How to fire a client without looking like a jerk

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No one likes to be the bad guy. But there comes a time in every freelancer’s life when it becomes glaringly obvious that it’s time to say goodbye to a client.

It’s true that difficult clients are a part of doing business. But you didn’t get into freelancing to work with a bunch of crazy people, did you?

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Should I Really Fire Them?

I’m not advising that you wake up one morning and go on a client-firing rampage. That would destroy your business.

But if you’ve tried your best to educate clients on how you work and they’re still disrespecting you all over the place, then it’s probably time to let go.

But before you do, make sure you’ve done at least a couple of these things to be sure that the issue is truly them. Sometimes a lack of communication skills on our part keep the client from fully understanding the way we work.

Have you…

  • Explained your work process thoroughly. Even if you’ve posted this information on your website, part of your onboarding process for new clients should include a detailed explanation of how things work, especially if they’ve never worked with creatives before.
  • Set clear boundaries about your availability. When I’m overloaded, I pass a lot of things off to my VA to handle. This avoids me being interrupted in the middle of a project. which kills your productivity. I’ve also started emailing clients and leads a link to a scheduling app to make it easier to schedule important meetings and phone calls.
  • Enforce the boundaries you set. If you tell your client you will not do something and they ask you to do it anyway, be clear about your limits. Some people need to be told no more than once. But if you agree to make that one little change or extend a deadline, you are telling your client that your limits are not really limits at all. Sometimes a little flexibility is necessary, but don’t make it a habit or you’ll lose control of your time.
  • Have a thorough understanding of the scope of work. A detailed quote which includes every last little thing they ask you to do helps avoid scope creep.
  • Priced their work appropriately. Many clients wait until the last minute to contact you. If you include a rush charge as a separate line item on your quote, it’s amazing how much less of a rush the project becomes. Another issue that happens frequently is a change in scope. When the client starts asking for things outside of your contract, stop the project and let them know there are additional fees involved.

How Can I Fire Them Without Looking Like a Jerk?

Firing a client is never easy. But there are a few ways to soften the blow.

Be honest. Sometimes a client can’t tell that we don’t like working with them, no matter how strong a signal we send. Arrange for a chat and explain to them the issues you’ve been having with them in detail. Be very clear about the fact that you will no longer work with them, and set an end date for the working relationship.

Refer them to another freelancer. If you’re firing a difficult client, make sure you talk it over with the person you want to refer them to first. But if you don’t want to work with them anymore for another reason (pay, skill set, etc), explain to your client that you don’t mind working with them, but you’d rather give them to someone who better matches what they need.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

Raise your prices. It’s been my experience that low-paying clients are also the most difficult to work with. If you find that every one of your clients is a nightmare, you may be charging inappropriately.

Take the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach. Let your client know that your business has evolved to the point that you can no longer do business with them. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve tried another approach and it doesn’t seem to be working.

Have another approach to ending a client relationship? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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About Sharon McElwee

Sharon McElwee helps creative businesses with blogging, email, copywriting and social media. She loves to partner with designers on web and print projects. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Thank you and what a timely post as I am in the process of weighing the pros and cons for this exact decision.

    I have been at fault for doing more than the contract stated. I have let my client get away with, “Oh, we’ll talk about it when we have more time.” The original job was for a re-branding and website from some really outdated and horribly designed work. Once it was finally complete, although over the estimate—I kept my client informed about the time and expense. I recommended they include a new email with the name of their new site, business collaterals and social media.

    I also discussed site maintenance, social interaction and advertising. They were not interested. A year has passed, they contacted me for a branded brochure, business cards, etc. I created all of the above and sent an invoice. Their reply was they thought it was included.

    As I write this… how absurd can I be. I see the multiples of things I should not have done and what a stinging lesson. We both belong to an international nonprofit and are friends that just make it a little more complicated.

    • Thanks for your honesty. I am doing a lot of restructuring of my own business and have had to say goodbye to a couple of clients lately myself. It’s never easy, but if you are diplomatic about it people will respect you more in the end.

  2. Joan Manuel Santos says:

    Other approach? No, but to recap what you said. Honesty is key. Be clear, mention all reasons that lead you to that decision. That happened to me and I was not sure if it was the right thing to do, but there was no way back. Sometimes you loose more money with these clients and never win a single penny.

    I consider I charge a decent price per project, and I not doing any harm to my fellow designers, neither degrading our profession, by the contrary, I hope all designers would start charging as I do.

    If you are making trips for meeting, and you see that those meetings will not get you anywhere, then better get rid of them. That’s my experience.
    Others might have better experiences or worst. Who knows.

    Thanks for the article. It made me feel that I did not make the wrong call.

  3. I agree i think its best just to be honest with your clients, if you find working together difficult then its best for both parties to go their separate ways.