Running your freelancing business

Breaking Up With a Client in 2024: How to Leave Without Burning Bridges

By Brennan Dunn

Note from Brennan: This post was originally a guest post by James Johnson of the Freelance Writers School. He’s stopped that project, but the content’s still great, so we’ve kept the post and made updates to it over time.

Breaking up with a client is like breaking up a romance.

It needs to be handled gently with the least amount of damage done to the person receiving the bad news.

If you’ve reached the point where you feel the relationship isn’t going anywhere, and your goals aren’t aligned, that means it’s time to move on.

But there’s a tugging feeling of obligation that can make you feel trapped.

How do you end it without burning bridges or closing yourself off to future opportunities?

Rest assured, there is a way.

Back Story from the original post author, James Johnson

There was a point when I needed to step away from a lot of my freelance writing clients.

90% of my income came from a niche I hated. I had anxiety about going to work. I couldn’t sleep. And I put on 15 pounds through comfort eating.

Something needed to change. I became a freelance writer to escape doing work that I hated. But now my business was as bad as my dead-end job.

In order to grow my income through work I enjoy (and improve my overall health) I needed to find a way to let go of my existing clients without hurting my business.  I had to maintain my income, my reputation, and their results.

I spent the next weeks listening to podcasts, reading articles, and consulting mentors to learn how to delicately handle these crucial conversations. This helped me put together a simple formula for effectively breaking the bad news with minimal repercussions.

Using the six steps I’m about to show you, I was able to step away from these clients, maintain a good relationship with them, and prevent any negative outcomes for their business or my reputation.

Our Plan of Action…

Here’s what I’ll cover in this article:

  1. How to decide if ending a client relationship is the right move
  2. How to frame your conversation to spare your client’s feelings
  3. How to provide value and support to your clients throughout the process
  4. How to create a script and then handle this crucial conversation properly (template provided)

This is based on the exact same method I used to stop working with five clients all in the same year.

Despite no longer working with these clients I still maintain a good relationship with them all, and have called upon them for help, support, and leads when I’ve needed it. If you follow the steps in this article I’m confident you’ll achieve the same results.

Step #1: Ask Yourself These 3 Preliminary Questions

Before you commit to ending things with a client there are a few questions you should ask to ensure you’re making the right decision.

These will help you clarify why you feel you want to move on and if you truly are out of other options.

Take a moment to answer the following:

  • What is causing me the most dissatisfaction working with this client, and can it be fixed? For example, is it that they’re not paying your invoices on time and a system could be put in place to solve the problem. Or is it that you feel undervalued and don’t fit in with their business culture?
  • Would you feel better if you took a break from this client? If you’ve been working for a client for a long time, or on a big project, sometimes just taking a few weeks away can solve a lot of your problems and you can return feeling refreshed. Would it be worth trying this before you part ways?
  • Does leaving this client help you achieve your overall goal? If you’re working towards something specific, does leaving the client bring you closer to that goal or further away. Sometimes the most important work sucks for a time, but is worth it in the long run.

You might find it helpful to discuss these questions with people whose opinions you value. Or, if you’re like me, take some time to journal on them.

If you’ve read those questions and still feel your gut is giving you a resounding “Yes!” then you’re ready for step number two.

Step #2: Choose Your Frame

The next step is to decide how you’re going to frame this conversation for your client.

(“Frame” meaning the emotional reason behind what you’re doing.)

In order to not burn any bridges you should work to make your client feel blameless but you will need a convincing way to say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” It could be something along the lines of:

  • 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

It’s a statement showing you need to move in a different direction, but it’s not your client’s fault.

(In other words, you DON’T say something like “I’m moving in a different direction because I hate working with you”)

To show you an example of how to frame a conversation, take a look at this email I sent to one of my clients:

An example of how the original author of this post, James Johnson, framed his breakup email with a client

There are three points I used to help frame my email:

  1. I mentioned this was a long, hard decision that wasn’t made lightly
  2. I put emphasis on ending my time as a writer in this niche
  3. I was honest about my goals and where I see myself

These are points the client can understand without feeling slighted. It’s not that I don’t want to write for them, it’s that I want to change the trajectory of my business.

What approach can you take to absolve your client of blame? This should be based on the truth. You’re just using this frame to make the truth more palatable.

💡 Bonus thoughts by Zach from Team DYF

As you already know if you’ve been through our free “Sales skills for freelancers” course, Charge What You’re Worth, your client doesn’t fundamentally care about your happiness or chosen business trajectory.

They care about how those things affect them.

When I’m personally breaking up with a client, I usually like to frame it as “I’m really busy and not giving your project the attention it needs.”

I’ll talk about how my being stretched between projects is negatively affecting them (something along the lines of, “With all the other projects on my plate, I know I’ve not been able to give your project the attention it needs…”)

And how it’s going to be even better for them to work with someone else (“[…] The best move for your business for the long-term will be having someone who has the mental bandwidth to keep an active pulse on your project[…]”)

These things are both true for me — I am personally strongest when I can sink my teeth into one (or two, max) really big active projects at a time, and totally ignore everything else.

And it just so happens that most often, the clients I’m breaking up with are the ones who hit me up for little updates every month or two and are a constant drain on my attention for very little payoff.

If you can find a [not-BS] way to frame your breakup as a benefit to the client, that will be the icing on the cake here — assuming it doesn’t paint you as unprofessional or as a slacker.

Step #3: Set Your Exit Date

It’s helpful to present your clients with a period of time you’re willing to keep working with them or to “give notice.”

