When & How to Fire a Client

Every freelancer kisses some frogs at some point in their business.

Especially in the early days, when you’re still refining processes, figuring out who your ideal client is, and you’re oh-so-eager to start making money, so you’re more tolerant of poor client behavior.

Eventually, you learn some clients aren’t worth the money they’re bringing in.

How can you tell?

>> If dealing with a particular client makes you feel drained, devalued, or frustrated on a regular basis, it might be time to say goodbye.

>> If your heart drops at the sight of their email in your inbox, it might be time to say goodbye.

>> If your mood sours and your language turns salty as their name flashes in your caller ID, it might be time to say goodbye.

Those are common symptoms of energy vampires—people who leave you craving a nap or pot of coffee hooked up to an IV after every interaction.

You’ll experience this when a client routinely commits one or more of the following sins:

  • makes unreasonable demands
  • doesn’t respect your personal time and expects crazy-fast turnaround
  • pays late or bickers about rates
  • doesn’t value your expertise or recommendations
  • fails to respond or provide critical information in a timely manner, yet expects your prompt attention
  • disputes your terms or boundaries
  • treats you like an employee (versus an independent service provider), expecting the same submission, availability, and response time typical of employees

Have I told you about the client who wanted me to stay logged into Skype all day (and night!) so he could reach me whenever he wanted? No bueno. He wasn’t a client for long. But I digress.

We’ve all learned to work with jerks back when we had traditional jobs and an actual boss. But now? Friend, YOU’re the boss.

Do you really want to work with clients who steal your peace and sanity, or pursue more of your dream clients?

If you’ve decided it’s time to drop a client, know that it doesn’t have to be awkward or painful.

But even if it is, you’ll just be uncomfortable for a minute—seconds, even—then reap sweet relief.

How do you actually fire a client? Behold the ways:

1. The Slow Fade

Complete your assignment, thank the client, and never contact them again. If your contract is a short-term one, you have the option to simply not renew it or accept a new assignment.

2. The “It’s Not You; It’s Me”

Blame it on your capacity, new focus, or business structure. It goes something like this:

“Mr. Client, thanks so much for your business and vote of confidence. I need to let you know I’ve restructured my business, goals, and market focus, and I’m no longer a good fit for [Client Company].”

Or… “I’ve taken on new commitments and don’t have the capacity to give [Client Company] the attention it deserves.”

Then thank them again, wish them well, and off you go.

I’ve only had a client push back once. I replied I’d rather not take on a project if I can’t execute it with excellence and give it proper attention. Can’t argue with that.

Or, you might prefer a more direct, yet diplomatic response: You’re not a good fit, period.

3. The Ctrl+Z (Undo Button)

I borrowed this one from Julie Elster, a collections specialist who helps freelancers get paid. Julie says qualifying your clients has a huge impact on whether you get paid on time. I would add it also impacts your qualify of life.

The “Undo Button” is ideal if you’re just getting involved but you’re seeing big, red flags and want out of the relationship before it gets worse.

In that case, be honest with the client that you’re not a good fit, offer a full refund, and perhaps a referral if you think that’s appropriate.

I need to say this again: Dropping a client might be uncomfortable for a hot minute, but totally worth the peace of mind that will follow.

Moving forward, ask any experienced freelancer and they’ll attest to two things:

(1) In time, you’ll develop a sixth sense and spot problem clients long before they become clients.

After all, a prospect who’s unpleasant and demanding turns into a client who’s unpleasant and demanding.

(2) You’ll stop being afraid of turning away work or clients who aren’t right for you.

It’ll just free up more time, energy, and mental space to find clients you actually love. <3

Happy breakup!

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