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When and How to Break Up With a Bad Client

If you’ve never had to break up with a bad client, consider yourself lucky. This tweet from @Camieee, with dozens of comments, proves that many freelancers are all too familiar with the dreaded client breakup.

We all want our freelance projects to be smooth and easy, but the hard truth is that sometimes we take on clients who aren’t the right fit. Rather than try to bend and break to make the project work for both parties, in some cases, it’s better to part ways.

I remember the first time we had to break up with a client at Interimly. It was awkward and confusing and it felt bad. We didn’t have the right contract clauses in place to make it easy to part ways and we weren’t communicating well, which brought on even more unwanted stress and pressure.

Let my hard lesson be an opportunity to arm yourself with everything you need to do a better job than we did. Here are some contract tips, red flags, and even a “break-up template” so if you have to part ways with a bad client, you’re ready.

Let my hard lesson be an opportunity to arm yourself with everything you need to do a better job than we did.

Protect Yourself From the Get-Go

You never want to assume the worst, but putting the right verbiage in your contract ahead of time provides the coverage you need for a clean break. Adding a termination clause to your contract is what we like to call a failsafe. It should include how far in advance someone must let the other party know, how they have to let the other person know, and how any remaining payment will be handled.

Here’s an example, pulled right from Harlow’s contract proposal, which you get access to when you sign up for our free trial:

EX: The Parties may terminate this Agreement without cause, by [30] days’ prior written notice by either party. Client will be responsible for the remaining balance of any service package, due within 15 days of the final invoice.

While this might feel icky, I promise, your clients won’t bat an eye. It’s completely normal to include.

Why Breakup? Watch For These Red Flags

There are many reasons to break up with a bad client. You have to decide what’s worth bending for and what’s not. Here are just a few of the reasons why other freelancers in my community and I had to call it quits with clients in the past:

  • Payments are consistently late.
  • Consistent scope creep.
  • The client isn’t giving feedback in a timely manner.
  • The client isn’t communicating well, period.
  • The project is causing you unnecessary stress and becomes a time suck.
  • The project causes issues or interferes with other client work.
  • The client is disrespecting your time boundaries. I.E expecting responses when you’ve said you’ll be offline.
  • You’re feeling dread and bitterness more often than fulfillment and enjoyment.
  • You feel undervalued or overly criticized.
  • You and the client are no longer seeing eye to eye.
  • You’ve outgrown the work.
  • You raise your rates and they push back.

If any of this happens, first things first: don’t feel guilty! Not only is all of this common, but as freelancers, we need to make decisions that are right for our business and mental health. If you’re not being respected or paid on time—or you simply no longer align with the project—it’s better for you and the client to end the relationship.

I also want to be clear that I’m not suggesting you leave a client at the first sign of a challenge. It’s always best to start by trying to find a way to repair the issue and communicating your frustrations. If a solution can’t be reached, or the issue doesn’t change, that’s when it’s time to walk away.

It’s Time: How to Handle the Break-Up

If you’ve expressed your concerns and there’s been no progress, it’s time to make that clean break. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the client, nor should it be the first time they are hearing about the issues. Still, this can be awkward and challenging, but hopefully, these tips make it a little easier for you to break it off.

  • Be transparent and honest with the reasons you’re parting ways. This will help them be a better partner to the next freelancer they hire. Remember to have tact, but be honest.
  • Reference your termination clause.
  • Make it very clear that your partnership is ending, and in particular, when it will end.
  • Outline what work you will complete and attach deadlines so expectations are aligned.

If you break up with a client on a video or phone call, make a list of things you want to say so you don’t forget anything, especially if you’re feeling nervous or anxious. The client will likely have questions and a set of reminders written down can ensure you get all the essential points across no matter how the conversation goes.

If you want to do this via email (which I would recommend) here’s an example template you can use:

Hi Client 1,

As we have discussed in the past few weeks, [REFERENCE ISSUES]. It’s become difficult to [INCLUDE YOUR CHALLENGE]. While I wish you the best of luck on this project, I no longer feel as though I’m the right partner for you and will need to transition off the project.

In accordance with our contract, I will provide support for this project for the next 2 weeks and help you transition as best I can. At the end of the 2-week period, I will send over a final invoice so we can close out the project.

In the next 2 weeks, I will be completing:

Task
Task
Task

Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions. I’m happy to hop on a call to discuss further.

I appreciate your understanding and hope to stay connected,
NAME

Breaking Up is Hard, But Sometimes, Necessary

In the end, however, the sense of relief you feel can make it all worth it. All you can do is be prepared ahead of time and know when enough is enough. Your goal is to build a business you enjoy running with clients you love to work for and sometimes that means doing the hard things. If you’re stressed about breaking up with a client, know that we’ve all been there and we’re cheering you on! If you need extra motivation or need to phone a friend, you can always reach me on social.

About the Author
Samantha is co-founder of Harlow. Previously she was a marketing and demand gen freelancer. She enjoys traveling, connecting with new people, spending time with her husband and their baby (a furry friend named Karl), and throwing back an extra dirty martini every now and then.

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