, a client will just say “okay, cool, thanks for letting me know.” But in some cases, the client might try to persuade you to stay on. Take this as a compliment – it means they value you! But you should also decide before you have the conversation whether you’re willing to be persuaded or not. 

Sometimes you might be! If they’ve been paying you under market value and they offer you a big pay rise, you might decide to take the extra money and stay. But if you’re leaving because of problems with the project or a change of business direction, those things are still going to be true. In those cases, you can sincerely thank them for their offer, but politely decline. 

Say thank you

In most cases, you won’t want to burn bridges with your soon-to-be-ex client. Therefore, take the time to say thank you for the opportunity and for the work they’ve given you. If you’re parting on good terms, you can even express a desire to stay in touch. Why not add each other on LinkedIn, if you haven’t already, so you can keep things friendly? After all, you never know when you might want to call on them for a reference. 

Have you ever broken up with a client?

How did it go? Any tips to help our readers (or any cautionary tales to share?) Let us know! 

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