At first, a client may have seemed like the perfect fit for your agency. However, people, budgets and goals change in business, and when these changes make you and your client misaligned, it may be the right time to “break up” with them.
Clients may be shocked or upset or angry about your decision, but there are ways to initiate a parting of the ways without burning bridges. Having your business’s expectations clearly stated in writing helps make this process go more smoothly because then it’s easy to point to places a client violated their contract.
To help you in this situation, a panel of Forbes Agency Council members shared some thoughts on how to respectfully “break up” with clients who aren’t a great fit for your agency.
1. Give Written Notice As Early As Possible
The best way to “break up” with a client without burning bridges is to make it easy for them to move forward without you. Give your clients formal written notice before the end of your services and ensure it will not interfere with any upcoming campaigns or launches if possible. From there, try to refer them to another person or agency who you feel would be a better fit to manage their account. – Adam Binder, Creative Click Media
2. Notify The Client Of Any Contractual Violations
Our agency is comprised entirely of women under age 30 (by chance, not intentional). We value safety and respect above all. Occasionally we will have a client make inappropriate advances. We have a non-confrontational discrete reminder that is then distributed to notify of contractual policy violations. If it is not respectful following the notice we will “break up” with the client. – Logan Rae, Argon Agency
3. Help Them Find Another Agency
If your goals or expectations are becoming too far apart, offering introductions to other agencies who may be a better fit can be an amicable and respectful way to end a relationship. Ultimately, most clients are simply looking out for their interests and the best outcomes — even if it is not always expressed this way. If you believe someone else can offer them that, it’s an easy transition. – Chris Martin, FlexMR
4. Use A Client Rating Matrix
We use a client rating matrix, where we assign a score for each client based on 12 success factors. With this system, it is easy for us to identify and articulate why the relationship is a bad fit. We try to be as helpful as possible during the break-up, pointing clients to resources, coaching them on hiring, even introducing them to other agencies/consultants when it makes sense. – Wendy Covey, TREW Marketing
5. Close Out The Client’s Projects First
It’s always difficult to break up with a client. We are always selective about who we work with, so when after the fact, a client becomes a poor fit, it’s frustrating. We want to establish deep, long-running relationships with everyone we work with. When we reach a tipping point, we ensure that we are simultaneously candid and helpful in closing out the project and finding a suitable replacement. – John Oates, JPO Digital
6. Be Honest And Professional
Two years ago, we decided that no matter how much we were getting paid, abusive clients would be asked to transition to other agencies. We detached ourselves from about 10 clients by explaining to them what we considered unprofessional, why we couldn’t work with them anymore and how to move to another agency. Most of them weren’t happy, but they appreciated the professional way we handled it. – Jayant Chaudhary, JLB USA
7. Communicate Expectations Clearly
Clear communication is essential in every relationship, including agency-client relationships. If you are thinking negatively about your client it is highly likely that your client is thinking the same thing. Initiating the conversation can help avoid resentment or anger, and move to a mutually beneficial separation. It is only in not having or waiting too long to have a conversation that we fail. – Justin Buckley, ATTN Agency
8. Give Them A Time Frame
If you want to let go of a client, just make it clear when you’re planning to make a move instead of making an abrupt about-face. However, you’re probably still not going to want to give them a firm deadline, especially in the first instance. Instead, give your client enough time to start thinking about what they’d like to do after they go. – Candice Georgiadis, Digital Agency, Inc
9. Have A Clearly Written Exit Clause
Sometimes it’s just good to change partners; this can be a healthy thing. People change. Missions change. For example, my firm was doing great work for a client, but due to a steady stream of duress, the client started to henpeck and show disrespect. I had an honest conversation with the CEO, but when things did not improve, I exercised our exit clause; however, I made sure to end on a high note. – Marie Swift, Impact Communications, Inc.
10. Avoid Assigning Blame
Terminating cooperation with a client is a minefield. To prevent any pitfalls for your brand’s reputation, have an open conversation with the client to see whether things can improve. If the talk doesn’t aid, be direct and present your viewpoints on the matter. Avoid pointing blame at either side and offer them an alternative to your services as jilting them mid-project is unprofessional. – Dejan Popovic, PopArt Studio
11. Ensure Your Team Has Clear Processes
The key to avoiding this is having a clear process for sales, discovery calls and onboarding. When we have had this situation in the past, we always focus on what could best serve the clients’ end goals and make it about a joint effort to find a solution that benefits them, first. No one benefits from a relationship that’s not working. – Vix Reitano, Agency 6B
12. Offer Alternative Options
We had a client who no-showed for meetings, asked for services outside our scope and was verbally abusive. On top of that, getting invoices paid was a nightmare. He recently reached out to re-engage with us, and my gut screamed NO WAY. I sent a polite email, letting him know that “unfortunately, we don’t work with groups like yours anymore” and offered to discuss alternative options with him. – Beth Noymer Levine, SmartMouth Communications
13. Speak From A Position Of Support And Care
Offer them an alternative. There must be a reason you aren’t the right fit, but you probably know someone who can help them better. Send them their way. Client breakups aren’t that tough if you are always coming from the position of support and care. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS