how to break up with a client

A reader writes:

I have a question that seems as though it should be a snap, but is throwing me for a loop. Several years ago, I left a full-time job in order to freelance, and my most recent employer has remained one of my clients. I have been handling an ongoing series of projects for them, with the understanding that my contract will be renewed each year for the foreseeable future. However, the work has become tedious and, to be honest, I don’t really enjoy it anymore. I’d prefer to focus on other, newer clients who are a better fit for my schedule and business goals (and I realize that I’m fortunate to have a large enough client base to be able to make that decision).

My current contract with the company ends in a couple of months, and I’ve decided not to renew it. I’d like to notify them now to give them time to plan. But for some reason, I’m stuck for a way to word this notification gracefully. I respect the folks at this company and would like to maintain a good relationship. Any guidance you can give?

You have come to the right place! When I first went into business for myself a couple of years ago, I took on every client I could find, figuring that the more business I had, the better. Eventually, though, I realized that I didn’t want all of those clients, and that I actually wanted to be very picky about who I worked with. So I became the the queen of paring down my client list and turning away new business.

What I’ve learned is to simply be straightforward. In your case, that might mean saying this: “I want to let you know that I’ve decided to focus primarily on X rather than Y, so when our contract is up in November, I’m going to wrap up the work we’ve been doing together. I’ve really loved working with you.”

If the “X instead of Y” framing doesn’t quite fit, you could instead say: “I want to let you know that I’m not going to be able to renew our contract when it ends this November, because I’ve going to be taking on some work that won’t let me fit much else into my schedule.”

If you can recommend someone else they could work with, that’s good too.

One other possibility to consider is whether a significantly higher payment would entice you to continue to do the work. If so, you could simply let them know that your rates have increased, quote the much higher new price, and say you understand if it’s prohibitive on their end. (If you really want to be nice, you can mention that you can refer them to someone else if they don’t want to pay the increased rate.) They’ll either turn you down (initial problem solved) or agree to pay your new rate (problem solved in a different way).

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    First off, good for you in being proactive and giving your client lots of up front notice. That goes a long way toward maintaining your reputation. [For contrast: A month or so ago, I called my main client–who accounted for about 2/3 of my annual income–to find out when the 20-week project that I’ve done for each of the last 5 years was set to launch, since it was getting to be that time. They informed me only after I called them that they had hired another full time person and no longer required my services. At all. Attention Clients who hire contract workers: This is how you lose access to quality/reliable contract workers!]

    Second, AAM has hit it pretty squarely. You could also simply leave it at, “I want to let you know that I will not be renewing the contract after it expires in MM/YYYY,” and leave out any reason/explanation altogether. They really don’t need to know.

    As an additional option, you could also offer to transition the project to someone else for a couple weeks after the end of your current contract. But completely optional. You could say something like, “If it will help you with your transition to another wage slave contractor, I *am* available to build a SOP document/collate relevant information/whatever for a two week time after the end of the current contract.”
    “I highly recommend Joe Schmoe as a potential replacement because of X, Y, and Z skills/accomplishments, and he has indicated his willingness to take on a contract if asked.”

    All of the above will make the client feel somewhat good about not having to do all the heavy lifting of transitioning from someone with your experience to a fresh worker.

    Good luck!

  2. Vicki*

    I’d leave out the “really loved working with you” unless you can justify it to yourself (e.g. repeating “once upon a time” over and over under your breath.)

    I hate to lie. Even “white lies” to be “tactful. Eventually, they can bite.

    Just tell them what you told us, you will be focusing on clients who are a better fit for your schedule and business goals going forward.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Why the cynicism? It sounds like she enjoyed at it one point. (And if nothing else, I’m sure she enjoyed their business because it allowed her to go into business for herself!)

    2. Josh S*

      You could even replace “really loved working with you” with “really love/appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to work with you” or “really enjoyed the work I’ve had the chance to do with Company” etc. There are plenty of ways to say, “So long and thanks for all the fish” without being even a little dishonest.

      And chances are, if the OP kept Company as a client for so many years, there are some good relationships there.

    3. Jamie*

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with social conventions.

      “I loved working with you” is the equivalent of “it was so nice to meet you.” People don’t swoon because a new acquaintance thought it was nice to meet them – it’s just polite.

      1. Two-cents*

        Agreed. I am thinking of someone having such heartburn about telling a “white lie” that instead of saying, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” they say something like, “Hello, I’m reserving judgment till I get to know you better.” :)

  3. Anonymous*

    And if you do know someone else that does this sort of work, definitely refer them! Though check that they would even want the contract first.

    1. ANON2*

      I was going to suggest the same thing. Do you know someone who wants to get into your field or back into the workforce who could take on the work while you supervise them?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed — lots of tax implications, for one — and lots of freelancing doesn’t lend itself to delegating the work (like what I do, for instance, or many types of writing, etc.).

  4. Anonymous*

    OP here. Thank you for the great advice and comments! I feel much more relaxed about the whole thing.

