Breaking up is hard to do — and it’s arguably even harder when you’re ending a client relationship. The idea of voluntarily depleting a client base can seem counterproductive to many professional services firms looking to build long-term business growth, but at the same time, not all clients are worth your valuable resources.
And when you realize the relationship is causing more harm than good, it’s time to cut ties and move on to projects that propel your business forward and set you up for success in the long run.
Naturally, actually breaking up with a client is easier said than done, which is why you may find yourself avoiding it for too long. Spotting the red flags and understanding when it’s time to part ways is the first step — then you have to do it the right way to preserve your reputation as a company.
Let’s walk through five signs it’s time to break up with your client and how to end it while keeping your company integrity intact.
5 reasons why it might be time to part ways with a client
While there are many signals you could experience that identify when it’s time to end a client relationship, here are a few that stick out.
1. They require more time than they’re worth
As a professional you’re well aware of how much your time — and client — is worth. If the client is taking up your valuable time with unproductive tasks they could not only be costing you precious billable hours, but they could also be draining your team of their energy — putting them at risk of burnout.
A few examples of a client wasting time include:
- Unproductive meetings
- Continuous objection to ideas
- Lack of commitment to timelines
- Slow response times to questions or deliverables
You can spot this bad habit easily by using a tool like Harvest to track time spent on each project. Where is the time going? Which projects run over deadlines the most due to client blockers? Once you pinpoint a client that drains your time and resources regularly, it might be time to move on.
2. You’re losing money
Yes, solid client relationships are critical to your success — but so is profitability. If you find that the work you’re putting into the relationship isn’t producing as much as you need and you’re actually losing money, first evaluate why. In a nutshell, if your client is using more of your resources than they are contributing to your company, they’re unprofitable.
In this case, you could try and revisit the payment structure with them while being transparent about how much effort you’re putting into the relationship. But if they don’t agree on how much your added value is worth, consider parting ways.
3. They don’t pay on time
A lack of payment is a bit of a no-brainer, but still tricky to execute because of some common gray areas. For example, if a client fails to pay you on time but promptly delivers after a reminder, you might want to let it slide to continue building your relationship. Additionally, a late payment may be excused if the client is a startup still getting their accounting team up to speed.
The trick here is to understand if the client considers you a priority. It’s one thing to send a late payment reminder once or twice — but if you’re forced to wrangle payments on a regular basis, they may not be a good fit for you.
Tip: Harvest can also help you identify clients with poor payment behavior. By tracking invoices in Harvest, you can view outstanding invoices and see how many reminders you’ve sent to clients in the past.
4. They change expectations constantly
If a client doesn’t know what they want, but they want you to deliver something as quickly as possible, it’s likely that they operate in emergency mode — and they expect you to do the same.
Whether this is because they don’t have defined strategic objectives or vision statements, or their business model needs some work, internal struggles can impact your ability to produce the kind of deliverables you can be proud of. If they’re subjecting you to constant revisions, you could wind up absorbing the costs — which could result in subpar quality of work and antagonistic feelings.
5. Your team is disrespected
Negative attitudes in isolated incidents shouldn’t dictate a need for breaking up with a client, but if their regular behavior includes bullying or degrading your team in any way, that’s grounds for severing ties.
The best way to understand when enough is enough is to remain in constant communication with your employees throughout the project. Give them ample opportunity to flag bad behavior, and be sure to give your full attention to complaints that happen often. Failing to do so could result in a major culture shift that leaves your team feeling undervalued.
How to break up the right way
If you’ve come to the conclusion that the relationship can no longer move forward, use the following tips to do it respectfully and responsibly.
Check your contract first
Before you terminate your client relationship, make sure you can do it legally by reviewing the contract you have with them. If there are terms in place for this scenario, make sure you follow them.
Additionally, it’s usually best to end the relationship once the contract reaches its end instead of making the decision in the middle of it.
Finish outstanding projects
To keep it professional, wrap up any pending projects. Maintain your level of efficient task management and confirm which deliverables they still need, working with them to make sure they get what you agreed on without letting the situation deplete the quality of work.
Develop a plan
It’s important to have a strategy in place when parting ways with a client. Map out your talking points, including a thoughtful reason for why you’re ending the relationship. It might even help to practice these talking points ahead of time so you can be as clear and direct as possible.
When it’s time to break the news, you have a few options. You can send a professional email laying out your reasons, or you can set up a meeting if you’d rather tell them in person. Regardless of what you choose, stick to your plan while also being respectful and polite.
Be clear and concise
If you’re absolutely sure of your decision, let them know as professionally as possible that there isn’t room to negotiate. Lay out clearly what is happening and why — which could include giving a notice or final date of delivery.
To help with clarity, give your client as much information as possible, and support them by recommending other agencies you think they’d be interested in working with. They’ll appreciate that you’ve gone the extra mile to help them find alternatives.
While it’s never easy to break up with clients, sometimes it's necessary to stay true to your firm’s mission and goals. If you can identify the clients who aren’t worth your efforts early on and thoughtfully plan your exit strategy, you’ll be able to part ways with your company’s reputation and integrity intact.