“I don’t feel bad about letting you go, I just feel sad about letting you know.”
- Kirsty McColl, New England.
We’ve all been there in relationships. Sometimes you just have to call it off.
Ideally you want to accomplish this without compromising your personal integrity, without being a jerk, and hopefully ensuring you can still remain friends — at least, without becoming enemies, who will bad-mouth each other in public afterward. Because we all aim to be adults about this, don’t we?
The methods and emotions we learn through letting go of a partner can often apply to letting go of a client. It’s vital to be tactful, honest and still offer a straightforward approach to prevent muddling.
“It’s not you, it’s me…”
This is how we often try to phrase things when it’s personal. It can be true in freelancing as well, that a shift in your focus or availability means that the present relationship needs to wrap up.
But in the professional sphere, let’s be honest, usually it is them.
Something has changed, or something wasn’t clear at the start. What looked good once no longer does, and occasionally a client relationship becomes incredibly toxic, for reasons which may not even make sense until you look back from a safe distance.
As a solopreneur, you and you alone get to decide when a line gets crossed. But it’s easy to lose track and even question yourself about what is or is not reasonable, when you're in the middle of it.
Remember that you are a professional contractor, not a servant or even an employee. They’re hiring you for skills they need, and you have a right to your limits, on all fronts.
Here are some bad signs you might want to keep a look-out for:
🚩 Scope creep: Requesting/expecting additional work, beyond what is contracted or included in your agreement.
🚩 Lack of respect for personal boundaries: expecting work or responses outside agreed-upon hours, exploiting a friendship with unfair expectations.
🚩 Delayed or inconsistent payments: Regularly late payments or constantly haggling over rates. Maybe you can accommodate a payment cycle which takes longer than you would choose, but ultimately works. But if they’re nickel-and-diming, constantly counting the cost, they may be more trouble than they’re worth.
🚩 Ethical misalignment: When a client’s goal turns out to be something you cannot get on board with, or don’t want to be associated with, or you’re unsure if it’s even legal/compliant.
🚩 Poor communication: Not providing clear feedback, being unresponsive, or frequently changing their mind without notice. Ultimately, this means you end up doing work over, or receiving unfair feedback due to your lack of telepathy (nope, we still don’t have an app for that)
🚩 Unrealistic expectations: Expecting results that aren't feasible given the resources and timeframe. You want it by WHEN?
🚩 Negative Energy: Constant criticism without constructive feedback, or a general negative attitude that drains your energy. Don’t underestimate this one, it can affect everything else you do, in work and the rest of your life!
In any long-term relationship, nothing is perfect. We expect a certain amount of compromise, of give and take. How many, and which, red flags YOU are personally going to take, is something only you can decide.
Some of them are easy. A client who wants you to help do something immoral, or illegal? Hard no.
Same with people who are constantly negative, and suck all the air and optimism out of any room. Nothing you can say or do will change their character, and your best bet is to walk away. If you find yourself in a situation where your mental and emotional wellbeing is compromised, or your personal ethical framework, run, don’t walk!
Other factors are more wooly, and you will need to take a critical look at the situation.
Have you ever stayed in a personal relationship longer than you should have, because you were sure things would change? That the other person would change?
People — and professional relationships — can change, it’s true, but it happens less often than you’d think. It’s much easier for people to change their behavior (which can be nudged and constrained by something like a contract) than it is for them to change their fundamental nature.
At the very least, it’s worth clarifying whether any simple misunderstandings are contributing to red flags, where they don’t really need to exist at all.
For example, scope creep. While some people seem born to exploit others at every possible opportunity, maybe some of this is on you to nail down expectations more tightly at the outset. Perhaps the last freelancer they worked with did things differently, or they’ve never considered it from a contractor perspective. At the very least, you can learn something from this for next time.
For example, my freelance writing terms are very specific about how many rewrites and edits are included in my cost for any job, beyond which further revisions are deemed out of scope, and will be charged hourly. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I learned that one the hard way, early in my freelance career).
If they have unrealistic expectations, or they aren’t providing you the information you need to do the work well, then one assertive and positive conversation could clear everything up. Often there’s simply a lack of understanding, which can happen on either side, and it’s also easy for written communication to lack the nuance and empathy of a real-time chat.
