I broke up with my remaining longstanding freelance client last week.
I’d worked with Mike off and on for the last 11 years, and I’ve always enjoyed the working relationship we had. As the owner of a successful contracting/renovation company, he wanted nothing to do with writing; he trusted my expertise in the words department and just let me do what I do best.
Over the years, despite holding down one or two jobs, a couple of side hustles and motherhood, I always honoured his requests for work because he was a delight to work with. Any freelancer/consultant knows that dream clients (amiable, easy to work with, pay well and on-time) are like unicorns and when found, you do everything in your power to keep them in your roster.
After doing some work for him over the Christmas holidays last year, in January he asked if I’d be up for doing social media/marketing work for him on a regular basis. Although I’d been slowly easy myself out of the social-media-for-hire arena, his need for a simply daily insta post and 2/3x weekly blog seemed simple enough.
But then Coronavirus happened. And then the summer of Black Lives Matter. The world was burning and I suddenly had a lot going on personally and professionally. Even after the flames died down, I was navigating managing my mental health and an unexpected surge in business. I simply couldn’t bring myself to write about decor or focus on SEO and social media engagement when there seemed to be more pressing matters in the world.
My work for him lapsed and I felt awful. I managed to avoid him for a few weeks (okay, months) until he recently reached out to check in, because he hadn’t heard from me “in ages.” That was my cue to exit stage left. I apologized and explained to him why I’d been away—it felt like the classic “it’s not you, it’s me,” scenario at the end of a relationship where one person’s been quasi-ghosted by their partner.
He responded with a thank you, wished me the best, and graciously let me know that i could always come to him if I needed anything at all. His niceness made me feel even more like a heel. However, the feeling was a fleeting one and over the next few days, I was surprised to find myself feeling…well, free.
Although I’d only been working sporadically on his stuff, the daily feeling of guilt that I was neglecting him weighed heavily. I didn’t even realize how burdensome the feeling had become until I admitted I couldn’t work for him anymore.
I doubt I’ll make a foray back into copywriting/social media management any time soon, but I know that if I needed a reference or even some work, I could ask Mike for either.
How to leave your client
So all this to say that I know not all client relationships end as smoothly—especially when one party lapses on an agreement. So if you find yourself on the verge of ending things with a client, you have to find a way to leave without burning bridges. As I mentioned, I took the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach, which put the impetus (rightfully) for leaving squarely on my shoulders.
Find your frame
If you need some inspiration on how to let a client down gently, Freelance Writers School founder James Johnson suggests framing the reasons for leaving as one of the following:
- I’m looking to move away from this niche and explore new opportunities
- I have a new goal and I need to change my business model to achieve it
- I’m taking an indefinite vacation from this kind of work
- I’m trying to reduce my workload due to overwhelm
Make a definitive statement that clearly indicates that your need to move
in a different direction has nothing to do with your client.
I took the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach, which put the impetus for leaving squarely on my shoulders.
Drop your bomb
Once you’ve framed the reasons for leaving, it helps to have a little script ready for when you call or email them to break the news.
If you can’t sever ties immediately and you’re still working on projects when you give your notice, it’s good form to provide an exit date. In so doing you help your client prepare for your departure (to find your replacement, or tie up loose ends), and it gives you enough time to find a replacement income if necessary.
Soften the blow
You definitely want to focus on offering value and reducing friction. Some other positive actions you can take (to show that you care about the relationship and your client’s future success):
- Provide links to/recommend other consultants or freelancers who could fill the position well
- Table any outstanding work and give dates as to when you can have it completed
- Create a list of criteria for hiring an ideal replacement candidate
Provided everything goes well after The Conversation, Johnson states there are a few other points to keep in mind:
Stay firm and focused
Be sure to deliver on what you promised and even over-deliver where possible. During this time of transition, it’s easy to let your standards slip. Don’t let this happen. Leaving on a high note will serve you well if you ever need to ask for a referral.
Also, stand your ground. Clients will often try to stop you from leaving. If you feel like you’ve made the right decision, don’t cave. In the end, you and your client need to do the right thing for your respective businesses.
And Bang! There you have it. If you’ve thoughtfully presented your reasons for leaving, and found a mutually beneficial solution, moving on may very well turn out to be the best decision you’ve ever made.
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