It’s Not Me, It’s You! When to Break Up With a Client

Just like personal relationships, some professional relationships work out. And some don’t.

Professional ones tend to involve fewer romantic dinners, gifts and love notes than the intimate kind (usually) but – just like them – if it all seems too difficult, it’s not working.

Sometimes you have to accept things won’t change and walk away and that’s OK.

break up with a client

It can be hard to do though, especially in the first few years of working for yourself.

When you’re self-employed and you only get paid when you work, if there’s work (and money) on the table it feels wrong to turn it down. But, just like in your love life, sometimes it has to be done. [I mean the finishing the relationship bit, not accepting money for services rendered]

Here are a few myths to help you work out when it’s time to ‘sack’ a client:

MYTH #1 If you do the first job for free, your client will pay you in the future. Success is just around the corner after all (or so they say).

If they ask you to work for free they’re not running a serious business and they’re not taking you seriously either. So unless you really want their name on your portfolio, or to gain experience of that type of work, or it’s a cause you believe in and want to help, politely turn them down. You’re in business after all.

MYTH #2 Things will suddenly click into place even though they were hard in the beginning.

They won’t. If he doesn’t do it when you start dating, he sure isn’t going to start putting the loo seat down at some point in the future. And it’s the same with clients kind of. If people are hard to talk to, hard to pin down, or hard to work with for any other reason, things aren’t necessarily going to get easier as time passes.

But maybe you ain’t never gonna feel this way,
You ain’t never gonna know me, but I know you,
I’m singing it now,

Things can only get better
Can only get better if we see it through

– mmmm, not necessarily

You might discover a great way of working together and put down any issues to teething problems. But, in my experience, things won’t change. We’re all on our best behaviour at the beginning of any relationship and contrary to what D:REAM says, things can get worse too.

MYTH #3 Once you’ve invested lots of time, effort or emotion you should keep going until it pays off.

There’s a concept in behavioural economics called The Fallacy of Sunk Costs, which lots of us fall foul of in our work and personal lives. ‘Sunk costs’ are the emotion, time, money or effort you invest into something. They’re sunk – meaning you can’t get them back – but you/we/humans make irrational choices based on our previous behaviour, instead of basing decisions on realistic expectations about the future.

For example, if you’re £500 down, or you’ve done a week of work for free, or sent out 100s of free samples to a prospective client, you make decisions about the future hoping that your investment will come back to you. But if someone has messed you around for ages, the chances are that what will actually happen is that you’ll keep spending money, working for free, or sending out free samples. You have to accept that whatever you’ve spent or given is gone, cut your losses and move on.

Sunk costs lead to irrational decision making

It explains all sorts of decisions from the big ones (‘I’ve given her 20 years of my life’) to the less significant ones, like why we carry on standing in queues we’ve been in for an inordinately long time already. The time, the money, the years of your life are gone forever, so they shouldn’t form the basis of your decision making. It’s a bit like the gambler who spends more and more trying to win back her losses. That money is gone.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in building client relationships or anything else, of course you should. But try not to make decisions purely because you want to recoup your sunk costs, ignoring all the evidence that says things aren’t going to change.

I’m a bit of a geek (at the weekend I was told I have geek chic style – I think they were probably being kind) and find behavioural economics fascinating. If you do too you might enjoy these blogs:

How to Make Your Copy More Convincing (With the Appliance of Science): a brief look at Daniel Kahneman’s riveting findings about human behaviour to help you write more persuasively.
A Steep Learning Curve: some of what I learnt during the first three years of being self-employed, with a reference to the fallacy of sunk costs and other useful concepts.
You Don’t Make it Rain by Carrying an Umbrella: another of my favourite theories – correlation vs. causation – and some advice on doing what causes success, not emulating the results of success.

Please don’t think I go around arrogantly turning clients away every week, I don’t. I do it reluctantly and rarely – but if I have to do it I will and I’d encourage you to as well.

There’s another useful concept in economics called opportunity cost, which is basically that when you give time to a project or client you can’t spend that time doing something else. Yet sometimes it would be better for your business and kinder to yourself to break up with a client and make yourself available for someone who’s a better fit.

I hope this helps you spot when that might be the case.

Thanks for reading!


2 thoughts on “It’s Not Me, It’s You! When to Break Up With a Client

  1. In a previous business, I would review my client list every year and find the one that cost more than I made from them. It’s the 80/20 principle: 80% of your money comes from 20% of your clients. The others you can keep it they have potential … or if working with them makes you happy. But there are always a couple that, when you receive their email or phone call, you groan. Those are the ones you can gently or firmly disconnect from.

  2. Hi Eileen,
    That sounds like a really good way of handling clients that aren’t going to help you grow your business. The 80:20 rule never fails.
    I find that these days I can tell pretty quickly if things aren’t going to work. I recently had an enquiry from a company across the pond who wanted lots of advice on a landing page. My instinct said, just from the way they wrote that first email, that they wouldn’t become a client but I was more than happy to advise them. Then they asked me to do some work for free, I said that’s not my policy, and I’ve never heard from them again!


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