Breaking up with a client: how and when to cut the cord

Breaking up with clients–agencies or direct clients–is sometimes painful, but it’s a necessary part of a thriving freelance business: if a client treats you poorly, a breakup is a must. If you’re ready to move on to better-paying or more interesting work, a breakup may be in your best interest. Whatever the case, you want to think ahead of time about how to end the relationship in a way that leaves you feeling like you did the right thing. Let’s dig in.

When to cut things off right away
In some situations, you don’t want to worry about diplomacy or sugar-coating or not burning bridges: you just want the client out of your life. These include:

  • A client who does not pay you, or who unilaterally reduces your payment
  • A client who unfairly criticizes your work
  • A client who treats you in a way that feels abusive or harassing

In those cases, just cut the cord. “Effective immediately, please remove me from your roster of available freelancers. Please do not contact me for future assignments with your company. Thank you.” That’s it; you don’t need to say more than that.

When to give the client an ultimatum
In some situations, the client has just one problematic behavior. Perhaps they always pay in 60 days rather than 30. Perhaps they check in with you six times a day during a project. Perhaps they try to downwardly negotiate your rate when you’ve been firm about what your rate is. In those cases, it’s worth giving the client one more chance, but that chance must come in the form of an ultimatum that you are willing to stand by. Such as:

“Thank you for contacting me about this project. As I’ve mentioned before, your company has repeatedly paid me more than 30 days after the agreed-upon due date on my invoices. I value my relationship with you, but my payment terms are net 30, not net 60. I am willing to take on this project, but if I do not receive your payment within 30 days, I will not accept work from you in the future unless you pay in advance. Thank you.”

“Thank you for contacting me about this project. As we’ve discussed, my base rate is X cents per word. To save your time and mine, you don’t need to contact me for projects for which your budget is less than that amount. If this happens again, I will have to ask you to remove me from your roster of available freelancers. Thank you.”

“But they’re such nice people!” The worst reason for sticking with a client
If you, like me, have a bit of a doormat streak when it comes to breaking up with clients for purely economic reasons, stop what you’re doing and read this blog post by Carol Tice, on her blog Make a Living Writing (but it applies to translators too).

In this post, Carol mercilessly dissects the misplaced loyalty that a lot of freelancers have toward their clients–clients who don’t pay well, but are “such nice people.” She’s better at giving tough-love advice than I am, so I’ll quote her here:

“Don’t delude yourself that nice people who underpay you are still good clients. They’re not. They are sucking the life out of your business and putting your freelance writing business at risk of failure.”

That’s pretty blunt, but I agree: if you’re sticking with low-paying clients out of a sense of loyalty, you’re being loyal to the wrong side of the equation. You’re valuing your relationship with a low-paying client over your own financial security, your kids’ future, and your relationship with the people in your life who depend on you. That’s who you should really be loyal to–and that means working only with clients who will pay what you need or want to earn.

When to be eternally unavailable
Sometimes, breaking up with a client is unnecessary. In my experience the #1 reason that freelance translators or interpreters want to break up with a client is because they’ve moved on to work that pays better, is more interesting, or both. And that’s what should be happening over the lifecycle of your freelance business.

Before you write the breakup e-mail, as yourself if it’s necessary. With a direct client, it may be; most direct clients are not going to wait for you to turn them down 15 times before they find another translator. With agency clients, you may be able to just dodge their inquiries–or only accept their projects once in a while–while keeping the door open to working with them if you have a slow period or lose a major client. As an example, I know at least two translators who have taken in-house assignments that kept them busy full-time for six months or more. They decided that rather than burn bridges with their agency clients, they would simply respond, “Thanks for contacting me about this project; unfortunately I’m not available, but please keep me on your list!” And it worked; those agency clients enthusiastically sent work once those translators were available again. The same technique would probably not work with direct clients, but agencies (hopefully) have other translators to choose from.

Unilateral rate raises: make sure you mean it
Another situation that falls on the spectrum of client breakups is unilateral rate raises; when you inform a client, “As of January 1, my base rate will increase to X.” This is a fine–if abrupt–technique, as long as you mean it. As long as you are willing to stop working with the client if they won’t agree to the increased rate.

Problems arise when you backpedal. Let’s say the client responds, “Thanks for letting us know. That’s outside our budget for your language pair, so we won’t be able to work with you anymore. Just let us know if you change your mind.” That’s not at all out of the question, so envision that situation before you send the e-mail. The issue is that if you backpedal, the client knows that you were bluffing all along; it’s completely legitimate to tell a client that you are busy all the time at your increased rate, so you won’t have room for them in your schedule if they can’t pay more. But you really don’t want to pull a “just kidding” with a client once you’ve put a higher rate out there.

Annoyance fees: also worth considering
Another common situation is high-maintenance clients–clients who pay well and pay on time, but who take up a disproportionate amount of your time with phone calls and e-mails and special requests that exceed the bounds of what would normally be expected in a freelancer-client relationship. If you hate working with these types of clients, don’t do it. Life is too short and your time is too limited to work with clients who cause you to cringe every time their number pops up on your caller ID. However, another option, particularly with direct clients, is to find a way to charge the client enough that the annoyance is worthwhile.

I speak from personal experience when I say that this technique can work with clients whose budgets are ample and whose need for personal attention is high. For example, you might tell the client that your rate includes one five-minute phone call per day, and all additional phone calls will be billed at your regular hourly rate, in 15-minute increments. If you read this and think, “My clients would never, in a million years, agree to that,” I say, simply, “Try it.” If your direct clients work with attorneys or accountants or auditors, those people do not sit on the phone for 45 minutes without charging for it, and neither should you.

Readers, over to you: have you broken up with a client recently? Let us know how it went!

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8 Responses to “Breaking up with a client: how and when to cut the cord”
  1. Martha Macias August 27, 2018
    • Corinne McKay August 28, 2018
  2. Berit August 28, 2018
    • Corinne McKay August 28, 2018
  3. Daniele Heinen August 28, 2018
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  4. EP September 1, 2018
    • Corinne McKay September 4, 2018

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