At the very least, consider scheduling a quick check-in call, before you burn that bridge. At best, you’ll resolve misunderstandings, understand each other better, and reinforce your existing relationship. Really, I had no idea it took so long to set up each new dashboard — of course I understand now why you can’t do it at such short notice!
And at worst? Well, you were going to end things anyway!
Another sad parallel with personal life, is that sometimes people stay in toxic relationships for financial reasons.
In fact, this frequently happens with employment, where in most cases a single boss represents 100% of a person’s income. I bet you know many people who are unhappy at work, and perhaps would love to tell their manager where to go, but can’t realistically do it, at least without finding another position first.
Well, sometimes even in this situation, you have to jump. When your sanity and well-being are at risk, you’re going to be the one who gets fired anyway, and there are situations where you have no headspace or focus to even look towards your next move, until you get out of a toxic situation.
For freelancers, it should never come to this!
When you think about your freelancing as a business, you should aim for a balanced and sustainable portfolio of clients. The loss of any good client or gig then becomes a disappointment, and may even be a blow financially, but never a devastating one. Just as with any bad relationship, once you are out of it you will be personally stronger, more resilient and positively placed to consider your next move and what you really want from it.
Remember, your perfect client is one who ticks ALL your boxes, not just the financial ones.
I think Tim Ferriss was one of the first people I remember saying something like, your success and happiness in life is related to the number of difficult conversations you’re prepared to have.
There’s no easy formula for doing this, but if you think there’s any possible other outcome, then you might want to pick up the phone.
However, if you are certain things are over, then putting it in writing, and continuing the conversation there until all the details are totally clear, removes any possible misunderstandings and gives everyone emotional headroom.
That message needs to be polite, professional and unambiguous, regardless of the circumstances.
Here are some steps to consider when crafting your opening communication and shaping the conversation that will follow:
Remember: You’re a freelancer, not a friend, or even an employee, and your availability might simply have changed.
We know it’s still not easy, so here’s a template you can use as a starting point for writing this email to your client. Don’t forget to personalize and adapt it, to reflect your relationship and reasons for drawing things to a close.
Dear [Client's Name],
I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to discuss our ongoing collaboration.
Firstly, I want to express my gratitude for the opportunity to work with you on [project X]. It has been a valuable experience, and taught me so much about [subject].
However, after careful consideration, I've decided that it's best for both of us if we end our working relationship. This decision wasn't made lightly, and it's based on [specific reason, e.g., "my current workload and commitments to other projects" “your changing requirements for the next phase of your launch” etc].
To ensure a smooth transition, I will continue to provide my services until [specific date]. This should allow you ample time to find a replacement or make other arrangements, and I would be happy to [e.g. facilitate a handover session with your new agency on or before that date].
[If you'd like, I can recommend a few colleagues who might be a good fit for your needs].
Thank you again for the opportunity. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
Above all, do keep in mind that letting clients go is all part of the normal cycle of freelancing, and part of the skills you need to master.
The project ends, their budget changes, your availability changes — stuff happens. You’re not in an employee/boss relationship, you’re two professional collaborators, and this particular collaboration has simply come to an end.
At best, they’ll respond with equal grace, thanking you for your work and wishing you all the best. Maybe it’s even a good moment to request a LinkedIn testimonial or similar.
At worst, if they are hostile or unreasonable, then you dodged a bullet. They cannot defame you without breaking the law, and you simply move on to happier times.
Your next courteous, professional, long-term client is waiting out there, and now you’re available to work for them.
Come and find them at https://www.xolo.io/zz-en/nation
Maya Middlemiss is a freelance journalist and author, excited about the future of work, business, money, and technology. She operates her e-resident business through Xolo Leap, so that she can work frictionlessly with brands and publications all over the world, and she is the host of the Future is Freelance podcast. Exploring the social impact of technology on our changing world, and bringing those stories to life in an accessible and inclusive way, is her passion — because all of this is far too exciting to leave it to the geeks. Maya is a 'digital slowmad', originally from London, presently living with her family in Eastern Spain.
and get the latest updates and expert
business tips straight to your inbox.