When To Break Up With Your Client
Whether an agency or a freelancer, most careers begin by taking on a lot of work for little pay. Without a strong portfolio to start, many clients are taking a risk to work with you; as a result, you cut the price and raise the expectations, hoping for either a great review and portfolio project or more work down the road. Eventually, as you grow in your career, you start to bill more and more appropriately to your worth and wonder how on earth you ever took on such a project for little pay.
It is in these early stages of our careers that many of us fall into relationships with the wrong clients. It’s hard to set expectations, know the red flags and really know what we want in a client. In some ways, the starting relationships of working with clients are similar to our teenage years of dating. Some of us do turn our high school sweethearts into life-long marriages. Most of us would rather pretend it never happened.
At the end of the day, the right clients can help make or break the business and career of an agency or freelancer. Knowing when, and how, to move on from a client is an essential skill set to have to grow your business.
There are 3 reasons to break up with a client:
1. Unrealistically High Expectations
These are clients who either expect a lot of work for little pay, expect you to be able to do something that isn’t possible or require a lot more resources and support than they are paying for. They email and call constantly, want to have 10 meetings a week, want a dedicated person at their beck and call, believe everything is “in scope” per your agreement, and can’t understand why you don’t have them ranking #1 on Google yet.
Ironically, I usually find these clients to be the ones who are paying the least or have the smallest business. Which makes sense- let’s say your company is Facebook….$2,000/mo. is nothing; which might not be the case for a three-man startup who put their savings into starting an app.
Historically, the client gets to this place with your help. So it’s a little bit your fault they’re like this. You either just kept saying yes, overpromised, or ignored the warning signs before (as they say) “getting into bed with them”.
In the beginning, a cheap rate for a lot of work might be worth it if they’re helping build your portfolio, leaving good reviews or providing referrals. But if you’re past that, it might be time to kindly move on.
2. They Don’t Pay Their Bills
This should be obvious, but if a client isn’t paying — they shouldn’t be getting your services. Of course, there are one-off situations or accidents where a bill goes overdue. But if a client is 3 months late and not showing signs of paying, it’s time to stop.
I find a lot of people are afraid to assert themselves with a client for fear of a bad review or unwanted conflict. But, just like in real life, if you don’t respect yourself — no one else will.
You’d be much better off to risk upsetting the client and go find clients who can actually pay you.
3. They’re Mean
This one is fortunately much less common but regrettably does exist. This is a client who is verbally aggressive, insulting, or disrespectful. I have little tolerance for this, and if I ever encounter it myself or for someone on my team, I will end the contract regardless of what they’re paying.
This isn’t the client who doesn’t like the 1st round of mockups or disagrees with your advice or statement. Those types of behavior should be encouraged to ensure optimal collaboration and success for the client.
No, this is the client who asks if there’s a man they can work with, or someone of a different skin tone, or intellect.
You have to remember that the beauty of freelance or having your own agency is that you can just go get another client. There is no reason to stand for any sort of disrespect or abuse for you or your team. If you have a team, it is especially important to protect them from these types of clients. Sometimes it’s easy to be blinded by the money a client is paying, but if it’s at the cost of a team member’s emotional or professional health, it is not worth it. You will ultimately create a very tumultuous work environment.
How To Break Up With A Client
Clients like the above, no matter what or why, are going to drain your time, resources, energy and revenue. They’re going to overwhelm you with stress, take away from your ability to get more clients, and take away from what you can give to other clients. They’re going to kill your profits, drain your own morale, and in many cases, make you regret ever getting into this business to begin with. Cutting ties with toxic clients will free you to grow your business in real ways.
So how do you do it?
First thing first, try your best to cover your bases within the contract or agreement that you have with your clients. In my contracts, I establish:
1. A contract can be terminated for unpaid bills.
2. I can change the terms of my retainer contracts with a 60-day notice, and their approval.
3. I have a zero-tolerance policy for what I deem disrespectful.
4. Both parties reserve the right to terminate the contract for any reason they deem necessary; so long as it is provided in writing and with a 30-day notice.
Should clients begin to consistently push their limits, reference back to their contract and scope of work, ideally in writing, so they are clear on their limits and expectations. It doesn’t have to be mean or aggressive, just a simple reminder. If there’s no resolve, you can begin warning that it might be better to simply terminate the contract if a middle ground isn’t able to be reached.
Secondly, you want to always try to resolve any sort of conflict you can with a client. If you see a potential for this to be a mutually beneficial relationship, ask to set up a meeting with them to discuss the current situation. Be prepared to present changing the contract, whether that’s increasing their pricing, or scaling back on their deliverables at their current rate. This gives them a chance to either change or decide for themselves that the relationship is over.
Lastly, if you are uninterested to save the relationship and it is affecting your business, get yourself together first. Compile a document noting why you are terminating the contract, what will be considered as the final deliverables, and what they can expect from you from here on out. It’s always better to take the high road and offer a more-than-generous amount of work or deliverables to go with the parting.
Confront the client kindly. Ideally, it will be with a meeting, but sometimes clients go MIA and an email is all there can be. As mentioned earlier, you want to have put out plenty of warnings and prep conversations beforehand. You don’t want a client thinking everything is fine and then they hop on a call to hear you’re not going to finish the project for seemingly no reason.
The goal is not to make them feel bad or prove a point as to why you can’t work with them. Your goal is to, as cordially as possible, wrap up your relationship with them and move on to something else. If it feels right, make them aware of your situation, i.e., why you need to raise prices or move away from this type of project. In all cases, try to spin the conversation to be about their interest and benefit. For example:
“This is outside of my area of expertise, someone else would be better suited for your needs….”
If possible, try to offer recommendations for who they should reach out to for their needs.
You’ll also want to make sure both parties agree on the logistics of returning any property, information, payment, and anything else either party may have an interest in.
Give them the option to either continue another 30–60 days, or simply cut ties now. Make yourself available to them for anything they may need from you over the next few weeks after the contract is terminated, and do your best to leave things on a positive note. If there is a meeting, follow it up with a kind email, outlining the new game plan and that you’ve appreciated working with them and that they can always reach out if they have any issues moving forward.
Try to recognize what went wrong with the project and client, and make adjustments to try to avoid that happening again. And just like that, you’re off to grow your business with new clients!
What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories and how you navigate tough relationships with clients. Leave a note below!