Firing A Freelance Client: Why, When, And How To Admit It’s Over And Call It Quits

From contract termination clauses to the differences between parting ways with a good client and firing a bad client, get the details on calling it quits.

Firing a freelance client

I recently wrote about what to do when you’re a freelancer who gets fired by a client. The response has been great — I can talk about freelance contract termination clauses, what to do when a client dumps you, and how to recover from losing clients all day long.

But all this talk has me thinking about something freelancers don’t talk about enough… It has me thinking about firing clients. More specifically, why you should fire a client, when to fire a client, and how to fire a client or cancel a freelance project — because when you’re freelancing, you get to call the shots and you don’t have to work with anyone you don’t want to.

The timing is perfect too because I just let a client go this week.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of calling it quits with a freelance client, we need to address the termination clauses that you may want to include in your freelance contract:

  • Client Cancellation: This clause outlines what happens when a client wants to terminate the contract early and end the relationship, how the process is initiated, and what the client can expect in terms of deliverables, payments, and timeline.
  • Company Cancellation: This clause outlines what happens when YOU want to terminate the contract early and end the relationship. It explains what clients can expect if you need to exit the project midway through in terms of deliverables, payments, and timeline.
  • Dormancy + Cancellation: This clause outlines what happens if the client disappears mid-project, stops responding to communications, and delays the project. It explains what dormancy is, how long a project must sit with no forward movement to be considered dormant, and what happens if a project becomes dormant. It also explains how dormancy can lead to the cancellation of the project.
  • Cancellation Through Expiration: This clause puts a boundary on the project timeline and ensures it isn’t treated as an open-ended project that can be delayed for an unlimited amount of time. It explains the project time limit, when the contract expires, and what happens if it expires and the project is not complete in terms of deliverables, payments, and timeline.

Many new freelancers push back on using comprehensive contracts and prefer to go with simple one-page estimates with a signature line — and that’s fine and dandy if you’re a hobbyist doing quick-turn, small projects with tiny budgets and little risk.

It doesn’t become a problem until you start taking your freelance business seriously and work with larger clients on projects that have more on the line and introduce greater risk. The more experience you have the better (and often bigger) your freelance contract is because you’ve learned lessons the hard way and never want to experience those same situations again.

And speaking of learning lessons the hard way…

Hanging On To Problem Clients

I’m someone who has to learn things the hard way and that dynamic showed up in my freelance business on more than one occasion. What’s most interesting is that many of the hard lessons came from problem clients I should have fired but instead hung onto for dear life.

I clung to clients that treated me poorly because I thought I needed them to survive and it was easier to keep them than it was to go out and find new clients. I was so afraid of losing their business and not being able to support my family and pay my mortgage that I kept working with them regardless of how outrageous their demands were, how rude their communications were, and how little they paid me.

This pressure caused me to make some not-so-smart business decisions. Clients underpaid me because I undercharged for the work I was doing. They treated me poorly because I allowed them to. They made unreasonable demands because I taught them it was okay.

Thankfully, building a business is something anyone can learn.

Effective client management and project management can be learned. Profitable pricing and packaging can be learned. Conflict management and change management can be learned. Recognizing red flags and identifying ideal clients can be learned.

And… Letting go of problem clients is something you can learn to do too.

Firing A Bad Client

Making the decision to part ways with a client isn’t an easy one.

With that said, the client I fired this week isn’t the first client I have fired. It seems like a no-brainer, but I had to learn that it’s okay to let go of clients for:

  • Mean, petty, rude, hurtful, and disrespectful behavior
  • Poor, unclear, or vague communication paired with expectations of mind reading
  • Unreasonable expectations and outrageous demands paired with not being able to take no for an answer
  • Lack of trust, opinion shopping, and second-guessing every suggestion, decision, or piece of information shared

If you wake up in the morning dreading the work on your to-do list…

If you cringe every time an email from a certain client hits your inbox…

If you can’t sleep the night before a meeting with a client…

If you experience anxiety and stress as a result of interacting with a client…

If a client is causing problems that negatively affect your business and life…

It’s time to figure out how to part ways with that client.

You do not have to work with mean people who treat you like crap.

You do not have to work with people who expect you to create magic but refuse to provide the tools you need to be successful. And, you do not have to work with people who don’t trust you and want to micromanage and dictate everything you do. A good client will see you as a valuable partner and treat you with respect.

The thing is, sometimes you also need to fire a great client.

Firing A Good Client

I have been lucky to work with some incredible, brilliant, smart clients over the years — clients I absolutely adored and held onto for as long as possible — even when it wasn’t very profitable for me to do so because we became friends. But eventually, there came a time when I realized that holding onto them was doing us both a disservice, and I had to learn another lesson…

The clients that got you to where you are now may not be the same clients that get you to where you want to go.

As my business grew and evolved, clients that were at one time, my ideal clients, were no longer a core part of my business niche. They weren’t any less amazing, these clients just no longer aligned with the services and price points my agency was leaning into.

Putting my clients first and prioritizing what was best for them meant letting them go.

  • It protected my client relationships while making room in my business for new clients aligned with my vision for the future.
  • It gave my clients the opportunity to once again be a perfect-fit ideal client for another designer who would love them as much as I did.
  • It allowed me to support industry peers with quality referrals and personal introductions to awesome clients who value their talents and skills.

When To Fire A Client

When firing a client timing is everything.

It can be tempting to leave horrible clients in the lurch — to drop the mic and “walk out.” You may even feel like they don’t deserve the gift of a graceful exit. That was definitely the case when a client threatened to hunt me down and harm my children. While I ended that relationship on the spot, in most cases that mindset and those actions do more harm than good.

Walking away from a project in the middle of a big push, not finishing work, and leaving your client hanging with no notice, is a big no-no. That broken trust is also a surefire way to damage the client relationship (and probably your reputation) beyond repair.

Giving a client advance notice that you’ll be parting ways is a much better approach — especially when you time it to coincide with a natural stopping point, like after wrapping a sprint and hitting a milestone successfully.

As the professional service provider, you’re in control of the project, the timeline, and the contract. You know when the upcoming milestones are, when the payments are due, and what objectives the team is working toward.

This means you can time your exit so there is minimal disruption:

  • Identify a natural stopping point and outline next steps to get you there faster.
  • Plan your exit from a client relationship or a client project in advance.
  • Give the client a heads up with as much advance notice as possible.
  • Help the client find a new partner to replace you.
  • Create a transition plan to wrap up your work together and get the client up and running with their new partner.

With this approach, you remain in control, act with integrity, protect your brand, and maintain your role as a trusted expert and consummate professional.

How To Fire A Client

Great clients may get upset that you’re letting them go and they may feel nervous about a transition to a new service provider. With the right approach, however, they’ll understand that you’re doing what’s best for them and appreciate your honesty and efforts to make the transition as easy as possible.

Here’s how I gracefully part ways with a good client:

  • Show the love. Start by letting the client know that they have been a great client. Share how much you’ve enjoyed working with them and how much the relationship has meant to you.
  • Provide context. Then, give them a bit of context for what you’re about to do. Let them know what is happening in your business that is creating change.
  • Share concern. Next, let the client know that your biggest concern is their experience and continuity of quality service. Share how important it is to you that they receive the best client care and fast response times.
  • Provide the path forward. Finally, let the client know that the best step forward is actually parting ways. Position the change as a positive opportunity and reassure them that you’ll help them find a new partner and support them during the transition.

When you make the parting of ways all about what is best for the client, it helps the client feel good about the conversation, the next steps, and you.

Now, let’s talk about how to fire bad clients.

While it’s okay to let your emotions show when letting a great client go, it’s best to keep emotions in check when kicking a bad client to the curb. Your immediate feelings, even if you’re angry, upset, or hurt, need to stay out of the conversation.

Just as you want to maintain a positive brand experience when saying no and turning away potential clients, the goal when firing a client needs to be maintaining a positive experience and protecting your brand because your brand is bigger than you.

When you prioritize the client experience, regardless of the circumstance, you limit ill-will and squash any negativity that can damage your brand.

Here’s how I gracefully part ways with a bad client:

  • Ask the client to listen. Start by letting the client know what you have something important to share with them and ask them to listen to everything you have to say before responding.
  • State the facts. Calmly walk through the facts and explain what brought you to this point. Be sure to do this without assigning blame to avoid the client getting defensive. Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements. For example, “I was yelled at,” instead of “You yelled at me.”
  • Explain the situation. Outline why the facts shared are unacceptable to set the stage for what you’re about to do. Be sure to keep emotion out of the conversation as much as possible and keep it straightforward and “matter of fact.”
  • Share the news. Let the client know that you’re ending the relationship and don’t be wishy-washy about it. Make it a statement.
  • Establish boundaries. Communicate that the decision is final.
  • Provide the path forward. Explain what the client can expect and walk them through the process of parting ways and the next steps. Clearly communicate exactly what you will do and how you will wrap up the engagement.
  • Give grace. Share your disappointment about the situation, let them know that you hope this is an opportunity to find a partner who is a better fit, and wish them success.
  • Remain firm, fair, and friendly. If the client does push back, take a deep breath and respond calmly and clearly. It’s good to have a rational discussion with a client who wants to talk — you may even get an apology. But for clients who get angry and want to argue, shut it down. Repeat that the decision is final, let them know that you’re not interested in rehashing what happened, and share that arguing won’t change anything.

It’s difficult for clients to be mean or mad when you remain polite, professional, calm, clear, and accommodating. It’s also important to remember that clients are human too. They may lash out, make mistakes, let their emotions get the best of them, and behave in a way they regret later. They may even be embarrassed about their behavior.

Shift Your Mindset About Firing Clients

You should wake up in the morning excited about the work on your to-do list…

You should be happy when emails from clients hit your inbox…

You should sleep soundly and look forward to client meetings…

You should enjoy interacting and collaborating with your clients…

Your business should benefit from your client relationships…

If this isn’t your reality, it’s time to plan for and make a change.

Calling it quits and saying goodbye to a client who is no longer a fit is good business.

I don’t want you to groan about working with a client. I want you to cheer. I want you to be excited about the clients you work with, the projects you work on, and the problems you get to solve. That means shifting your mindset about client relationships. Not every client is a forever client and that’s okay. It’s also okay to grow and evolve and make changes in your business that may not work for all of your clients.

If firing a client makes you uncomfortable or stressed, shift your mindset.

Think of it this way: Letting a client go that is no longer a fit is doing them a favor. You’re giving them the gift of opportunity. Rather than hang onto them, you’re giving them the chance to once again be a sought-after, cherished, ideal client for someone else.

And that is something you can feel really good about.