How to Fire a Client (And How to Know you Should)

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“The customer is always right” is generally an adage worth remembering if you’re hungry for success. That said, the dilemma of how to fire a client is something that comes up eventually for most of us.

The best way to avoid the “how to fire a client” dilemma is to be discerning about who you work with in the first place. Bad clients do exist, and they can be “bad” in a whole bunch of different ways. Unfortunately, warning signs don’t always reveal themselves until you’re actively working with people. This can leave you with a business relationship you need to “break off.”

As well as looking at exactly how to sack a client, this article will teach you some tips for avoiding the worst of the clients in the first place. You’ll also learn some strategies for deciding whether you can make things work, or whether it’s better to cut ties and move on.

Bad Clients: The Warning Signs

The working world is no different to the real world; There are people you gel with and people you don’t. While you don’t need the same level of compatibility to work with someone as you would to date them or meet them for drinks, it definitely makes for a more enjoyable working life if you actually like them!

Aside from the basic chemistry, there are also practical reasons why working with certain clients could be a bad move. There’s a lot to be said for a gut feeling, but there are other warning signs too.

Here are some of the things to look out for:

Late Payment

Late payment is widely considered to be an “epidemic” for small businesses. Clients who consistently pay late are problematic at best and genuinely damaging to your business at worst.

Goodwill can really suffer when late payment becomes habitual. Chasing payment is stressful and time-consuming, and becomes even more of a problem when commitments and promises are broken.

The annoying flipside to this is that in some cases, you’ll probably have to make your peace with a certain level of late payment. For example, some (usually larger) firms actually have a policy of only paying invoices on the last day of their credit term. You may also sometimes experience occasional late payment from a client who is usually reliable – either due to an oversight, a staff absence, or a genuine cashflow “blip.”

Invoice payments

The important thing is differentiating between “tolerable” late payment, and when it’s something that creates ongoing frustration and represents a genuine lack of respect. Ultimately, there are plenty of clients out there who DO always pay on time, and as such, late payment should always ring a bit of an alarm bell.

We have a useful article here on how to create invoices that will help you get paid promptly

Poor Communication

Poor communication is one of the “bad client” warning signs that you can usually detect early on in the relationship.

Everybody communicates differently, and some people will never write a long email if they feel a three word answer will do. This is fine, so long as the communication is sufficient to ensure you know what you’re doing and what’s expected of you.

On the other hand, if communication is poor to the point that you feel lost and “thrown in at the deep end,” this should be taken as a warning sign. If a client struggles to explain what they want when it’s only about the work required, you can be certain they’ll be hard to deal with if there’s ever a dispute or a complex situation to resolve.

Really, the same goes for clients who are flaky about responding to emails, and those who go “off grid” at random.

Moving Goalposts

Another type of client that’s difficult to deal with are those who frequently alter their expectations and “move the goalposts.”

For example, a client gives you a very vague and ambiguous description of what they want you to do, and then asks you to redo a bunch of the work because it “wasn’t what they meant.”

Similarly, there are the clients who try to use “scope creep” as a way of squeezing more (free) work out of their freelancers. If clients keep saying “can you just…?” without expecting to pay for your time, that’s not a great sign.

Unfair Expectations

One thing I’ve seen time and time again, both with my own clients and with other people’s, are misaligned expectations. These can be particularly noticeable among the more entry-level jobs on the freelance job boards, where the people recruiting often have little or no experience of managing people.

A good example is where a client commits to paying a freelancer for, say, eight hours per week, but then expects that freelancer to jump and respond to emails and instant messages at any random point. It’s only natural for eager and committed freelancers to try their best to oblige, but this is a classic example of where expectations are misaligned, and it rarely ends well.

Obviously it’s down to individual workers to set their limits and boundaries. However, the best clients out there are already mindful of what they can fairly expect. Often, freelancers find themselves wondering how to fire a client when it’s gradually become clear that their time isn’t being respected.

Micro Management

We’ve already covered poor communication, but too much of it can be a problem too.

