How to Fire a Freelance Client Without Ruining Your Reputation
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Early in my freelance writing career, I had a client who demanded I provide all of my financial information to him as a condition of our contract.
The information he wanted, which included my annual income, my mortgage amount and interest rate, and how much I had in savings, had nothing to do with the work I was providing as a writer; rather, he wanted to use it for his own purposes.
He told me I had a responsibility, as a personal finance writer and editor, to be transparent. If I didn’t share those details, he’d use his investigative journalism resources and contacts to find it anyway.
Needless to say, I terminated that relationship and never looked back.
Firing a client isn’t always as clear-cut as that experience. Often, it’s hard to tell when it’s time to fire a client. And when you decide it is, it’s a difficult conversation to have. One that most freelancers would avoid.
However, if you approach firing a client professionally and courteously, you can protect your professional reputation and still get paid.
Signs It’s Time to Fire a Client
Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to let a client go. Maybe you’re quitting freelancing for a full-time job. Maybe you just want to reduce your workload to spend time on other hobbies and pursuits.
Sometimes you just want to stop working together, but you’re worried about losing money or risking them badmouthing you to other people.
It’s not always obvious when it’s time to fire a client, but there are some warning signs to consider.
- Scope creep. This happens when a client incrementally increases the amount of work, regardless of how the project was outlined in your contract, without increasing your pay. Scope creep is one of the biggest problems in the client/freelancer relationship, and is a primary cause for terminating contracts. If you’ve asked for a rate increase due to scope creep and were denied, it may be time to let go.
- Time-consuming. Sometimes you might wind up taking on a client who takes up more time than you allotted or planned. This could be for a variety of reasons including scope creep, constant emails or texts, or unnecessary phone calls. If this happens frequently, it might be time to consider letting the client go.
- Lack of respect for boundaries. A client should respect limits you put on the relationship, whether that’s communicating with you only during your established working hours, only asking you to perform tasks you’re comfortable with, or not sharing excessively personal details. If you find they’re crossing a line, you probably need to end the project.
- Poor communication. Without clear communication, a freelance project can’t succeed. If you have a client who frequently changes their mind about what they want and doesn’t tell you, fails to answer your questions directly, or disappears for days at a time with no contact, it’s likely indicative of a larger problem.
- Chronically missing deadlines. A key part of effective freelancing relationships is both parties meeting deadlines. If your client fails to provide you with documents but still insists on the same deadline, or fails to pay you on time, it’s best to terminate the relationship. Someone who doesn’t respect your time isn’t worthy of it.
- Ignores all recommendations. Depending on the nature of your freelancing project, you might find yourself making strategic recommendations to the client. If they constantly question your suggestions, blatantly ignore them, or insist that what you’ve suggested is wrong, that client might not be worth keeping around.
- Makes unreasonable demands. Unlike the other warning signs, this is one you can generally pick up on in the beginning stages of a project. If a client wants a 100,000-word book edited in two days or a house built in a week, you’ll know this upfront and can say no before you even get started. But sometimes clients start off reasonable and progressively increase their demands. When those demands become unreasonable, whether it’s setting impossible-to-meet revised deadlines or wanting you to offer a discount, it’s probably time to fire them.
Depending on the client, you might be able to fix most of the problems on this list without ending the relationship. Sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself and assert your boundaries.
However, there are three circumstances in which you should almost always fire a client immediately: if they’re abusive, sexually harassing you, or asking you to do something illegal, unethical, or potentially harmful to another person or business.
The long-term consequences and harm done by abuse, harassment, and breaking the law aren’t worth it.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Firing a Client
If you’ve established that there’s cause to fire your client, you should have an honest conversation with yourself about why, how, and any potential consequences to terminating your professional relationship.
Some questions to ask include:
- Why am I firing this client?
- How will this impact my business financially?
- How will this impact my business’s reputation?
- In what ways will this impact the client?
- Are there any legal consequences? Do I need to consult a lawyer first?
- Are there steps I can take to fix the relationship?
- Can I have an open conversation with the client, revise the contract, raise my rates, or establish stricter boundaries?
Make sure you thoroughly answer these questions. Your responses responses will inform how you approach your client. It’s also a way to work through your concerns about firing them as well as provide a foundation for your termination letter.
If you have a mastermind group, partner, or friend in the same business, talk through the questions with them as well. They might provide a perspective you hadn’t thought about or give advice on what to do next.
You might even find that, after answering these questions and talking them through with others, you can approach your client with an open and honest conversation and implement some solutions without having to fire them.
6 Tips for Professionally Firing a Client
If you’ve tried to fix the freelancer/client relationship and nothing has changed, or you’ve decided the relationship isn’t worth salvaging, you need to fire your client professionally. You don’t want to burn any bridges, and you still want to get paid.
To make sure that happens, here are a few steps to follow.
1. Set a meeting time and method.
Once you’ve made up your mind to fire a client, it’s best to get an appointment with them on your calendar as soon as possible so you don’t lose your nerve.
If you’re going to meet with them face to face, make it somewhere neutral and quiet. Your office or theirs is a good choice, but if that’s not an option, you can always try a public library, co-working space, or another public location that offers meeting rooms.
For online conversations, make sure you have a reliable internet connection and your laptop or phone is fully charged. That way your connection doesn’t go out in the middle of the conversation.
If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible, you can terminate your client relationship via email. Before sending the message, take some time to proofread it. Make sure it’s free from spelling errors, ambiguous statements, and emotionally-charged language. You can also send it to a friend beforehand to see if they agree with the tone and content.
While it might make you feel better to say exactly how you feel, once it’s been received in writing, you can’t take it back.
2. Create a plan and timeline.
Just like you would when quitting your job, give the client a detailed plan for ending the relationship. Spell out details including:
- Revised timeline for project completion
- Final payment schedule
- Securing a reference or recommendation
Out of professional courtesy, you can work with your client to formulate a plan that benefits both of you, but it’s a good idea to have your details worked out ahead of time. For instance, if you want to end the project in two weeks and get paid one week after submitting your final deliverable, bring that timeline to the meeting.
Even if your client doesn’t agree with your timeframe, it gives you a starting point for negotiations.
It also shows that you’re the kind of freelancer who respects your clients enough not to quit in the middle of a project. Bethany McCamish, freelance writer and owner at Bethany Works LLC, makes sure to see her contracts through until the end.
“Contracts that are ongoing (like writing work) are a bit different and can be ended at any time by either the client or myself, but I always make sure to complete the assigned articles first,” she said.
Seeing a contract through to the end helps protect your professional reputation, and you might even be able to secure a good reference from your former client.
3. Make it clear it’s not personal.
Even if you’re firing a client because you can’t stand them or working with them feels immoral, you want to make sure you refrain from telling them that. You want to communicate that the reasons you’re terminating the relationship are purely professional; that it’s a business decision, not a personal one.
Some reasons you can give:
- You’re raising rates
- You’re no longer providing that service
- They’ve violated the terms of your contract
- You haven’t been paid for any work
Freelance writer and best-selling author Emily Guy Birken uses a creative strategy when she lets a client go. Rather than completely quitting, she raises her rates.
“I choose an amount that would make it worthwhile for me to keep working under the same conditions, but I generally suspect that my new rate will deter the client from asking me to take on more work,” she said.
This puts it in the client’s hands whether or not they want to keep working with her, and she’s typically found that the ones she’d like to fire are the ones who don’t accept her rate increase.
While you generally want to let the client know this is a business decision, in cases of abuse or harassment, if you feel comfortable, you should address this directly with the client. Tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated, and you’re ending the project as a result.
4. Reach out to other freelancers.
When you decide to fire a client, do your due diligence and reach out to your network to see if there are any other freelancers who might be willing to take them on.
This frequently happens in a Facebook group I belong to. When one person can’t work for a client for whatever reason — they don’t have time in their schedule, the subject matter is beyond their expertise, the pay is too low — they present the opportunity to the rest of the group. Those who are interested let the original freelancer know, and that person brings the list of options to the client.
Presenting options to your clients makes it feel like they’re not being hung out to dry, and that they’ll have someone to complete the unfinished work or assist with future projects. It shows that you care about your clients and are willing to go the extra mile to help them, even when you’re no longer under contract.
It also helps your fellow freelancers, as McCamish found. “I think it’s essential as a freelancer to pass on work and help out my colleagues this way,” she said.
Paying it forward is a great way to set yourself apart and ensure that one day, someone in a similar position might do the same for you.
Remember, if a client is particularly challenging, and you can’t in good faith recommend them to someone else, don’t. You don’t want to compromise your relationships with others in your network over one bad client.
5. Write a script.
Even if you think you’ll never need to fire a client, it’s a good idea to have a script on hand just in case. There might be that one situation or project you just can’t do, and you’ll need to let the client know.
A good format for your termination script starts and ends your letter with positives and keeps the negative information — the reason you’re ending the professional relationship – in the middle.
McCamish follows this format and says it’s helped preserve her professional relationships.
“Whenever I ‘fire’ a client…I will always thank them for their business and personalize exactly how they helped me grow,” she said. “Then I give the reason for leaving. And sandwich this again with another thank you/how we can stay connected.”
Here’s a sample script that follows this format:
Thanks for meeting with me today. While I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with you, I’ve decided that as of [date], I will no longer be able to work on this project.
After evaluating my goals, I have decided to take my business in a different direction, with a focus on new services and more work-life balance.
You can expect me to finish all the outstanding work, and I’m happy to connect you with other freelancers who might be a better fit for your needs and budget.
If you’d like, we can schedule an additional time to outline a plan going forward, including deciding which deliverables are a priority to complete and revising the payment schedule.
When using a script, it should be concise, direct, and respectful. Tailor it to your specific client and circumstances, taking care to not just copy and paste in an email.
You might also want to create different scripts for the various reasons you might fire a client, whether it’s personal reasons, raising your rates, changing the scope of your services, or something specific to your industry.
6. Trust your instincts.
Firing a client is never easy. But you know what you’re willing to deal with, and how much someone needs to pay you to put up with increasing demands or unreasonable expectations. If you’ve reached a point in your client relationship that it’s become toxic to you, and you can’t handle it anymore, it’s time to fire the client.
Although you might question your decision now, over time you’ll realize letting this client go was best for your business, your mental health, and your self-esteem.
It’s OK to Fire a Client
Whether it’s for financial reasons, worried that they’ll never find another client, or needing to build a portfolio, many freelancers feel that they need to keep working with clients who are difficult, unreasonable, or even abusive.
But that’s not the case.
If you do quality work, are professional and reliable, and have reasonable rates, there will be clients who want to use your services. And if you need to fire a client at some point, and do it respectfully, timely, and thoughtfully, it shouldn’t hurt you in the long run.