Terminating a Relationship with a Client

This is not an easy or comfortable subject. Freelancers are always hustling to bring in customers and keep them. We don’t like to think about the end of a business relationship, but the reality is that it happens. Sometimes they fire you (I’ve had that happen). Sometimes they just stop returning your emails or phone calls (I’ve had that happen, too). Sometimes, however, it’s up to you to pull the plug on the arrangement. How do you do that? Here are some thoughts for your consideration. 

Be Honest

Why would you want to terminate a relationship with a customer/client? If you’ve worked as a freelancer long enough, I’m certain you can imagine (Note: not all of these have happened to me, nor am I necessarily talking about my current customer base):

  • The work was not in your field of expertise or within your skill set.
  • The checks were not arriving on time, would bounce when you tried to cash them, or were just not arriving at all.
  • The time and effort spent on the work was not worth the money being paid (examples: late-night phone calls, extensive reworks, unclear guidance on content).
  • Ethical issues with the work, conflicts of interest, or shady practices/behavior on the part of the client.
  • Personality conflicts with the primary customer.

Regardless of the situation, you owe it to the customer to explain clearly and honestly why you will not longer be working for them.

Do It In Person, Phone Call, and/or by Formal Letter

If your customer is local, schedule a meeting to have the discussion face to face. Make the meeting topic something factual without telegraphing your intentions: “Contract Discussion” is less confrontational and less passive-aggressive than “I’m Quitting.”

If you’re working remotely, have the conversation by phone and speak with your primary customer–the one you work with most often or the one paying the bills.

Don’t do it on/by social media or text message.

After your in-person conversation, it might be wise to send a formal letter confirming or summarizing the terms of your departure so you have a written document “on the record.”

Regardless of how you go about it, keep your conversation or correspondence polite. No rudeness, profanity, insults, or legal threats–unless the situation warrants it–in which case you might want to have an attorney help you compose the letter and identify the next steps.

Be Professional

This is the same as quitting a full-time job: it does your reputation good to make a good last impression on your way out the door if you’re permitted the time to do so. This means, among other things:

  • Try to find and arrange for another writer to replace you, ideally someone you know whom you trust to do the work. Let that writer know you’ve referred the customer to them and arrange a formal introduction. Or, at the very least, try to refer the customer to another service or organization that can better meet their needs.
  • Finish whatever task(s) you’re doing now to the best of your ability and give the customer a precise date for terminating the arrangement/contract. Call it your two weeks’ notice or whatever.
  • If there are obligations or penalties in your contract for early termination, make certain you have the money to pay them or formally promise to do so.
  • If you are holding proprietary materials or data belonging the company, make certain that the customer receives full copies of everything. Delete the content from your computer if asked to do so. Whatever you do, do not share that information with others, especially the customer’s competition. Assume your non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is still in place and that you can be held legally liable for any violation of that agreement. You should have some freedom to keep your work products or intellectual property if that was part of your arrangement/contract.
  • Remind the customer of the need to terminate any email, internet, Virtual Private Network (VPN), or other accounts in your name.
  • Return any customer-provided items such as ID badges, office supplies or other items (computers, cell phone). “Swag” items such as promotional items or clothing I consider “keepers” unless told otherwise.
  • If you can find it in your heart, despite an evident clash of personalities, thank the customer for their business and wish them well in their future endeavors.

Final Thoughts

As in any relationship, you owe the other person the benefit of a direct conversation, and the larger the contract/customer, the more important it is to handle things well. I’ve not always handled things as well as I could (congratulations, you’re getting the benefit of my wisdom, which was the result of previous unwise decisions). However, I’m learning the value of having a frank conversation and handling disputes or departures directly. It might be uncomfortable, but it could save you from professional or legal trouble down the road.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Terminating a Relationship with a Client

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks for this, Bart. It’s so important to leave on good terms. For years to come, your customer can act as a valuable reference or can damage your reputation.

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