Though romantic relationships are often touted as the most painful and difficult dynamics of all (thanks emotions), business partnerships aren’t exactly easy, either. Especially for freelancers who must rely on their connections, communication and network to funnel their income, having positive — and fruitful! — client partnerships. This makes identifying a toxic situation stressful since the concept of walking away from money on the table can be terrifying when you rely on yourself and your own resources, without the backing of a company. Even so, when you endure a problemsome, time-consuming project, it can take away your mental clarity, energy and creativity from other potential opportunities.
In the spirit of organizing, decluttering and strategizing your work to remain relevant, challenge yourself to identify those contracts that perhaps aren’t worth the effort. “A toxic client affects all levels of your business. Breaking the ties will often feel like newfound freedom. Now that you no longer are dedicating endless hours managing this client, you’ll have much more time in your day to pursue new leads,” explains career expert, entrepreneur and speaker, Mandy Gilbert. “You have more time to spend on clients who are great to work with. This will only propel your career and company forward.”
With the additional time to pitch new prospects and double-down on those assignments that motivate you, the rest of your year will suddenly feel wide open and fresh, filled with possibility. Here, a guide to having “the talk” with a client — without burning a bridge:
Why having positive client relationships matter
Most people go into business for themselves to enrich their day-to-day life. They want to be happier, more fulfilled, have flexibility and a better balance of personal and professional endeavors. So when a demanding, underpaying client threatens to strip away your sense of peace? It can be jarring to say the least.
In addition to your sanity, career and branding expert Wendi Weiner says a functioning client relationship is important because, well, it’s the lifeline of your business. “You want it to be a long-term relationship that builds rapport, consistency, and a referral base. A positive client relationship can bring you more clients down the road at a faster pace, and also it can help maintain the ebbs and flows of work for your business,” she continues. If your roster of 1099s isn’t creating the flow and the experience you want, it’s time to address what’s worth it — and what’s definitely not.
Signs you’re in a toxic situation
Most people know when the relationship they once had is turning sour, but they aren’t prepared to accept it. The same can be said in terms of clients and contractors: what started as a positive experience has slowly and surely become taxing. Though you can probably read the snark between the email lines, being brave enough to cut ties is a taller order. If you’re still on the fence about the toxicity level of your working relationship, here are a few key indicators.
1. Their communication style has changed.
Leadership speaker and coach Dom Faussette explains when a relationship is on its way out the door, the ease of communication will be the first to go. The moment you notice something off or contrasting the original interactions, it’s time to take note.
“There may come a time when your client starts speaking to you in a tone that wasn’t there in the beginning of your relationship,” he explains. Even though addressing the awkward exchange will be, well, awkward, Faussette suggests the “start-stop continuum” to check in on the pulse of the project. This means asking them if there’s anything you can start doing, stop doing or continue to do. If they aren’t receptive or nothing changes? You know it’s time to rethink the future.
2. You’re working all the time — but nothing is good enough.
Remember that straight-up corporate gig you had that pushed you all the way to the extreme and inspired you to work for yourself? How about the anxiety that came with high-pressure stakes and a dysfunctional manager? Here’s the deal: Though you’re a contractor now, those same feelings can bubble up if you’re in a toxic client situation, according to Gilbert. This happens when you’re expected to work 24/7 and your boundaries are never respected, causing you to always feel on the edge — and less than stellar about your performance.
“You feel stressed and anxious every time you see their name pop up in your inbox, or their number calling on your phone. It’s consuming you emotionally,” she continues. “Nothing you do is ever good enough. Even when you reach your targets or garner sales, they’re constantly criticizing your work.”
3. You don’t see eye-to-eye.
…And more so, you can’t find a middle way to express. Sure, they’re hiring you for a job, but you’re the expert here. When you lack the ability to express edits, discuss timelines and better articulate brand messaging or blogs, it’s tough to move forward.
“If you and the client are not seeing eye-to-eye on the project, or there are miscommunications along the way where you cannot come to a mutual compromise and agreement, this may mean the relationship is not working and it’s best to break up,” Weiner shares. “You feel embittered working together. Perhaps you are feeling the project’s scope and boundaries are being exceeded, and the client feels he/she is not getting the benefit of what he/she paid for. With that type of gridlock, it’s no longer effective, positive, or fostering the results you want.”
How to break up effectively — and professionally
If any of these signs are present with a client, the road to a break-up is inevitable. To put yourself out on a limb to cease the contract, it’s vital to maintain your professional composure. Even if you don’t intend on working with this client again, protecting your reputation will ensure a recommendation, if needed, in the future. Take these measures to separate yourself:
1. Keep it in writing.
Depending on how long you’ve been on their payroll or the nature of your connection, you may choose to have an in-person meeting or a quick phone call to break up. Whichever way you decide to go, Gilbert stresses the importance of a summary email after the exchange so you have a solid paper trail.
Though it could have been a charged conversation, the actual nitty-gritty should be straightforward and business-first. “When you’ve reached the point where enough’s enough, draft an email that directly states you will no longer be working them and the effective date this will take place,” she continues. “Keep the emotion out of it.”
2. Take the high road.
No matter the situation, no one likes to be dumped. It feels personal. It threatens confidence. And it can be hurtful. Gilbert warns that some clients may take the news poorly, resulting in name-calling and unprofessional behavior. It can be tempting to have a verbal battle here — but as your mom told you — take the high road, always. “Whatever happens, do not engage. Their behavior will speak volumes, and only solidify you made the right decision,” Gilbert adds.
3. Be open and transparent that it isn’t a match…
… And explain why. Weiner says it’s perfectly okay — and expected — to end business relationships sometimes as long as you are honest about what went wrong. The shift might not come as a surprise to your client, and together, you should be able to create a roadmap for next steps, especially in terms of deliverables and finances. “Be sure to discuss the ways to end the project,” Weiner shares. “If the client has paid for work you have yet to deliver, you would want to consider giving them a prorated refund.”
4. Provide the client with a new referral.
If you really want to smooth the brunt of the breakup, Weiner suggests recommending someone else to step in. After all, toxic relationships can be caused by the clash of personalities or styles, and not necessarily because the client is impossible to deal with.
“If the client has received the benefit of your work, but perhaps they are not happy with the end product, be open to discussing the recommendations for them moving forward with another contractor/vendor. The idea is to part ways in a civil manner with as little gridlock as possible, but also provide them with a resolution of how they can move forward and suggested contacts to reach out to,” Weiner continues. “Sometimes you may not have been a good match for one another, but a mutual contact of yours is a better fit.”