Breakups are complicated. Breakups that involve clients and money — especially in freelancing — can be particularly complicated. But just like with any breakup, honesty, patience, and maybe a conference call with Ben and Jerry can help a great deal.
Don’t take this as a personal failure. Sometimes you and your freelance client are just not the right fit for each other. Maybe your ways of working don’t align. Maybe you’re having difficulty connecting with the project. Maybe they’re just a nightmare to work with and you’ve had enough. Whatever the reason, it is possible to tactfully shimmy out of a client relationship while successfully avoiding any negative impact on your reputation or on the possibility of future opportunities.
The worst thing you can do is stay on after you’ve realized it’s time to part ways. Without investment, the quality of your work will take a steep decline and your overall productivity will be shot. And it will only get harder as time goes on. As CEO Zachary Binder tells Forbes, “The moment you know the fit is not correct, respectfully end it. It is not always an easy conversation to have, but it only gets harder the longer you delay.”
So let’s not delay it any longer. Here’s how to end a freelance client relationship as respectfully and painlessly as possible.
Decide on your way in
How you initiate the freelance break up really depends on how you’ve communicated throughout your time working together. If you’ve worked together in person, it is ideal that you first have a conversation in person. If you’ve never met in person but have regular calls, starting on a call would make sense.
You can’t control how your client will react, but you can control how you respond.
If you’ve only communicated via email or if the client seems particularly volatile, it is ok to start and end the conversation over email. No matter how you start to end things, it is important to send a brief email following up on what you talked about so that you have it in writing for future reference.
Here’s a quick template for that follow up email.
Just wanted to follow up on the conversation we had today confirming that we will end our partnership effective [agreed upon date]. Before I leave, I’ll be sure to [any commitments you’ve made]. Thanks again for your understanding and flexibility. I’ll circle back with anyone I think is a better fit for [description of the project].
All the best,
Be respectful and direct
Ironically, you and your freelance client want the same thing in this situation – what’s best for their business. So if you know that doesn’t include you, it’s kind to tell them that as directly as possible. Be polite and don’t come from a place of personal attack. Tribe CEO Elizabeth Baskin puts it perfectly, “Keep in mind that you’re breaking up with the business, not the person.”
• I’ve been thinking about how I can best add value to this project, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s time for me to move on.
• It seems like our priorities aren’t aligning, so I think it’s time for me to step back.
• After a lot of consideration, I don’t think I’m the right person to continue on this project.
• It seems like we’ve reached an impasse and I think it would be best for everyone if I recommended someone else to take over this project.
• Unfortunately, I feel that neither of us is getting what we need out of this partnership, so I think it's best to end my services here.
You can’t control how your freelance client will react, but you can control how you respond. Recognize that any hostility they have is probably coming from a place of surprise or embarrassment. Keep your cool, stay professional and don’t back down. You’ve made this decision for a reason and you should stand by it. As the Senior Director of Product Design at Pager, Jon Robinson, writes, “If you’ve already decided that ending the relationship is best for you, then there’s no obligation to leave that up to discussion. Don’t let them try to woo you back with more money or the promise of cool, future projects.”
Don’t let there be any confusion. This is a break up. Not a break.
Reflect and take feedback graciously
Just like in a regular break up, both parties are usually a little at fault when things go wrong. Reflect on what you could have done differently and take to heart the feedback your former client may have for you – even if it’s coated in a layer of anger or resentment right now.
• What are ways you can weed out freelance clients like this in the future?
• Was there something you didn’t understand at the top of the freelance project?
• What were the questions you should have been asking?
• Could you have known this wasn’t the right fit earlier in the freelance relationship?
• What has this experience taught you about your priorities?
At the beginning of my freelance career, I took on jobs pretty haphazardly and got quickly frustrated with the kinds of clients I was working with. I realized that I had to take some responsibility for my process of picking up work. For example, I learned that writing for a one person startup was not for me. It was too intimate and the client was too emotionally invested in the work to be objective. I’m sure there are writers who love getting involved super early in a business, but upon reflection, I learned that I was better suited for more mature companies.
Create a smooth transition
Give adequate notice. And if you can take a freelance project to a reasonable stopping point, that’s ideal. If not, it’s best practice to provide a recommendation for someone who can. Reach out to your network to find someone who matches your client’s needs and preferences. Unless the client really is terrible, someone else might be grateful for the work.