This has two main benefits:

  1. It shows empathy to the client by helping them prepare for your departure
  2. It gives you time to replace the income you’re about to lose

This may not feel ideal. Immediately is probably more preferable. But remember: this is about not burning bridges. We have to stay aware of the client’s needs too.

I offered my services between the 30th March and 30th June to give my clients a three notice month period. I was flying to Sri Lanka on the 10th of July, so that gave me a 10 day period of wiggle room in case anything went wrong.

Here’s how that looked in the email I sent:

I didn’t write anything fancy, I just pointed out that normal service would resume until a fixed date in the future.

Your period can be shorter or longer depending on your project and the client. I’d say anywhere from one month to three. If your client chooses to end it sooner, that’s their prerogative.

Step #4: Make The Transition Easy

Think of how you can make the interruption to their business as small as possible.

What can you offer them, in the time period you’ve allowed, to help them replace you or complete their work?

Here’s how I did this in an email I sent:

I offered to increase my content creation work output to help him cover content that needs writing after I’ve gone. I’ve also offered to help him find a new writer should he need it. (In hindsight I could have done this better and supplemented it with actual portfolios of other writers I’d researched.)

The idea is to show that you care about your relationship and their future success, even if you won’t be a part of it.

Here are some suggestions of positive actions you can take:

  • Provide links to portfolios of freelancers who would fill the position well
  • Offer introductions to other freelancers in your network
  • Create a timeline of outstanding work and when you can have it completed
  • Create a hiring criteria for an ideal candidate

You know your project and client, so you’ll no doubt be able to come up with something more fitting for you. Focus on offering value and reducing the friction for your client.

Step #5: Plan What You’re Going To Say

Go into the conversation prepared.

In this step you’re going to answer two questions:

  1. How will I contact my client?
  2. What am I going to say?

The medium you choose can make or break the conversation you’re about to have. I’d recommend you choose the mode of communication you would use for other big discussions with your client.

Is your client someone who wants to get on the phone and hash things out quickly? Do they prefer to converse by email so they can digest information and formulate a response? Or do you conduct your meetings in person?

My clients have generally only ever spoken to me by email. So receiving an email about this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

You’ll also have to rely on your intuition for this. Most of the time, meeting them in person is most preferable (but not always possible), a phone call second, and an email last.

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to contact them, you can prepare what you’re going to say to them. (I’ve included a script to help with this below.)

If you’re writing an email, you have less pressure on you. Write a draft and have a few people you trust look at it.

If you’re making a phone call or going in person, it pays to have a script. Know exactly what you’re going to say and prepare for any questions or objections they may have. This makes it much easier to confidently and clearly explain yourself. You can even practice the call or meeting with other people if you need to.

For both of these eventualities, I’ve put together a template for you to use. You can edit and change it to make it sound more like you. It’s laid out as an email but can be edited to work on the phone or in person as well.

“Hey {Name},

I know we’ve been talking about {your project name} via {email/slack/whatever}, but I wanted to talk about something different today – my role at {company/website/project name}.

Recently I’ve been battling with the issue of where I want my {your trade} business to go, and what my future looks like. After a lot of careful consideration I’ve come to a decision.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to…{enter your “frame” here}.

If I can be candid: my goal is to become {current target} and I’ve not been working as proactively towards it. So it’s time for me to make a change.

I know this isn’t ideal for you and I want to make this transition as easy as possible. I plan on continuing to work from now until {date}. I’m also happy to increase production on {current topic} to ensure you’re in a good position when I move on.

Below are the links to three freelancers who I feel could replace me on this project and would be a good fit for your company culture. {Name} and {Name} are in my network and I’d be happy to make an introduction for you right away.

  • {Link #1}
  • {Link #2}
  • {Link #3}

(Note: If you’re on the phone or in a meeting, you can simply say, “I’ve got links to three portfolios who I think could replace me which I’ll email after this. I’d be happy to make an intro with {name} and {name} if you’d like as well?”)

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns and I’ll be happy to help you however I can.”

Step #6: Make Contact

Once you know what you will say, it’s time to contact your client.

If you’ve followed the steps in this article and used the script above you should have no problems parting ways without burning any bridges.

Remember to approach this conversation without ego and with an open mind. Listen to what your client has to say and calmly deal with any objections or questions they may have.

What comes next…

Provided everything goes well speaking to your client and you got a positive response, you’ll find yourself in the aftermath period.

When you’re preparing to leave,  it’s easy to let your standards slip.

Don’t let this happen.

Be sure to deliver on what you promised and even over-deliver where possible. This will serve you well if you ever need to come back to this client or ask for a referral.

I also want to mention that it’s important to stand your ground. When you continue to work clients often find ways to try and bring you back on board and stop you from leaving. If you feel like you’ve made the right decision, don’t give in.

Instead, use the time in this aftermath period to look for more fitting clients, who will pay what you’re worth, and that you take more pleasure from.  You’ll thank yourself for it in the long run.

I was terrified when I hit send on those emails.

My hands shook whilst I typed it and there was a voice in the back of my head telling me this was a stupid decision and that I’d destroyed my own business.

When a client responded a few hours later, my heart was in my mouth. I had to close my eyes and click blindly to open it.

But much to my surprise all of my clients responded positively to me leaving. They understood my decision and left the door open for more work in the future:

Since then my business has flourished, I’ve enjoyed my work more than ever before and I lost that 15 lbs I gained. It even gave me the space and time to start a second business that I love.

If you frame your conversations correctly, work together to find a deal that benefits both parties, and deliver on what you promise, I have no doubt that you’ll be able to see similar results too.