No one likes being dumped, passed on, or told they’re “not a fit.” And breaking up with someone is no party either. Unless you’re a raving sadist, causing pain or discomfort in someone else feels bad, too. And just as anyone who falls in love may reach a teary end, anyone who seeks to get into business with someone may soon end up looking to get out. It happens. The more graciously and maturely you can handle the parting of ways with a client, the better off you’ll be.
Take it from me, someone who has had many actual breakups, and who maintains a healthy number of positive relationships with people I formerly dated. With time, care, and respect, I have been able to cultivate supportive, loving friendships with people I’m no longer involved with romantically. What can I say? They’re good guys. Which is why I liked them in the first place.
I’ve also had plenty of professional relationships that came to an end—some I saw coming, some were bittersweet and for the best, and some happened swiftly and sharply and I had no idea what happened. And in all cases, I have made sure that I didn’t burn bridges or do anything I would regret.
I talked about this on a recent episode of my new show, “Solopreneur” on the Whatever It Takes Network, after having a heartfelt discussion with a friend I’ll call Jen who had been trying to rekindle a friendship with a former client, whom I’ll call Marie. Jen had moved away and any efforts she’d made to be in touch fell flat. Marie simply had not and would not respond.
Jen took this hard herself. She hated that they couldn’t be friends—after all, what was Marie gaining by not being in touch? Fact is, Marie had felt betrayed and even abandoned by her. Period. And she wasn’t ready now, or maybe ever, to move beyond that ending point to recover the great camaraderie they used to have.
I feel bad for Jen, but I feel worse for Marie—simply because Marie’s shortsightedness and hurtfulness don’t protect her from future pain, and limit her future relationships, because her reputation, of being cold and distant after you’re no longer helping her out, will bite her.
The world can become an uncomfortably small place if you must alienate and shut off anyone and everyone things don’t work out with. And the level of your professionalism is partly dictated by how civil and gracious you can be with people with whom you no longer do business.
So here’s what to bear in mind if and when you and a client part ways:
Don’t leave on a bad note. The last thing you want is for someone to walk away with a bad taste in their mouth about you. Of course, if you ended something they didn’t want to end, you realize that person may need to be angry to recover. But do your best to be gracious and kind. And if you’re the one who’s feeling chastened by it all, you can be honest without being grudgy, sulky, or nasty. It just ain’t worth it, trust me.
You can’t be friends right away. Doesn’t work for boyfriends, girlfriends, clients, bosses. If you can be, it’s rare indeed. Let there to be some space and time before you talk. You want to be able to gain your footing and allow the other person to regain theirs.
I did a test project with a new client a few months ago. I had high hopes and things were looking great. I didn’t work with her directly, however; I worked with her team. Everything seemed to be going along swimmingly. Then, the client pulled the plug on it; no explanation given. I felt the way you do when you’ve dumped by a new prospect and you don’t know why. But I knew this much: I can’t produce great stuff with a client who heads for ze hills when something isn’t working. It was no wonder they had gone through so many writers.
The client sent me a nice, handwritten card a few months later, expressing regret that “things didn’t work out.” And I still have no idea what happened! I appreciate the effort, and will return a note. When I feel ready to do that.
Lick your wounds privately. When I’m feeling stung, I share my rantings with a very close and select group of people—and I strongly advise you to do the same. No raging on Facebook, no snarking on Twitter. Do not process this loss, betrayal, or frustration publicly. Because you cannot take it back. Be careful of sharing your recent disappointment and anger too quickly with people you don’t know—especially within your industry. Bad news travels fast, and if word gets out that you were badmouthing that person, chances are they’ll hear it, and you could make business harder for yourself later. Also, bear in mind the power of gossip to backfire on the teller: Even if they love you at the cocktail party, they may think twice about hiring you themselves.
Reach out from a place of good will, not need. A kind, gracious gesture after some reasonable amount of time has passed (maybe six months, maybe a year). Send a card, maybe a small treat around the holidays or an email on their birthday, with a note that simply says that you miss them and will always be proud of the work you did together. If there was some hurt that you partly caused, say so, but mainly wish them well.
The caveat is this: Be honest about your intention. If you need something from that person, or are attempting to correct the record on your reputation, that’s a bad idea. You certainly can’t make someone like you again, especially if being cool toward you is part of what that person needs to get beyond it. You may not ever recapture what you had. You may not get a response. And that’s okay. It’s the mark of a true professional to be able to take the high road, to thank a person for what was, and wish them well. Because there’s a good chance you could run into them again, and your conscience will be clean.