Photography by Peter Nowell. Illustrations by Paige Gausman.

Breaking Up With Clients

When you can’t fix a professional client relationship, it’s time to end it. Here’s how.

Client relationships are like romantic relationships. At first you are nervous and approval-seeking. After a while, you don’t stutter when talking on the phone, and you become better at standing your ground. And just like interpersonal relationships, you have the choice to burn bridges or learn how to say goodbye when the time is right.

Before we dive into “saying goodbye” however, I’d like to share the most important thing I’ve learned about client management:

Knowing Your Priorities

Knowing your priorities, both personally and professionally, is the invaluable compass that will help you navigate nearly all aspects of client management. Is your current focus to make a lot of money, build up a portfolio, increase your reputation and recognition, learn and develop, or just create a lot of cool stuff? If you’re a stay-at-home parent, flexibility around where you work and when you work might be the biggest priority. There are many more. The point is that you can rarely have it all, and clients will always be urging you to make concessions. Know what you’re willing to concede, and what a client needs to concede in order to work with you.

It’s worth noting that determining what your priorities are isn’t always as simple as observing the existing structure of your life; it often requires deeply listening to your heart’s calling. Don’t rush — take the time you need.

As a person and a professional, you deserve to be aligned with your priorities.

When I began to freelance full time, deep in my heart there was an urge to simply create. My goal was to design and learn as much as possible, so I took every project that came my way. I was busy 6 days a week, but I loved it and I felt fulfilled. Over time I came to understand the value of my services and their place in the market. My priorities have also changed; I no longer take on projects because “they’d be great in my portfolio” or because “they’re cool”. Instead I seek out opportunities with creative freedom and inherent learning. But those are just my goals — you have to discover yours.

When to Break Up

First, try to fix the situation. If you’re going to take the initiative to have a tough conversation, you might as well start by trying to make things better. If that doesn’t work or isn’t what you’re looking for, proceed.

There are a variety of reasons you may want or need to end a client relationship, and they typically fall into two categories: objective and subjective. Here are some common ones that I’ve encountered.

You’ve outgrown them

(Typically objective) As you grow, you will outgrow some clients. If a client cannot see you as who you’ve become or are becoming, eventually you will need to end that relationship. The good news is that new clients will see you as whoever you present yourself as (so long as you’re honest and you present it well). Don’t be afraid to amicably break up with a client when they can no longer support where you’re going. They’ll respect you for it.

They are an energy + positivity black hole

(Subjective) We all know the feeling of being in a relationship (friend, romantic, professional) that just sucks the energy out of us. Regardless of your profession, negativity will cripple your ability to work productively. As a designer, I’ve found that negativity literally kills creativity.

Your path and priorities are leading elsewhere

(Objective) Remember how I said that determining your priorities can require deeply listening to your heart? I wasn’t just being sentimental. You will feel a unique energy when you’re pointed toward your own true north; aligned with your path and values. Asking myself the question “if I could take one giant leap toward my goals right now, regardless of existing commitments, what would it be?” has proven to be one of the best filters I’ve discovered for cutting through bul!$#*t excuses and unproductive relationships. Some part of you already knows what you need to be doing and who you need to let go of. If you’re having trouble unearthing that wisdom, work through it with a mentor. I wish you strength on this scary and respectable path!

Not enough time or scheduling conflict

(Objective) Time-related reasons are the easiest method for parting ways, although they have to be serious and unequivocal. For example, you’re returning to school part time because that’s the right thing for you, but that doesn’t leave enough time to adequately serve the client’s needs. Or it might be as simple as acknowledging that your client needs you to become full-time, and that isn’t the right thing for you.

They can’t afford you

(Objective) Based on your priorities you may negotiate on price, although there are just going to be cases where the client will not or cannot afford your professional services. Keep moving forward; don’t let them halt your progress and increasing value.

They can’t provide you with enough work

(Objective) This is often the case for clients with whom you’ve established an ongoing relationship. Their business will change, and if they can’t provide you with a quantity of work to keep your business afloat or manageable, acknowledge that fact as soon as you see it coming. Remember that the client may be embarrassed that they can’t sustain the relationship — be kind and reassuring.

Business basics aren’t being met

(Objective) There is no easier decision than to break up with a client who isn’t signing your contracts, paying you on time, being available when you need them, acting honestly and respectfully, or meeting any other basic pillars of a business relationship. Nip this in the bud as soon as you see it, and communicate your expectations to the client. Two strikes, they’re out.

Of course, there are many more scenarios. When you are experiencing this yourself, I strongly recommend that you work with a mentor to extract the objective from the subjective and get to the core of what’s going wrong.

How to Break Up

Do not walk out. And do not make it personal.

Write down all of the reasons that you need to end it, then focus on the objective ones — the reasons that no one can argue with and that carry very little emotional charge. Those that relate to your schedule or personal path are incredibly effective, so long as they are clearly honest, in your best interests, and in your control (not within the client’s ability to change). Perhaps you need to make some specific changes in your life, and — much as it saddens you to admit it — you’ve realized that you will no longer have enough time to help this client to the extent they deserve.

Use those words. Especially “admit” and “deserve”. This isn’t fake; the client does deserve a certain level of commitment from whoever they hire. When discussing this with them, you need to come across as their friend; slightly disappointed yet honest and clear that this is the right decision. You’re being transparent with them.

I have something to confess: the titles in this article are slightly misleading. You should never say the words “break up”. They suggest that everything is ending, when often you just need to change your relationship. Many of my old clients are now friends. Moreover, “break-up” isn’t even the most effective way to think about it yourself. I prefer the word “transition”.

When you present it as a transition, you acknowledge that a change is taking place gradually and for a justifiable reason.

Wait… did you say “gradually”? Oh yes; you owe it to yourself and your client to give them advanced notice. If you’ve been working with the client for a while, give it a month or two to transition out of working with them. That’s time for them to find a replacement, continued income for you, and time to finish whatever loose ends you want to tie up. And boy oh boy will your time become more valuable to them!

The Transition

Work with your client to develop a plan for how to meet their business’s most important needs during the transition period. If you share an ongoing to-do list with them (via Asana, Trello, Basecamp, etc.), consider creating these categories: Must-Haves (critical tasks to complete by the time you leave), Nice-to-Haves (try to defer anything new to this category), and Future Projects (stuff for the person who replaces you). Assign everything you talk about to one of these categories to ensure that expectations are always clear. The more you can keep projects out of the Must-Haves, the more you can surprise and delight on your last day that you’ve exceeded the expectations and “even completed several nice-to-haves.” Set yourself up to be the rockstar. ☺

And when your last day rolls around, write them a thank-you note or give them a bottle of wine. And buy yourself one too — you’ve earned it!

Interested in hearing more? Designer Arianna Orland recently gave a class on CreativeLive all about running your own freelance business, and I joined her as a guest speaker to talk about the challenges of client management.

I’m working on more articles about design and the design tool Sketch.
If you’d like,
I’ll keep you in the loop when they’re released.