Over the years I’ve had a few freelance writing clients who are just far too hands on. If somebody gives you 1200 words of guidance notes to write an 800 word article, it’s almost certain that you’re not going to psychically write what they had in mind. They may as well write it themselves!

Micro management

Usually these situations are down to one of two things: Corporate employees with too much time on their hands, or inexperienced managers on a power trip. Sometimes you get both rolled into one…

Ostentatiousness

Ostentatiousness may seem like a strange warning sign, but it’s definitely one to watch out for. If I look back on all the times (in over 15 years) when I’ve had to think about how to fire a client, it’s almost always been the flashy ones that “talk the talk.”

It’s often the prestige-car-driving, penthouse-dwelling “business people” who won’t hesitate to run a company in to the ground, leave people unpaid, switch their phone off and move onto their next thing. Big plans, celebrity name-drops and lofty promises of work that never seem to materialise? All BIG warning signs for bad clients, as far as I’m concerned.

Bad Days

This probably counts very much as “gut feeling,” but it’s really important to notice when working for a specific client results in a bad day.

We all have less-than-perfect days, and they’re often nobody’s fault. However, if you notice that working for a certain client is leaving you drained, angry or frustrated, that’s a huge warning sign.

If you want no say in who you work for and when you have a bad day, by all means go and find a conventional job(!) But you shouldn’t have to put up with it when you’re freelancing. You don’t have to do anything straight away, but it’s probably a good indication that it’s time to move on to better things.

Understanding Cultural and Practical Differences

I’ve just listed several warning signs to help you identify bad clients, but it’s really important not to get them confused with issues caused by nothing more than cultural or practical differences.

For example, both my wife and I have worked with very young, very vibrant startups. We’ve enjoyed doing so, but we’ve both noticed a bit of a “compatibility issue” with them now we have two young children. Responding to instant messages during evenings and weekends isn’t just undesirable for us now, it’s simply not feasible. As such, a client like that (staffed with childless, flexible-working 20-somethings) isn’t necessarily a bad client, but just a poor fit for US.

That’s a cultural example (more on that here), but there are practical ones too: It’s not a client’s fault if they’re in a different timezone, or if they are in a country where they work Sundays instead of Fridays.

Much of the time, it’s not about how to fire a client, but how to set expectations and work out a way for you to do good work for them – so try not to get the two things twisted.

Trying to Make Things Work

Firing clients is something that you shouldn’t be doing often. If your relationships with clients keep breaking down, it’s very important to be honest with yourself and work out if you are the common denominator. Seek feedback and do some soul-searching, because it could be that you’re not meeting expectations or doing something else wrong.

Seeking feedback

If you feel that a relationship with a client is going in the wrong direction, it’s important to give yourself some time to get things back on the right path. The key to this is openness and honesty. 

Say, for example, you’ve made it clear that you can’t work on a Thursday, perhaps because you’re responsible for childcare or working for another client. If a client ignores this and keeps expecting you to make yourself available, remind them politely but firmly of what you told them. Whether or not they then “change their ways” will give you a very solid indication of whether you will be able to improve things and work better together.

Being very consistent with your boundaries and conditions is important too. If you’ve negotiated weekly pay, and agreed that you must be paid by return, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself if payment isn’t made on time.

It’s essential to distinguish between one-off issues and more persistent problems. You shouldn’t jump the gun and assume a single problem is a reason to sack a client, but nor should you ignore things that happen again and again, assuming things will get better. Presumably you work hard to find gigs in the first place, so you should make sure you’re really certain before you send any clients packing.

How to Fire a Client

Let’s assume you’ve listened to the warning bells and tried to make things work, but decided it’s definitely time to walk away. Here are the steps for doing everything wisely and professionally:

1. Get your Timing Right

There’s rarely a perfect time to fire a client – but there ARE times that are far better or worse than others. Just as you’re waiting for a big invoice to be paid is NOT a good time. Nor, for reasons of professionalism, is right in the middle of a project you’ve agreed to complete in good faith.

