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Seven Signs That You Need to Break Up With a Client
by Jennifer Brown Banks

Return to The Business of Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

As Neil Sedaka summed up in a popular song of the '70s, breaking up with people is hard to do.

But most of us, at some point in time, will face the inevitable truth: that a relationship simply isn't working out. And if the relationship is of a professional nature, the decision to part ways may be even more difficult. Such a relationship involves not only the "heart strings", but the "purse strings" as well.

Which is why you need to be sure. And equally important, why you should proceed with caution.

With business breakups, you don't have the luxury of "make-up text," or apologetic poetry, or rekindling the flames later. Once you say goodbye, it's as permanent as a tattoo.

To make matters worse, if not handled properly, burning bridges could compromise future relationships with potential clients. There's great validity to the statement that "the world is smaller than you think," and you really never know who knows who.

But don't be intimidated by potential consequences. Avoiding the wrong clients is just as important as choosing the right ones. Much like a romantic relationship, if the compatibility isn't there, it causes strained relations, unmet needs, and gives new meaning to the phrase: "Not now, I have a headache."

Here's a case in point. Last year, after working with a client for more than a decade, I decided to call it quits. It was a decision that caused me pain, because on a personal level, this editor was top-notch. Not only was she a sweet person, she helped me to learn a lot about the publishing business, and helped me to grow as a writer.

But like so many long-term relationships, she gradually started to take me for granted. My emails would go unanswered for long periods of time, my pay rate stagnated, my contributions went unrecognized, and I wasn't growing.

Fast forward... A year later, I can honestly say that I don't miss the stress and the anguish of not feeling valued. I'm not bitter; I'm better. And I'll always cherish what we had, confident that our time together was well spent. After all, not all hook-ups are meant to last forever.

But perhaps you're in a place with a client where things are not so clear cut. You can't decide for sure. Well, as Oprah often used to say, "The signs are always there."

Here are a few signs that signal it's time to part ways and pink-slip your client:

You're incompatible on many important levels. The client waits until the last minute for everything, and you're more time-conscious and planning-oriented. Or he's an owl and you're a lark. Or perhaps your work ethic is vastly different. Sure, opposites attract, and some differences actually complement, but if there are too many issues where you don't see eye to eye, ultimately your match will not be successful or progressive. Better to cut your losses early.

The client requires excessive "hand holding." Sure, in the beginning hand-holding is nice. You like being needed. It makes you feel special. But sometimes it backfires. And without realizing it, you've created a monster -- a co-dependent client. I realized this a while ago when I spent time counseling a client over the phone (for almost thirty minutes en route to a funeral) when a woman he was dating broke his heart. It was partially my fault (the half hour of advice, I mean, not the broken heart). I tried to be his "Super Woman" as well as his service provider.

In retrospect, bad idea! No matter how "nice," co-dependent clients can be mentally and physically draining. Not only can they rob you of your peace, they often rob you of your time and effectiveness. And remember, time is money.

The client is always comparing you to someone else. He tells you that his other copywriter didn't do it the same way. Or his other service provided didn't charge him as much as you do for editing. Then it becomes like a competition. The result? You always feel inadequate, or that you have to jump through hoops to win him over. Most times, you never will.

You have communication issues. Instructions and details are always ambiguous. You said one thing, he thought you meant another. For every answer you provide, he has another question. Or you can't bring closure to a lengthy project because the client is non-responsive. "Houston, we have a problem."

Instead of pulling your hair out, or saying something you may regret, have the courage to just call things off. Tell the client something like: "It's not you, it's me." Then give two weeks' notice, make a break and don't look back.

The client is too controlling. In other words, he gives you a project, tells you to "run with it," then micro-manages and over-monitors every step of the way. He gives way more input than is required to successfully complete the assignment. In actuality, if he really had all the answers, he wouldn't have needed to hire you in the first place!

The client doesn't observe respectful relationship boundaries. I once had a client that hired me to help build his readership through professional blog posts. In many ways, it was a great gig. I loved the energy of his audience, it was a highly regarded site, and I made more than the average blogger back then. There was just one problem. He was insane. Apparently he didn't read the fine print: that while clients can own the works of the freelancer, they don't actually "own" them as property. To top it off, he used to send me emails laced with profanity and aggressive language. It didn't take long to realize that this guy was bad news. And I bolted.

The client has a poor track record with payments. Your contract states payment within 30 days, yet on day 44 you're sending another invoice as a "friendly reminder" that you haven't gotten paid. Or he'll send you a check and ask that you hold it for a few days before depositing it. Sound familiar? If this is his M.O., you may want to sever ties before he bails owing you large sums of money and you have to seek legal assistance to collect.

If you've been faced with any of these scenarios and you've had it with your client, here are a few ways to break it off gracefully and professionally:

  • Make sure all your projects are tied up, and don't take on any new ones after you've made the decision to move on. Nothing is more frustrating and unfair than to have someone jump ship in the middle of a project, and someone else has to figure out the missing pieces.

  • Send a thank you note or a parting gift along with your resignation; it will help to lessen the sting.

  • Offer feedback in a way that is more constructive than critical. For example, cite "creative differences" if pressured for a reason.

Though breaking up can be hard to do, staying in an unfulfilling, stressful relationship can be just as detrimental. Weigh your pros and cons. Then follow your heart.

Don't hold on to incompatible clients, once you discover it's a poor fit. The sooner you release them, the sooner you each can find partnerships that inspire passion and mutual respect.

Because, ultimately, good business relationships should be "profitable" beyond money.

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Brown Banks
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Jennifer Brown Banks is a veteran freelance writer, ghost writer and pro blogger with over a decade of experience in various genres. For more tips, visit her award-winning site: Pen and Prosper (http://penandprosper.blogspot.com/)


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