By Alyssa Gregory

How to Cut Ties without Burning Bridges

By Alyssa Gregory

FireI’m not a fan of the term “firing a client” for two reasons. First, it’s way too reminiscent of an employer/employee relationship for my comfort. And second, it implies a negative and potentially awkward situation. This doesn’t have to be the case because “firing a client” – or “firing a provider” for that matter – can simply mean acknowledging a mismatch between provider and client and taking action to improve the situation for both parties.

If the precipitating factor for ending the relationship is lack of payment on the part of the client, or unprofessionalism and misrepresentation of skill on the part of the provider, it’s best to acknowledge the challenges, take action to resolve any open issues and agree to move on (professionally, of course).

If the desire to end the relationship stems from personality differences, scheduling challenges, or an honest mismatch between the client’s needs and the provider’s experience, ending the relationship doesn’t need to mean cutting ties and walking away. There is a lot that can be gained from taking time to explore the specific reasons for the discord and offer a solution that will benefit both parties.


It’s normal for some relationships not to work out, both in business and in life. And it’s understandable when you consider how unique we all are, that we all make mistakes, and sometimes our desire for a relationship to work out just can’t conquer certain challenges. If a non-working relationship in business is due to an issue that is unique to the parties involved, the good news is that it can be corrected and even provide new benefits to both parties.

Ideally, both parties will be able to discuss the situation and work to find a solution for the problem that will allow them to continue to work together. But that’s not always possible. If the relationship is simply counterproductive for both parties, it may be time to move on. And here are some actions to consider before ending the relationship completely.

Outsource the Work

One of the best ways to correct a client/provider mismatch, especially if the relationship has potential, is by outsourcing the work to another provider. This allows you to maintain a relationship with the client, continue to receive some compensation for the work, and ensure that the client’s needs are met successfully. If it’s feasible in your situation, this option has the potential to create a strong bond with the client based on mutual respect and your obvious desire to see the client happy.

Bring in a Third-Party

If the issue stems from personality or communication challenges and the work quality is not in question, a simple correction may be bringing in a third-party to facilitate communication. This person could be a colleague of yours, or another representative from the client’s organization. The key is to recognize that the problem is unique to you and the client and that you are still the best fit for the job. Then it’s simply a matter of switching up the contacts to make sure the project can continue.

Make a Referral

Sometimes, for whatever reason, two parties just can’t continue to work together. If this is the case, instead of ending the relationship and turning your back, consider referring the client to a colleague who may be better suited to complete the work and interact with the client. Not only will this give you an opportunity to support a colleague, but it will also show your professionalism by keeping the focus on making sure the client’s needs are met. This can have many benefits long after the fact, including being referred to others by the client and strengthen a collaborative relationship with a colleague.

Have you ever been in this situation? What was the best solution for you?

Image credit: Miguel Saavedra

  • Pam – Ryvon Designs

    Great thoughts :) I always worry about referring if it really is just one of those “bad” clients….do I want to hand them over to someone else and end up burning THAT bridge? I hold all other creatives in high respect, so often I try to ask if they want me to refer such a client to them before I actually do. Occasionally they say sure, but not always. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on referring..

  • pixielated

    Excellent topic. There is that fourth sort of client–the one for whom you simply don’t enjoy doing work, or whose business type simply doesn’t jibe with the rest of your work/client list. When it comes to “Grin-and-Bill-It” clients, I think the best thing is to simply let them know you’ve concluded over time that the fit isn’t quite right, and that you’d both be better off by seeking other opportunities. Never just walk away, though. It’s simply not professional. One approach might be to refer them to a public forum where they can search for just the right service provider for their creative needs. For design services, they might try commarts.com, aiga.com or a similar, local web forum. In the end, they will likely appreciate your honest and thoughtful approach–especially if they find a great new partner within one of the forums you recommend.

  • Thanks for the post Alyssa. I guess if you’ve been around long enough you eventually run into clients that just don’t fit. I think sometimes we know before we take the job that the client is not going to be easy to deal with. With the dollar signs flashing we sometimes take the job anyway, just to have what we thought would happen, happen. I’ve been in that position and made my mind up one day that I would just not take these clients on anymore and refer them to someone else instead. It’s easier to dodge the train if you see it coming.

  • Leonard

    I’m a client wondering when do you decide that my developer is just not that into me. I’m working on a Buddypress integration with the author who’s currently writing the book, “Buddypress for Dummies.” She’s the authority as far as I’m concerned.

    She’s done some preliminary work to include an install and some header work, but that was four weeks ago. Now, I can’t get her to respond to my emails. Her assistants assure me that she’s had server issues and she’ll get back to me. That was nearly two weeks ago.

    Is there a protocol on the web for communication as there is in the brick and mortar world?

  • argosmedia

    Leonard, that seems to be just a matter of bad communication by the developer, and has probably nothing to do with being ‘into each other’. There is no protocol for for online communication. You just have a business agreement with someone, and that someone doesn’t seem to deliver or communicate. It’s a general business/communication problem, and you just have to put some more pressure on her, and eventually withdraw from her, or even take financial and/or legal action if it takes too long for you.

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