How To Break Up With A Client Without Burning The Bridge

If you end the relationship in the right way, you may be able to keep the door open for future business.

How To Break Up With A Client Without Burning The Bridge
[Photo: Flickr user Sylvain Moreau]

Selling and providing good service to customers is essential for any business to be viable in the long term. After the time and hard work it often takes to close a sale, the thought of “breaking up” with a customer may seem counterintuitive.


But, sometimes, doing so is the best move for your business, says customer service and business consultant Chip Bell, author of Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service. There are several reasons a customer might not be a good fit after all:

  • Your work styles or values might be different
  • The customer might not be returning on investment
  • Your company may have outgrown the customer
  • The customer might be abusive to your employees
  • Customer demands might be too great or a bad fit for your capabilities
  • You might have temporary differences

“Sometimes, it’s best to just part ways. But sometimes, there may be an opportunity to work together again in the future,” Bell says.

That has proven true for Kyle Arteaga, CEO of The Bulleit Group, a San Francisco-based public relations firm. His firm, which works with companies like Google and LinkedIn, had landed a large technology client that he declines to name. Arteaga’s team worked on a program that ended up being different than what the client wanted. Realizing that the depth of the program the client wanted wasn’t a good fit for his team’s capabilities, he chose to resign the account rather than prolonging the parting, which was how he predicted it would end. He resolved to do whatever it took to make a smooth transition. He says that because he ended the relationship amicably and ethically, he now does three times the business with different business units within the same company.

So, how do you go about making the break without burning the bridge? Follow these steps.

Determine Whether There’s A Fix

You’re not in business to fire clients, so first look closely to see if the problems can be fixed, says strategic planning and sales consultant Meredith Elliott Powell. Explore the areas of friction and determine whether the problem lies with them or with your team. If you’re seeing problems crop up repeatedly, it might be an indication that your company needs to do some self-examination or improvement, she says. It’s one thing if an abusive customer is out of line, but it’s another problem if you have an employee who routinely clashes with customers. So, start with a bit of introspection.


Get In Front Of The Problem

If you wait until the client is at its breaking point, it’s likely that you’re going to close the door for good. It’s important to address the problems up front, Powell says. Unless the break is caused by some egregious behavior, your “breakup” conversation shouldn’t be the first time the client has an indication that the relationship isn’t going smoothly, she says.

State The Issues Clearly And Calmly

Once you’ve decided to part ways, commit to having a caring, compassionate conversation in person or over the phone, Bell says. This isn’t the time for email messages or texts. It might help to list your reasons and have them in front of you so you say what you need to say. Include a clear statement of the problems and why you feel they can’t be resolved. Frame the conversation in terms of the client needs and why it’s a better decision to part ways, Powell says. That way, they know you’ve got their best interests in mind, she adds.

If the conversation starts to get heated or emotional, don’t engage, Powell says. Keep your cool and end it if you feel that the exchange has veered from professional and fact-based to personal and emotion-based.


End With Your Resolution

Sometimes, your resolution to the problem is to simply end the relationship, but it’s typically not a good idea to leave abruptly if you’re initiating the breakup, especially if doing so hurts the client, Bell says. If you have a contractual agreement, be sure you’ve read it over and are fulfilling any requirements, such as giving written notice a certain number of days in advance, which could be easily overlooked. Complete the work to which you’ve committed and have a plan for any financial resolution that may need to happen, such as refunding a prepayment.

In Arteaga’s case, he had a wide network of contacts and offered to help the client find a new agency to ease the transition. While he wasn’t obligated to do so, he knew the client could be a good fit for another agency. The referral would help the client and generate goodwill with a colleague—two benefits that made the referral worth it.

Keep The Door Open

If you truly want to work with the client in the future, there’s nothing wrong with saying that and expressing your interest in staying in touch. If you’ve done a good job of helping the client understand that parting ways for now is in the company’s best interest, then it might be a good idea to be clear about that option, Bell says. But make that decision based on the tenor of the conversation, and only if it’s a positive exchange. Otherwise, wait a month or two and reach out with a helpful piece of information or an article that may be of interest so you keep in touch.

“If this is a customer you think can be a good fit in the future, offer to stay in touch. Particularly in the B2B, professional-services area, where you don’t typically have millions of customers, follow up to keep the door open,” Bell says.


About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites