Despite your best intentions, some client relationships are simply not for you. Or for them. Whether you thought you noticed red flags at the start or the bad behavior was totally unexpected, it’s time to bid them adieu. 👋
Now, firing a client is probably not an option if you need their money. But if you know you can survive without the income, you have the freedom to say “nope!” at whatever point you want.
It’s not pleasant to kick a client to the curb mid-project, but there will be times when you’ll have to.
Here’s when firing a client is very possibly the right choice, plus how to go about it so there’s the best chance of maintaining mutual respect.
But first: Why you don’t need to feel guilty about doing this
As a freelancer, you’re the business owner of your career. You’re in charge. That means that you get to choose who you work with and who you don’t.
There are all sorts of reasons for saying “yes” or “no” to a particular client.
You may not think it’s healthy to work with family and friends or bring money into personal relationships. If you’re a decade or more into your freelance career, maybe you can spot bad clients a mile away. You could even have a great client that you love working with, but you’re trying to go in a new business direction and they don’t fit with that.
Whatever. As the person in charge, it’s (a) often your job to make this type of tough call and (b) entirely okay to make it. Your strength is in developing the right exit strategy. 💪
Let’s get to it.
Situation #1: You definitely, 100% do not want to deal with the client anymore, period
Your problem client is a headache, a time-suck, or both. You don’t care about any of the value you could get out of this client, monetary or otherwise. You want out.
The Solution: Tell the truth (without playing the blame game)
Give it to them straight. Make it short and sweet. I usually write something like this:
I’ve given this some thought, and unfortunately, I feel like this isn’t a great match and it’s best not to move forward. I’ve processed a full refund, which you should receive in a few days — let me know if you don’t see that come through.
All the best,
What to Consider
If you’ve already turned in some of the work, this gets tricky. You can’t give a full refund if they’ll be publishing what you wrote — on top of affecting your cash flow, you’ll give away the rights to your copy for free. In this case, a partial refund may be more reasonable.
However, if you’re still in the communication or research stage, you’ll escape with a few hours lost and that’s it.
It also pays to consider adding a kill fee to your contract or Terms and Conditions.
I have an article about Why a Kill Fee Clause is Important for Freelance Writers if you want to learn more. (P.S. It won’t damage the client relationship!)
Be Prepared for Backlash
People get insulted when you offer a full or partial refund, and that includes your toxic client with unreasonable expectations. 😤
You’d think that these nightmare clients would love their money back. If they seem so dissatisfied with the working relationship, why wouldn’t they want out as well?
It’s because they take it as the ultimate rejection. You may hear something like, “Well, I didn’t want that. Can’t we try to continue working together?” Also be ready for, “It shows how little you value yourself as a writer if you’re so quick to offer a refund.”
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. You’ve already decided this one client isn’t worth it.
They may be thinking that you’re bowing out too early, but you know this is your absolute last resort. You’ve dedicated all the work and/or thought you’re going to, and you’re officially finished with this client. The end. 🛑
I’ve processed two or three refunds in my 13+ years as a writer. The client is always nasty about it. And I don’t care.
You aren’t firing a client and offering a refund because it’s what they want or because you don’t value yourself. You’re offering it because you want to get as far away from them as possible and you’re not dependent on their money.
It’s like any other business transaction, but this time you’re the one who’s appeased.
A Note About Karmic Balance
Is that money and time you lost driving you nuts? Consider this: You’ll have a few new clients who pay you upfront for a project and then never follow through.
I don’t know why. It’s a mystery, and it’s common. Ask any service provider or small business if this has happened to them.
I think of it as a sort of karmic balancing act, so enjoy it.
Situation #2: You’re OK with working with them, but only if there are stricter boundaries
In this situation, your client isn’t taking advantage of you, but they’re unpleasant to work with for some reason. It’s not quite a deal-breaker, but it’s not great, either. 😑
For example, communication can be taking too much time — you planned for email conversations, but they always want to hop on a phone call. Or maybe your pricing didn’t include as many revisions as they’re asking for.
Basically, the client’s demands aren’t unreasonable, but they fall outside the scope of your agreed-upon services. You’ll be fine if you lose the client, but if they can agree to your terms, you also don’t mind continuing to work with them. They’re a client worth keeping under the right circumstances.
The Solution: Give them a test they might fail
That’s a test, not a trick. Demand that they meet the requirement you need to continue. For example:
- I’ll need that invoice paid by the end of the week.
- Please answer this questionnaire so I can gather more info for the project.
- My turn-around time is 10 business days; I’m not able to deliver the project in 24 hours.
You can also say something like:
I’m more than happy to do XYZ for you. Since this is outside the scope of the original project, I’ll send along an add-on price quote.
You’re putting your foot down about what’s needed to perform your job. Either they won’t be able to deliver and you’ll get out of the business relationship, or they will be able to deliver and you’ll get what you need. 👍
Remember, it’s not a trick. This will only work if it’s not a bait-and-switch because you can’t fire a client for adhering to the guidelines you set. For example, if you originally said they could pay the invoice after you submit the project, you can’t change your mind.
However, if you didn’t clarify your requirements or you laid them out before the project started and they’re being ignored, stick to it.
With a different client you love, you may bend the rules. Not with problem clients, though.
Situation #3: You haven’t heard from your client in a while and then they email you
If a little time has gone by and you haven’t heard from the client, you may assume you’re in the clear. 🎉 Of course, as soon as you think that, they’ll come knocking on your digital door. 😔
Their email says something like, “I’ve been sidetracked by personal circumstances, and I’m ready to pick this up again.”
You thought you dodged the bullet of having to fire a client, and now it seems like they want to enter a new phase of working together.
The Solution: Take the out when it presents itself
If the client doesn’t have a payment on credit with you, this is an easy business decision. All you have to do is say you’re now unable to take on the project.
Good to hear from you! Unfortunately, my schedule has shifted a bit since we last talked. I’m not able to take this on right now or give it the attention it deserves.
Thanks for reaching out, and all the best.
Can you ever put the client in their place?
It’s so, so tempting to tell a client exactly what you think about them when they’ve been treating you like crap. As a professional, though, you have to bite your tongue … most of the time.
Remember that cutting ties and burning bridges are two different things. Firing a client doesn’t have to be dramatic, and while it may feel good in the moment, it could do more harm than good to your mental well-being. 🧘🏻♀️
That said, I’ve shared my opinion with one or two clients over the years, once I wrapped up the final task list and was completely finished with my work for them. Because I did it in moderation and thought it through beforehand, I stand by those decisions (and yes, it felt great).
Before you unleash, assess the damage (if any) it’ll do to your career.
How should I talk to the person who referred me to the difficult client?
If the challenging client came to you as a referral, you might get stuck in a conversation with the person who put you two in touch. How you handle this depends on the relationship you have.
If it’s a professional relationship, tell the truth without being malicious. I told a contact and client of mine about a negative experience I had with someone they sent my way. It went like this:
Contact: Oh hey, how’d it go with [name]?
Me: You know, I actually had to turn down the project. There were payment issues, and I gave her a few chances, but it never came through. I decided it wasn’t a good sign and that it was best to cut ties.
Contact: Hmm. I’ll keep that in mind next time I work with her. So, how’s [on to the next topic]…
See? No big deal.
I like to assume that people talk and that the person I’m chatting with already got the scoop from the problem client. With that in mind, I don’t lie, but I also don’t divulge more info than what’s appropriate.
What if a client won’t pay the invoice?
There are a few different scenarios here based on when you invoice. Let’s go over them. 💰
How to fire a client when you invoice upfront
Whether you require a 25% deposit or you invoice 100% upfront, like I do, the deal is that you won’t start the project until that amount is paid. That way, if no payment comes through, you’ve only lost a minimal amount of time.
My invoices are canceled within 5 days of non-payment, and a day or two before that happens, I’ll send an email like this:
Just a reminder that the invoice is due on [date]. If you’re not ready to move forward, no problem! We can discuss the project again in the future, and I’ll give you a new quote at that time.
This will either get you out of it or get the invoice paid because the client doesn’t want to risk a higher cost in the future.
What to do if you’re done with the work and you need a final payment before sending the project
This is similar to the above scenario because if the client doesn’t pay what’s owed, they simply don’t get the work. Yes, you may end up losing the time you put in, but you won’t be giving up the rights to the content.
If you’ve sent a gentle reminder or two and you’re still not getting your payment or even a response, try something like this:
The invoice that was due on DATE is still outstanding. I’ve included the link below in case it got lost in your inbox.
As long as this is paid within X business days (by DATE), I’ll be able to send along the finished project.
Please note that according to the Terms and Conditions agreed to when the deposit was paid, after X business days, the invoice will be canceled and the rights to the project will remain mine.
Let me know if you have any questions or if you’d like to discuss this further.
What to do if you’ve turned in the project and there’s a balance to be paid
This is a lot tougher to deal with because a client who’s putting up a fight about paying may ghost you, taking the finished work with them. 👻 I’ve been through this once or twice and had to get a lawyer involved. It wasn’t pretty.
Sometimes, certain types of language can light a fire under them. If they haven’t responded to a couple of “pay me” nudges, try this:
The invoice that was sent on DATE and due on DATE is still outstanding. Here’s the link again:
I understand that there’s been a delay with payment. However, I need to see this come through by DATE. Otherwise, the rights to the content will remain mine and you will not be able to legally use the work for your own purposes.
Spotting the red flags and knowing how to fire a client gets easier
For a long time, I continued to take on prospective clients who I had a bad feeling about. Today, I’ll turn down work based on a two-sentence email. I can just tell.
I trust my instinct every time. If I get any sense that this is going to be a nightmare, it’s a hard and immediate “no” from me.
That leaves room for me to say “yes” to dream clients, interesting projects and future endeavors that won’t be challenging in the worst ways.
Give it time. You’ll eventually get so used to not-worth-it clients that you’ll be able to sniff them out from the start.
Hey you! I offer business coaching to freelance writers. Learn more here.