Breaking up is hard to do, but these 6 tips for freelancers make it easier

Susan Guillory
Susan Guillory
October 5, 2017

Problem clients: Yes, we wish that everyone we worked with were a dream, but that’s rarely the case. Working with troublesome clients can stress you out, cause you to spend more energy than necessary in managing the relationship, and even make you miss out on earning more income elsewhere. Consider this your guide to “breaking up with” a problem client.

First, when should you end the relationship?

Every freelancer has – at one time or another – thought about what should and shouldn’t be acceptable in a client relationship. You want to make money, after all, so you might feel like you need to put up with certain situations. Still, in the long run, if managing a client relationship isn’t netting more benefits than drawbacks, it’s time to consider ending it. Red flags should be raised if:

They’re dumping additional work on you: Maybe you provided a quote at the start of a project for a specific scope of work, but since then, the client consistently adds to your workload without being willing to pay for it. If you’ve addressed this to no avail, it might be worth it to wrap up what you’re working on and move on.

They eat up a ton of time talking: Once you start working with a client, you don’t want to rock the boat and ask them to call you less, but you can try letting them know that you will include, for example, one 15-minute call a month, and after that, you will charge your hourly rate. If they balk at that suggestion, give them the boot.

They constantly complain about your rates: Everyone wants to save money, and that’s fine. But your work has a value, and if the client didn’t believe you were worth paying your rate, they wouldn’t have signed on. Remind them that they get what they pay for, and if budget is a concern, they might want to look elsewhere.

They continually pay invoices late: You’re running a small business, and you need to get paid on time so you can pay your own expenses. Certainly, a client may occasionally pay an invoice late, but if it becomes a habit, you need to put your foot down. If you’ve already made your payment policy clear, it’s time to set consequences. Late payments get charged an additional fee. If that doesn’t motivate, collect what you can and sever ties. If you think your client is late to pay simply because they’re scattered or distracted, Payoneer’s automatic payment reminders system will help keep them on track for payments due.

You’re up at night stressing: Beyond specific behaviors on the part of your client, look at your own behavior. Do your neck muscles seize up when you see your client pop up on caller ID? Do you dread opening their emails? Are you complaining to friends and family constantly? This is probably a good indicator that this particular professional relationship is no longer serving you.

Tips for breaking up the business relationship

Once you’re sure you want to end the relationship for your own sanity, your first step should be to discuss the issue. If you can resolve it, so much the better. The client might not even be aware that she’s piling on work you want to get paid for, or talking your ear off. If you can remedy it through that conversation, wonderful. If not, use these tips to end the relationship.

1. Never end it in anger: Yes, you’re frustrated. But you absolutely cannot let your customer see that. Ending the relationship should be professional and level-headed. So if you’re fuming today, wait until tomorrow when you’ve cooled off and considered what you will say. It may help to prepare a script with talking points in advance, so that you feel prepared when the conversation comes up.

2. Help them transition to someone new: The best way to avoid burning bridges is to make the client whole — meaning you do your part to ensure that once you stop working together, the client sees little to no disruption in their own operations. It’s helpful to have a list of other service providers in your industry that you can refer them to. Give an introduction to someone you think would be a good fit, and be sure that you’ve done your part to assist the transition.

3. Give as much advanced notice as possible: Just like if you worked as an employee, giving notice is just plain polite. Finish out the project you’re working on or give a few weeks’ notice to give the client time to plan their next step. Very rare and extreme cases would justify ending a relationship before work is complete.

4. Be honest (but polite): This is the challenging part; you need to give feedback on why the relationship is over, but you have to do so tactfully. If you’re tired of the hour-long daily conversations and have been unable to get your client to curb the calling, you could say something like, “I’ve gotten really busy lately, and just can’t dedicate sufficient time to really helping you. You deserve a service provider who can commit more time to you.”

5. Try to finagle a positive review first: If you rely on client reviews to help you get more work, see if you can get a review before you pull the plug. That review has value for you, and after you fire your client, they might not be so quick to gush about you, so do it while they’re happy.

6. Put it in writing: Once you’ve had that hard breakup conversation with your client, recap it in writing (an email will suffice). Be sure to discuss the plan for transition, including you handing over any files or passwords you had access to, and when the final bill is due. This leaves no room for misunderstandings.

And finally, cut yourself some slack. Business relationships, like personal ones, need to be a good fit for both parties. You may not be a match to work with one particular client, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Instead, learn from the situation and continue to look for the kinds of clients you’d love to work with.

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