We’ve all been there. We’ve all had a nightmare client that we are desperate to get rid of, but something makes us keep working with them. Whether it’s a fear of not having enough money, or just not being a fan of confrontation, we can’t seem to let them go. We’re left wondering how to fire a client — is it even possible? — and especially how to do it without hating ourselves in the end.
No one wants to be the bad guy. We really, really, really don’t want to tell someone that they are a pain to work with, even if they are making our working life miserable.
I’m here to tell you: you don’t have to stick with bad clients.
You CAN fire them. You can even do it in such a way that you don’t feel terrible about your decision.
In this post, I’ve laid out the why, how, and what to do so you can learn how to fire a client in a professional way that actually feels good (or at least not terrible). Stay true to you while finally releasing that awful client!
How to Fire a Client Without Feeling Like a Jerk
Getting Over Your Screwed-Up Mindset Issues
The first thing that you need to realize is that to stay working with clients you hate is not a good thing. No matter why you don’t want to let them go, there isn’t really ever a good enough reason to keep torturing yourself.
When you keep working with these clients, not only are they giving you a major headache and making you resent the fact that you ever decided to start your own business. They’re also taking up a spot on your roster for clients that you’d actually LOVE!
How do you expect to have all ideal clients if you’re still hanging on to the clients who don’t respect you? (And by not firing them, you’re not really respecting yourself either.)
So, really, the first step in learning how to fire a client is to take a deep look inside. Ask yourself some questions.
- Why do you feel like you “have” to keep these people?
- Why haven’t you already fired them?
Now, realize that you need to stop doing what you’ve been doing. You need to change your course of action. You can finally take a big, deep breath and let those problem clients go.
They’re not serving your ultimate goals, and you’re doing the clients and yourself a disservice if you keep working with them.
The Exception to the Rule
In most circumstances, if you’re in a place where you want to learn how to fire a client it’s because that client is better off fired.
But on the other hand, I should also have a bit of a disclaimer here:
Make sure that you actually want to fire the client!
If it’s the project or the work itself that you hate, it may be a sign of a bigger issue, like you’re taking on more than you can chew, you’re in over your head, or you should be choosing a different niche.
In that case, firing the client still might be the best solution. But you’re also going to want to do some soul searching at the end of the day.
Also, make sure that it’s legal and ethical to fire this client. Always review your contract to make sure you’re not going to be in breach of something you signed.
Consider the timing, as well. Is the client going through a tough personal issue? Are they in the middle of a launch? While firing may be an obvious, good decision, it’s up to you to make sure that when you do it isn’t the worst timing possible (because you don’t want to be a jerk, right?).
Have You Tried Everything?
Another disclaimer is don’t jump straight to figuring out how to fire a client at the first sign of trouble.
Similar to a marriage, it’s not time to whip out the divorce papers the second you experience unhappiness in the relationship.
All relationships — even the ones with our clients — have ups and downs. It’s up to you to make sure you’ve tried to find a solution first before cutting ties altogether.
Something that’s worked for me in the past is to get on a face-to-face call where you can sit down and go over things clearly. Figure out what the issue is, where the miscommunication is happening, and talk about it. Create a plan for how you’re going to avoid this in the future.
Sometimes after a call like this, things just go back to the status quo and I realize that — sigh — it really is time to let go. But other times it actually does the trick! All that was needed was for me and the client to get on the same page and start fresh.
Learn From Your Experiences
Don’t be too harsh on yourself, though. At some point, every service provider experiences what it’s like to work with a less-than-desirable client. It’s kind of a rite of passage.
Although it can suck to go through it, you might actually learn something from the process.
Being a service provider is all about trying to find those perfect “diamond in the rough” clients that truly fit your ideal client avatar. It’s hard to even know for sure what types of clients you do and don’t want to work with until you have gone through some good and bad experiences to help you figure it out.
Having a better idea of what your ideal clients are like will help you vet your potential clients better. You might start to figure out what kinds of questions to ask on discovery calls, and what personality traits are good signs (or red flags).
An example of a red flag might be that they ask way too many questions or don’t respect your allotted time for the discovery call. Or maybe they seem super unsure of what they need, and that’s way above your paygrade.
These are just examples. You’ll want to develop your own list of red flags to look out for.
It’s hard to be an amazing judge of character just from a discovery call, though. So don’t be surprised if, even after you learn how to fire a client, you still end up with an occasional bad fit.
This is why you’re going to want to go through this post and work on developing a system for how to fire a client when the time comes, so that you never have to worry about or stress out over it again.
Cutting the Cord
The next step of going through how to fire a client is actually doing it — eek!
Once you’re sure that you don’t want to work with this person anymore, be upfront and honest with them.
Some people recommend lying to get out of an awkward situation. You could say something like, “I’m too booked up to continue working with you anymore.”
I don’t really like this tactic, though, because I’m all about being honest and direct.
You don’t want to be too direct, though. Going full-swing in the other direction is also a no-no. You don’t want to say something like, “I hate you, I quit!” and virtually slam a door in their face.
What you want to do should be a balance between something that makes you feel comfortable while also being firm and does not ruin your reputation with them.
It’s possible to be direct without being inflammatory. (Let’s not burn any bridges!)
How to Fire a Client You Work With Virtually
I highly recommend that you fire your client over email. Unlike a regular job, we’re virtual service providers, and email is typically how we’re communicating with our clients.
If it’s not via email, you may be talking to them over Slack or in their project management system. Something like that isn’t really ideal, because you want to maintain ownership over this communication.
In a worst case scenario, you’re going to want to be able to show your email correspondence. Once they kick you out of their project management program after you’ve fired them, you won’t have access anymore. At the very least, take a screenshot!
But I recommend email.
Not only is it good because you have ownership over it, it also makes things easier. It gives them a second to reflect and not respond out of anger. If you are talking to them face-to-face over a video call, a confrontation could happen. Especially if they are totally not expecting that you’re going to fire them.
If email doesn’t seem right to you for some reason, use the type of communication that you do most frequently (maybe it’s over Zoom or on a phone call). Most importantly, pick the type of communication you’re comfortable with.
Offboarding Your Ex-Client
Now that your issue of how to fire a client has finally been solved, let’s proceed to the final step. Once you’ve dropped the bomb, you need to begin the offboarding process.
When you have a package client (see my blog post on different pricing strategies), this is often a little bit easier. Offboarding a client is built right into your workflow, and you don’t even need to cut the cord. Eventually, the project will just naturally come to a close, and you can proceed with your list of offboarding steps.
If you are firing a different type of client (or a package client before the package is over), it’s a little trickier. They won’t be expecting this, and it might be kind of awkward to have to deal with each other after the actual firing has happened.
But this step is really important and can help clear any bad blood between the two of you. As you work on offboarding your ex-client and as the dust settles, hopefully the experience will leave your reputation unscathed.
(What we don’t want is to end things in a big, fiery blow up. And then they tell everyone they’ve ever met how awful you are to work with!)
The biggest advice I can give you is that once you make the decision to fire them, stick with it. Don’t get into any arguments about it with your client! And be very direct if they question or try to confront you in any way. Remain calm and professional at all times.
Create an Offboarding Workflow
Similar to an onboarding workflow, an offboarding workflow is just a list of steps that helps transition you and your client from working together to not working together anymore.
I would recommend that an onboarding workflow include at least these important steps:
- Communicate with the client about the termination of the project.
Ideally, this will happen via email so that you have a record of it. Typically, according to your contract (get a free contract template in the Systematic Marketing School!), project termination requires some sort of written notification. Be clear about what the next steps are going to be. You might want to include something like your “how I work” document, except it’ll be more like “how we don’t work anymore” 😂
- Send the client a refund if necessary.
Usually, if things aren’t going well, I will give a refund for all unused time. Even if I don’t “have” to according to my contract! I don’t want to be a jerk, and would rather not fight with them about it. I don’t give refunds for work I already did, though.
- Return any project files.
This isn’t always necessary, but if you have any design files or other files that the client might need but doesn’t have access to, make sure you deliver those over.
- Revoke password access and/or instruct client to change their passwords.
I like how easy LastPass makes this. I just hop into their client folder in LastPass and manually remove all access to any passwords they’ve given us. If they’ve sent passwords over to you in some other way (like via email), you may want to send a quick note that you’ve destroyed any record of their passwords and if they want to, they can change them so that you will no longer have access.
- Ask for a testimonial + save any portfolio-quality work.
This may not be appropriate in every situation, especially if you’re firing the client, but if things haven’t ended on a bad note, you’ll always want to ask for a testimonial. Even if they don’t give you a testimonial, you could at least go through your files and make sure you save anything that could be a good addition to your portfolio.
- Give them a recommendation for future work.
If the project is ending but they will still need more help, it’s a nice gesture to give them a recommendation for someone else who might be able to better help them. If the issue was the type of work they needed, recommend someone whose skills are a better fit. Just because the client wasn’t the right fit for you doesn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t be a great client for someone else.
- Offer to help ease the transition.
Depending on what type of work you were doing for them and why you are firing them, it might be a really good gesture on your part to offer to help them as they transition into working with someone else. Some types of service providers, such as project managers or bookkeepers, might have a lot of information that you don’t have access to or do things in a certain way. This is important information that you’ll need to convey to the client or the person who’s replacing you. Make sure you make yourself available to help during this process in any way possible. (This should be paid time!)
Now you have a process map on how to fire a client! So it makes this awkward situation a bit easier (phew).
Whether you prefer to avoid conflict, need the money a client provides, or have other reasons for holding onto a client that’s not a good fit, it can be difficult to let go.
Review these instructions to determine if you really want to fire the client. If that’s your final decision, then it’s important to stick to your resolution.
Follow this advice and the offboarding suggestions to fire a client professionally. This will help you maintain a positive working relationship, preserve your service provider reputation, and avoid big blow-ups.
Now you’ve cleared room in your schedule for a client and work that you LOVE!