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How to break up with a client

Ending a relationship with a client can be hard, but going about it carefully can help avoid any negative repercussions. 

8 August 2023

From time to time, it might be necessary to end a relationship with a client. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as the client is no longer a good fit for your offering, or you’re not working well together.

This can, understandably, be a difficult process for a business owner.

“Business owners tend to fear the client is going to feel offended or hurt,” says Nicole Davidson from Nicole Davidson Negotiation.

“The other worry is there will be a hostile reaction or some form of retaliation.”

Having a tough conversation

The best chance of ensuring the process goes well is to be considered in how you approach the conversation, Davidson says.

For example, if the reason you’re ending the relationship is that your business priorities or services have changed, then honesty is the best tactic.

“Be really transparent about that upfront and talk about the changes in the business,” she says.

If, on the other hand, you want to say goodbye to a client because you’re not happy with the working relationship, then it might help to take a step back and think about it from another point of view.

“Often if the working relationship is bad from your side, there's probably going to be something from their side as well,” Davidson says.

For example, imagine you want to break up with a client because they have unreasonable expectations about you being available at all hours of the day. Chances are they’re feeling frustrated too.

In that case, the conversation might go along the lines of: ‘We know it is important to you to get service around the clock. That's just not something that we are able to do. So we think there might be a provider that's better suited to you’.

“Try to have the mindset that this isn't necessarily because either of you have done something wrong. They're not bad people. You're not bad people. You're just not the right paper to be working with each other,” Davidson says.

“If you bring that mindset rather than thinking about what a pain they are to deal with, then the conversation will be much more positive.”

Other tips for a smooth process

There are other ways to help this conversation as well. A big one is to recommend others in the industry they can use instead, thus making the change less daunting from their point of view. There might be someone with a different skill set or temperament that can work with them better.

Another is to suggest a transition period, rather than ending the arrangement immediately and leaving the client in the lurch.

What if there is animosity?

So what if the worst does happen and the client takes it badly?

For a start, Davidson recommends always checking in with them and asking them how they are feeling. That way, you can pre-empt or address any negative feedback.

If they leave a bad review, then do respond, but in a neutral way, resisting the urge to comment on their behaviour.

“Say something like: ‘We're sorry you feel this way. We enjoyed working with you. We just feel that what you're looking for is slightly different from how we operate our service’,” she recommends.

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