  5. Eva*

    AAM, I’d love to hear more about your work for clients if you don’t mind sharing – which assignments are you taking on, and how did you get those contacts? — Insatiably curious readers want to know!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Mainly (a) doing some hiring, (b) coaching people in how to manage, and (c) writing stuff that supports (b). Plus, of course, the writing I do for U.S. News and other sites that I link to here periodically. I’m pretty happy ridiculously happy with it!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Another option: If you subscribe to this email newsletter, you’ll get a monthly email from me and my book co-author with various tidbits of management advice. That’s the only other thing I can think of that’s publicly available!

            1. Eva*

              Hehe, hope the vampire link didn’t make me seem creepy or stalkerish. Perfectly sane fan here, I assure you! And thanks for the newsletter tip. :)

  6. Lisa*

    I love examples, so … some types of clients to break up with are :

    – Clients that expect 40 hours of work, but only want to pay for 10 hours.
    – Clients that pick apart your work to the point where the value you offered is no longer what is produced, yet the client expects the same results / ROI with the new sub-par “collaboration”.
    – Clients who harass you / co-workers with a steady stream of emails / calls about the tiniest of things. (think 10 emails, with 1- line questions over the course of an hour)
    – Clients who continuously ask for discounts each month, but expect the same amount / level of work that you were previously giving them.
    – Clients that ask for free favors (think graphic designer asked to “whip up” a logo for clients cousins new biz, it’ll be easy and quick to create so it cant cost anything…, followed by clients wife volunteered said graphic designer to create their kids school play handouts, but must do it for free cause the school has no money and it would be wrong to charge them, cause I mean “its for the kids”)

    I know I am missing a lot, any other suggestions???

    1. Jamie*

      – Clients that need to be hounded for payment.
      – Clients who are perfectly lovely, but you’ve advanced in your expertise where it’s no longer challenging (as in the OP’s case.)
      – Clients who don’t have no idea what they really want.
      – Clients who refuse to upgrade hardware when it’s desperately needed, preferring instead to throw good money after bad and sucking your time maintaining obsolete equipment.
      – Clients who ask you to do anything that has even the whiff of being unethical.
      -Clients incapable of differentiating a thought crossing their mind with an emergency and call you after midnight for the former.

      1. Catherine*

        These lists sound like all the people I work with on a daily basis. Except I’m stuck at a university doing tech support so I can’t break up with them. And yes, even as tech support, I have had to make “quick” logos for my director’s side business, where I received no credit or extra pay – included in “additional duties” clause.

      2. Anonymous*

        Lisa and Jamie … You both just perfectly described my bosses! How do people think this behavior is okay?!?! Certainly we are not the minority … Are we?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For me, the list of clients I’ve turned away or broken up with has been:
      – clients who show no respect for my time (missing scheduled calls, for instance)
      – clients who seem crazy
      – work that I’m just not enthused about
      – one client who I told directly that I thought he had a substance abuse problem that was interfering with his work (surprisingly, he took this well)

  7. Anonymous*

    I think the easiest way to dump this client without feeling bad about it is to refer them to a colleague (preferably, a colleague that might actually like working with them and do a decent job).

    Then you can relieve your feelings of guilt because you’ve still helped meet your old employer’s needs and you’ve helped out someone else who might be struggling with business. It also gives you a positive business connection with the colleague.

    If the company decides to go with someone else, then at least you’ve done your part to make things easy on them.

  8. Lisa*

    I am against the more money route, mainly because it sounds like no amount of money is worth the headache of a bad client. Plus you may think higher fee will get rid of them , but the client may say yes to your exorbitant fees. Better to say you are cutting your work hours , or pairing down your schedule to 1/2 the work load. Client cant argue their way back in.

    1. Josh S*

      I understand your point, and a truly bad client can be dropped without remorse. The fun thing about the “more money” route is that the results can surprise you sometimes.

      Say your standard rate is $50/hour. If you want to drop a client, but want to give them an ‘out’ rather than just breaking up, you just let them know that your rate has increased to $120/hour for the kind of work you’re doing, thinking there’s no way they’ll keep you on.

      Surprisingly, they say, “OK,” and now you’re making more than double what you were before. And it might just justify putting up with their crap.

      The point is, don’t raise your rate a little bit (eg $50/hr to $60/hr)–raise it a LOT. Answer the question, “What would it take for me to put up with this crap?” and make that your rate. If the answer is “Nothing could make me put up with it,” then you just walk away. But if you can pick a number, do so.

      1. Anna*

        This is a really good answer. My best friend works for herself, and was doing a “getting to know you” meeting with a prospect. Within 10 minutes she knew that this client was going to be extremely high maintenance and nitpicky about everything. So at the end she quoted a rate that was 1.5 times higher than her normal rate. The prospect immediately agreed without batting an eye.

        I wonder if it is because people like that have a hard time getting /keeping good service, so they believe that the higher rates are normal!

        1. Anna*

          Whoops, my friend actually quoted a rate that was 2.5 to 3 times higher than her normal rate. 1.5 isn’t enough to put up with a client that nitpicky!

    2. lucy*

      Well it doesn’t really seem like this company is a bad client, just not exactly in the direction that the OP wants to go in.

  9. Anonymous*

    OP again with an update. I broke the news in the way Alison suggested, with no hemming and hawing, and they were perfectly lovely about it. Whew. Thank you, thank you once more!

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