Let’s also be honest and admit that you’re usually going to need money to pay the bills. Sometimes you do need to “grin and bear it” for a little longer to ensure you meet your personal commitments. If necessary, leave yourself room to get a “plan B” in place.

Calendar timing

2. Consider your Risks

There are risks associated with firing clients. We’ve already touched on making sure you get money you’re owed. If you work on a freelance job board like Upwork, you will also need to consider the feedback the client could leave. Negative reviews can be really damaging to your reputation, so you need to consider what an unhappy client could do – fairly or unfairly.

A lot depends on the scale of the relationship you’re breaking off. If you’ve just done a $50 one-off job for someone, you’ll have a lot less baggage than you will if you’re ending a long-term partnership with thousands involved. Either way, think about any potential aftermath, and what you will do to minimise it.

3. Try not to Burn your Bridges

Always try to think of how to fire a client without falling out with them, if at all possible. The world can be a surprisingly small place, especially within certain business sectors or niches, and you never know who might know somebody else.

Nine times out of ten, if you’re honest about why you’re ending the relationship, you can do it in a civil and professional way.

Having said that, I’ve burned a few bridges in my time, so I’m not going to condemn the idea completely! If you’ve been unfairly treated and really feel the need to say your piece, I won’t judge you – just keep what you do professional rather than personal.

4. Have a Plan for What Comes Next

As mentioned above, there’s a lot of difference between firing a small, short-term client, and walking away from something major. In the latter case, you could have an immediate need to pick up more work to replace your income. As such, make sure you have several ideas of what you’ll be doing next. Obviously if you already have a new client lined up, that’s the perfect scenario.

Making a plan

Freelancing isn’t the same as traditional work in that you’ll always line up a “job to go to” before another one ends. However, knowing what you’re actually going to do is really important, or you can end up regretful and at a loss as to your next move.

5. Decide if you Could be Persuaded to Stay

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a client may do what they can to keep you. So, decide in advance whether there’s anything that would be enough to persuade you to change your mind.

In theory, money shouldn’t be a factor here, but it probably is. An intolerable client can sometimes move back into the tolerable column if they offer to pay enough. However, you should should still be careful not to forget the reasons that made you want to shake them off in the first place. Similarly, a change in duties or a clearer definition of your work could be a reason to stay.

On the other hand, be wary of promises of a different approach, or of faster payment – especially if you’ve been let down before. This famous quote has some relevance here:

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Maya Angelou.

Above all, if there are factors that might make you change your mind, make sure you know exactly what they are before dropping the “I quit” bomb.

6. Announce your Decision

Really, the hardest part of firing a client is in the planning and agonising. Actually announcing your decision is relatively easy, and you’ll usually feel a sense of relief and empowerment when you do so.

As for how you do it, it’s really up to you. While I’m no fan of avoiding confrontation in business, there are benefits to doing these things in writing: You can say exactly what you want to say without being derailed, and you have a formal record of your decision.

How much notice to give is another thing you will need to consider. If you are breaking off a long-standing business relationship, it’s professional to offer a suitable period of notice, and to co-operate with any handover.

7. Move on and Don’t Look Back

There’s absolutely no point in suffering from “quitter’s remorse.” If you’ve thought through your decision properly, there shouldn’t be any doubt in your mind that you’ve done the right thing.

Jumping forward

The first time you decide to ditch a client, it will probably feel like quite a big deal. Perhaps it actually is a big deal. Walking away from client you’ve been with a long time is like quitting a job, and you might be walking away from colleagues, friends and associates.

Ultimately though, it’s important to remember why did what you did, and to keep your eyes on the next prize. The freelance life isn’t the same as having a full-time job – all you’re doing is moving on to the next phase.

Further Reading

If you’ve read about how to fire a client and now need more clients, this article on networking could help, as could this one on finding new customers.

I also frequently encourage readers to have a slow-burn project, such as a blog, in progress at all times. That way, you can one day consider the prospect of not having to deal with clients at all! Read this article on get started if that sounds good to you!

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Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com - Ben is a long-established freelancer with a passion for helping other people take control of their destiny and break away from "working for the man." Prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.

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