One of the benefits of being a freelancer is having the ability to walk away from a professional relationship that isn’t working. If you’re still new to freelancing, you may find yourself hesitant to end things with a client, but if working with them is causing you needless stress or requires more energy from you than the pay is worth, sticking around could be keeping you from better opportunities.
The longer you do freelance work, the better you’ll be at recognizing the type of client that’s best for you and knowing when it’s time to walk away from those that aren’t. But even if you’ve been at it for a while, the process of ending things is awkward at best. At worst, it can be downright messy.
Whatever your reasons for leaving a client behind, you should do everything in your power to make your exit as professional and respectful as possible. You don’t have any real control over how they’ll respond, but you can make sure your actions are in keeping with the kind of reputation you want to have in the community.
Here are a few tips to help you avoid burning bridges and keep your professional reputation intact when you find it’s time to move on from a client.
- Don’t give them the news while mad.
If you’re ending things because of a conflict between you and your client — maybe they’re consistently late paying or disrespectful in how they communicate with you — do your best to avoid providing a heated response.
Walk away from the computer for a while. Wait until the anger you’re feeling has died down. Only then, once you can approach things in a calm, measured way, should you craft the email that lets them know you’re parting ways.
- Choose your words carefully.
An email is the best route to communicate the news with, because you can be careful with the language you choose. On a phone call, you could find yourself saying things you didn’t mean to that you regret later.
An email you can write, re-read, and even send to a friend or two to read and provide feedback on. You want your words to sound professional, fair, and diplomatic. Even if you’re dealing with a client that’s being a huge jerk (it happens), strive to be polite. If it’s frustrating to be diplomatic now, at least it will give you the license to be smug later about how much better you handled things than they did (oh yeah, and it’s better for your reputation).
If for any reason, you do decide you should communicate the news over the phone or in person, write out what you want to say first. If you have a clear idea of what you want to communicate, you’ll do a better job of sticking to your script in the moment.
- Give advance notice.
If at all possible, provide two weeks to a month’s worth of notice to give them plenty of time to find a replacement. For some situations, you may need to cut ties sooner, but if you can continue for a couple of weeks as a courtesy, it can go a long way to earning some good will so they don’t feel like you’re leaving them in a lurch.
Do double-check what your original contract says before sending anything. You may be obligated to stick around for a certain amount of time whether you want to or not. If that’s the case, be sure to be professional in that time and keep things cordial until you’re able to move on.
And always be sure to read any contract a client sends carefully so you know that the terms of termination (and all the other terms) are reasonable and will work for you long before you reach this point.
- Offer referrals.
If you know somebody who would be a better fit for the type of work you’ve been doing for the client, recommend them as a referral. If no individual comes to mind, at least point the client toward resources they can use to find another freelancer. You don’t want to give them the opportunity to say you left them in a desperate situation.
For instance, you can point them toward the Freelance Austin job board where they can post a project, or the WCA job bank. A client that’s a bad fit for you could be just what another member of the Austin freelance community is looking for.
- Learn from the experience.
Figure out what about this client made you a bad fit for each other. Every client gives us a chance to learn something about ourselves that can make our business stronger.
Maybe this client taught you about traits you should avoid in a client in the future — for example, I learned from past clients that I’m not a good fit with anyone that does most of their communicating by phone rather than email.
Maybe they teach you about terms you should include in your contract. If they asked for endless revisions, you know to set a limit on the number of revisions you’ll do for free moving forward.
Part of our job as freelancers is to gain a clear picture of how we work best so we can find and stick with the clients that are right for us. Figure out what changes to implement in how you do business so you’re less likely to have to break up with the next client.
Leaving a client can be scary, especially if you don’t have another one lined up and waiting. Remember that freelancing always comes with ups and downs. If you’ve been marketing your business and networking, new opportunities will likely find you. Keep your tone professional as you head out the metaphorical door and use the opportunity to make your business stronger.
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