Breaking up with a problem client


O.L. writes:

I have been in a branding project with a client for about four months now. I struggle to even write that. I generated dozens of concepts, made tons of revisions, often with two weeks of silence in between, and have had enough. We're supposed to work on a business card project after we finalize the visual identity, but I cannot do it. I have reached my limit. How do I break up with a client? How do I say - thanks for the good times, but I've had enough?

I feel your pain and I've learned these same disheartening lessons before. Sometimes you have to hit a low point before you can truly realize your time, skills, and business are worth so much more than this!

Breaking up with a client is not an easy decision. And while I believe that a lot of people nowadays are overly fire-happy with their clients, I don't believe this is something you've considered lightly. I believe that firmly redefining the boundaries and putting a clear end date to this project is the best course of action for your own mental and creative health!

Now for the approach. On the one hand, you can certainly be unapologetically definitive that this is the end of your arrangement. I get the feeling, however, that you're not looking to burn a bridge. And if you were considering it, I would caution against it -- even bad clients who were impossible to work with have the potential to be advocates for your business, or at the very least, neutral about it! For me, I always take the polite yet firm approach. And in this instance, I would also consider refunding part or all of their business card design fees as a sign of good will. Mind you, I don't think they deserve it, and goodness knows you earned every penny of it and then some. I would simply consider what you can offer them to take the edge off on their side too...IF you think it will help. 

Here's some suggested wording I might use in this situation:

Dear Client,

I wanted to write you with an update on our current project status and clarify a change in the next steps for this project. When we first started back in [insert date here], we had planned for an end date in [previously agreed upon date here], after which point we would transition your completed visual identity into a business card design. But due to the unexpectedly prolonged timeline for the branding, and my previously scheduled commitments to my other clients, I simply do not have the space to continue on with the business card design once we finalize the identity design process.

I remain fully committed to guiding your project to a successful end, and once we have a completed visual identity (scheduled to be finished by [new date here]), I would be happy to assist you in finding an equally talented designer to take what we've worked on together and bring it full circle in your business card.

As a gesture of good will, I can refund the $XXX business card design cost ASAP. Please let me know if there is anything else you would like to discuss!


Your Name


It's not overtly break-uppy, but I think it gets the point across, offers an alternative solution, and if you choose to refund, gives you a very clear road out because you no longer have their money for this portion of the job anyway. I can't promise any particular reaction or response, but at least you'll have taken a step in the right direction in getting yourself out of a very draining scenario.

Have you broken up with a problem client before? How did you handle the situation and what could you share with others who are in a similar situation now?