Question of the Week #07

It’s week 7 and Helen Lopez asks, “Is there a right way to break up with a difficult client?”

Yes. Several actually.

There will be instances over the course of your career when you and your client are no longer a good match for each other. It may be that your design focus has shifted to a particular client type or discipline. It may be that your business has grown and now requires larger accounts (or downsized and no longer has the staff to support larger projects). It may just be that the ongoing maintenance of a particular client’s needs no longer poses a satisfying design challenge.

From the client’s perspective, they may have requirements that you can longer meet in terms of budget, turnaround time or expertise, or they may simply be ready for a change and feel that ‘new blood’ will yield new ideas. When someone new joins the leadership they frequently want to make an impact by making new hires, including outside consultants and designers — often they will have a previous relationship with a designer or firm with whom they are already comfortable.

Regardless of the reason, breaking up is never easy. Here are a few ways to do it:

1. Raise your fees
This is fairly conventional wisdom when it comes to the passive-aggressive breakup. The general idea is that you raise your fees for future projects such that you either become too expensive to your client and consequently ‘they’ decide that you are no longer a good fit. If they are unfazed by the increase, then at least you’re being compensated to the point that continuing the relationship is worth your while. This can work for long term clients and retainer accounts where you work on multiple projects per year. Obviously you can’t arbitrarily raise your rates mid-project.

2. Become less available
Another way to help a client decide to move on is to extend your turnaround time. This can be as easy as expressing your interest in the project while also explaining that you won’t be free of your current commitments until X date (X being a date significantly later than  you know they are hoping for). You can then recommend a competent freelancer who might be able to help them in the short term. If all goes well they will become accustomed to working with that freelancer (especially if you aren’t available for a couple of consecutive projects) and quietly move on.

3. Be honest
Most of the advice I’ve read or been given over the years has included the two tactics above. I’ll offer a third here that I think works even better. Be honest. If you’ve outgrown the relationship with your client, chances are they have too. If they’ve been a long term client, then dramatically raising your rates or de-prioritizing their business is disrespectful. Being candid demonstrates an appreciation for their long term commitment to you and honors the partnership you’ve formed over that time. Being honest doesn’t mean citing all your grievances, stating that there is better, more lucrative or more rewarding work that you’re more interested in, griping about your creative freedom, etc. It can be as simple as saying, “We’ve been working together for X years now and I feel we’ve really gotten to know your business intimately in that time. As much as I don’t want to say it, I think you’d benefit from a renewed creative perspective and that may need to come from a different creative team.” Exactly how you deliver this news will depend on your style and your relationship with your client. Almost any client will read between the lines and understand that this is you making a graceful exit. They will probably also recognize it as the truth — after all if your heart is just not in it can you really be doing your best work?

If you choose to take the third option, here are a few tips for doing it right:

1. Make sure your accounts are up to date
It’s pretty hard (and a little tacky) to break up with a client and then send them a bill. Resolve any outstanding invoices before initiating the breakup.

2. Face the music
You wouldn’t break up with your boyfriend by email (would you?), nor should you treat a client that way. Schedule an in-person meeting (or a phone call if your client is remote) and speak candidly and directly.

3. Keep it neutral
In most situations, no one party is to blame. You’ve merely drifted apart. Maybe it’s philosophical, maybe its become an unequal partnership, maybe you have different ways of doing business that don’t encourage your best work. Be honest about the reason(s), but state them neutrally. You don’t have to get into specifics, apologize, or defend yourself. If the client gets angry (and they probably won’t), always, always keep keep your cool.

4. Offer referrals
Offering to recommend some well-qualified colleagues who might be a better fit is a sign that you have your client’s nest interest at heart. It shows good faith and will always be appreciated, even if they don’t take you up on the offer.

5. Leave on a positive note
When the meeting is done, restate again how much you have appreciated their business and wish them well.

6. Tie up loose ends
Once you agree to split, email your client a brief, formal letter recapping any obligations you committed to during the meeting or as required by any contract(s) you may have with them. The letter should state that you have “mutually agreed” to end the business relationship. If there are files or other client assets that need to delivered or returned make that your first priority. If you have access to sensitive information (passwords to their website, access to facilities, etc.) advise them to revoke that access.

7. Follow up
Depending on how often you were previously in contact, follow up with your (former) client after a month or two to make sure they have everything they need from you. A quick email is all that is required. I keep former clients on our mailing list and have even had new clients referred by clients we ended our working relationship with. You just never know.
One final note:
All of this advice pertains to client relationships that have, for one reason or another, drifted apart. In instances where your client is abusive, unethical or doesn’t pay, you’re under no obligation to repay their disrespect with the courtesy and nuance I describe above. It rarely pays to lose your cool, but by all means take a hard line if your beliefs or values are being compromised. I once had a client berate an intern just because he was mad. I refused to work with him until he called her to apologize (and then stopped working with him anyway). One of the mantras of good business practice is to never burn a bridge, but I think you should burn one in your career. Just make sure to pick it wisely.


Suggested reading
5 Types of Clients You Should Fire