How to break up with a client...without burning bridges

May 20, 2015

So things haven’t been good between you two for a while – or at least, not like they used to be. The magic is gone, and lately you find your eyes straying. You don’t want to ruin their lives; you just want out, with as little collateral damage done as possible.

Inevitably, the time will come when you will drop a client. Maybe a new opportunity will bind up your schedule, maybe you’ll outgrow your previous position, maybe you’ll just find yourself chronically bored and unsatisfied. Almost everyone has to do it eventually – but how do you break up with a client… without burning bridges?

Give ample notice

Nothing burns a bridge faster than a speedy, surprise exit that leaves clients hanging. If at all possible, give at LEAST two weeks’ notice before you phase out your work – I like to do a month, when I can. Make sure you tell your direct supervisor that you’re leaving first, before telling others. Clearly explain your exit plan; when will you turn in your last assignment?

When’s your official last day? When is the latest date they can ask you for edits or revisions? When will you send your last invoice? Give your soon-to-be-former client dates and concrete terms… and ample time to replace you.

Make it clear

You may want to actually “break up” with clients in person or over the phone, but as I’ve advocated before, make sure the terms of your departure are also communicated in writing – it eliminates confusion and sets boundaries. That may just take the form of a quick clarifying email after a phone call:

“Dear [Client]:

Thanks again for talking with me today. I’m sorry, again, to be leaving! As I mentioned, my last day will be June 17th; in order to wrap up completely, I’ll need final revision requests by the 10th. I’ll invoice June 18th for all work completed…” etc., etc.

Now’s not the time…

A client break-up is not the time to exorcise every irritation you may have; it’s not even really a time to offer constructive criticism (unless specifically asked to do so). After all, your relationship with this client is almost ended – and you want them to remember you on a sweet note.

Make sure any notice that you give is polite and vaguely regretful; it’s also a nice touch to name-check any projects you’ve successfully finished when collaborating with the client. Remember all the good times? Focus on those now – and if there weren’t any, focus on being diplomatic as you cross the finish line. You’re almost done!

Be honest-ish

Listen, there’s no point in telling outlandish lies to clients in order to quit; it’s just not necessary. You don’t need to claim that you are now unable to work for them because you have, say, died or moved to Guam.

That DOESN’T mean you have to be completely open, however; you probably won’t benefit much from “I don’t want to work with you anymore because you bore the living bejesus out of me” or “I am leaving you to work with a way better company, sucka.”You really don’t have to make an “excuse” at all, but easy, perfectly generic explanations include:

“I’m reducing my workload at this time,”

“I’m exploring a different field,”


“I’ve taken on some new responsibilities that require me to restructure.”

ZZZ, right? These excuses are admittedly boring, but they’re inoffensive. And that’s what you want; the shredded wheat of explanations. It’s dull, it’s healthy, it’ll do.

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Recommend a replacement

The best, most karmically-dazzling way to leave a client? Recommend another freelancer to replace you. It does EVERYONE a solid: your client, your freelance colleague, yourself. You suddenly become the life-saving mensch, whom everybody can thank!

Transitioning also tends to be much smoother and easier if you know and like your replacement – and hey, someday maybe he/she will return the favor.

Make sure they have your contact info

You don’t want to work with this client right now. You may feel like you never want to work for them again; heck, you may have sworn to the heavens that you will crawl Shawshank-Redemption-style through a mile of sewage pipe before you do. BUT, you never know where people will end up – and many a professional contact has reappeared in my life. Sometimes it’s like a horror movie; you think they’re gone and then…

As you finish up your work, make sure to send out a gracious thank you – both generally and to specific individuals. Give out your contact information. Congratulate yourself privately for finishing up, and move on graciously – but don’t be surprised if your paths cross again in the future.

Breaking up doesn’t have to be hard to do; handle it calmly, kindly, and directly, and you’ll reap the benefits.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.