Go your own way: How to break up with a vendor

Breaking up, as they say, is hard to do. And it’s even harder when it’s breaking up with someone in the professional sense. The good news is, whether it’s a website project that’s rolling in the deep or an advertising firm that’s lost that loving feeling, there are some ways of fighting clean while still underscoring the fact that you are never, ever, ever getting back together. Read on for our tips on the right way to say goodbye.
Breaking up is hard to do. Especially when it's with a vendor. How to fight clean, even if you are never, ever, ever getting back together. Share on X

Believe (in your terms of agreement)

Before you start to say “It ain’t me, babe,” make sure you know exactly what your contract stipulates as the terms of ending your agreement. For most short-term projects, such as a website redevelopment, one standard is to pay for any work done in excess of the initial deposit(s) at an hourly or daily rate. For long-term retainer contracts, there may be an initial commitment (such as 6 months or one year) followed by a month-to-month agreement that can be terminated with a certain notice period. Knowing exactly where the borders are for your particular relationship will help you to strategize an exit plan that leaves everyone on good terms.
If you don’t have these terms in place, consider how much you’ve already paid your vendor, how much work they have done that has yet to be paid for, and how much work is left within the scope of your overall agreement. This will help you to figure out a fee that you can agree to in order to compensate whatever unpaid work they have completed.

How can you mend a broken contract?

Sometimes the terms outlined in your letter of agreement are meant to be broken: If there are extenuating circumstances on either side of the agreement, you may be able to negotiate out of your contract with a shorter notice period or before the initial agreement period has expired. If the reason for this exit is on your vendor, outline very clearly and dispassionately the reasons that their work has not met your standards. Were deadlines missed? Are platforms agreed to in the scope of work not being used? Is the quality of work not living up to what was promised?
Catalogue both the quantifiable and qualifiable issues, as well as any paper trail you have on these issues. You should try to use all rounds of feedback allotted to you in order to try and get the work up to standard — sometimes your wants and your vendor’s vision get confused in translation and it only takes a few clarifying points to get everyone on the same page. And remember that if email isn’t getting your point across, you may need to switch to phone calls or even an in-person meeting.
If the reason for this exit is on you, such as a sudden loss of funding or a change in personnel, realize that you are at the mercy of your vendor. Again, approach them with an overview of the situation that factors out emotion. Acknowledge that this goes against the terms of agreement, and then ask what sort of consideration can be made in terms of timeline. If this is an amicable breakup and a relationship you would like to revisit in the future, your vendor will most likely make some concession in order to accommodate your needs.

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You oughta know (why, that is)

As mentioned before, documenting exactly why you wish to part ways with your vendor is going to be the foundation of a successful exit strategy. Even if you’re not breaking the terms of a contact, you should know why the time has come to say goodbye. Is it the quality of work, or lack thereof? Is it financial reasons? Was there a change in staff on their side that affected your relationship? Is there a change in staff on your side that will affect the relationship? Write down the reasons, and find the least emotional way of presenting them. As personal as these relationships can start to feel, this is ultimately business and should be treated as such (though adding some kindness to the mix is always a good idea).

Do speak

As tough as the breakup conversation is to have, it has to be had. Plain and simple. This is why knowing the precise reason for ending the relationship is helpful — this intention can serve as your touchpoint if you get nervous or if the vendor becomes defensive. Clearly outline the issues in a matter-of-fact manner, explain that you are choosing to end your agreement either per the terms of your contract or with request for a special exemption from those terms, and thank them for their work thus far (even if it wasn’t what you were looking for, it’s important to acknowledge that they took as much a chance on working with you as you did with them).
Hopefully this isn’t the first feedback-driven conversation you’ve had with your vendor, so it won’t come as a huge shock. Taking the collaborative relationship one step at a time gives both sides a chance to get on the same page with expectations.

Don’t fall to pieces

One great way of keeping things from getting too emotional on the part of your vendor is to acknowledge your own responsibility in the relationship. Unless they’ve done something totally out of line (read: illegal or immoral), then chances are there’s something you can own up to in order to help your vendor realize and accept that this wasn’t the best fit for either party.
It’s also a good idea to find one praiseworthy element of your vendor’s work in order to help them see that this isn’t a personal attack on their work. Were they timely with deliverables, even if the quality wasn’t up to snuff? Did they try to work with you on codifying feedback? Call them out for it.

Plan the last goodbye

Outlining the specific next steps for your breakup will help to guide the end of your working relationship to its logical conclusion. Most likely you will both have loose ends to tie up over a set period, be it a week or a month. Make sure they give you every login credential that you may need if a project is being taken over internally or by another firm, and that you’ve changed all passwords once your vendor no longer needs access. If there are design or creative assets that you own from the initial phase of the project, get those in hand and make sure you know exactly what your rights are with using these assets or developing them with another firm.
Finally, you may want to consider having a post-mortem with the vendor a month or so after your last day together. This will help them to learn where they can improve their services and give you enough time to assess the relationship’s effectiveness.

Don’t think twice, it’s all write

No matter how your breakup goes — good, bad, or ugly — make sure you have written confirmation of every step of the process. Following your conversation, recap the terms in an email to your vendor. It’s good to get their confirmation in writing as well, but if you suspect that the process will be difficult, you can always use a clause such as “Unless we hear otherwise from you, we will assume that our verbal agreement to an end date of X is in effect.” Outlining a schedule for deliverables and winding down work will also help to move things ahead.

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PS: Come for the tips, stay for the playlist…

Here’s every (primo) breakup song we referenced in this piece.