It's Not Me, It's You: How to Fire a Client as a Freelancer

As Freelancers, I'm sure we could all sit around a table, drinks in hand, and talk about common problems -- particularly problem clients. We've all been there. There's always that one or two or five depending on the season of your business. Their demands are out of control or perhaps they never, ever pay you on time (or close to on time). When do you sever the cord and how do you do it, especially when hustling so hard?

Is the client more work than the work?

I know I have a problem when I am more stressed about the client than the actual work I do for that client. I have no problem with high expectations. In fact, I want to meet them. That's the way I'm built, and in my experience I find that a lot of people who have built their own businesses freelancing feel the same way. But I want to be focused on the work and not walking on eggshells all the time because I don't know which "version" of the client I am going to get. I do not want to be focused on the client as a person and their needs -- but sometimes they make it impossible to do. Do you feel a sense of dread when an email pops up from them or when they call? That's a hint to take stock of the situation.

Do they pay?

This is incredibly simple. If they are not respecting your time or your work by not paying you on time regularly, it's time to give them the heave-ho. I once had a client who never paid me regularly because "mailing a check was an inconvenience." This is the same client who did not want to pay online because she never puts her credit card information online (maybe that was a sign?). When after nearly a year, and several months where two invoices had to be paid as one because the mailbox was just too hard for her to deal with monthly, I had to confront her. She did not take kindly to it, which was another sign. Because she was a business person and she expected her work to be valued.

If someone is not respecting your time or your work -- and, to be clear, they show that respect by paying you on time -- then it's not worth it to keep them because you aren't getting paid anyway.

Is it just not a good fit?

Ever dated someone so great and yet there wasn't that chemistry? Maybe it is communication styles when it comes to your client. Maybe it has to do with the vision of their business. Once I was hired to do some branding for a new client but she did not have a vision at all for her business. I did my best to inspire her but if she doesn't know her brand, how can I help her? You know when you're dating the wrong person and you also know when it just isn't working with a client too.

Which leads us to the break-up:

So, once you have figured out that you have to break up with a client, what do you do?

  • Don't burn bridges

Unlike a break up with a boo, the goal is to stay on reasonably friendly and professional terms with the client. I've had past clients refer new work to me which is great (but be warned: like attracts like so be careful…just another lesson I learned the hard way freelancing).

  • Have "The Talk" in whatever form of communication you most commonly use

Is this a client you talk to mostly on the phone? Sorry, but you have to have this conversation over the phone. Do most of your business with them over email? You can write that email while you pour yourself a cocktail. You can type furiously all of your complaints and then delete them in a therapeutic way before you write the actual break-up.

  • Use therapist language

Ever heard of "I messages?" I feel like my work is moving in a different direction. I feel you might be better served by someone else. No one can take away your feelings so feel away. Also, avoid the word 'but.' It stops everyone in their tracks. We are hardwired to immediately get defensive so reframe the sentence (this also includes any synonyms like however).

  • Care about them and their business even as you end it

Your last communication should show that you have a thorough understanding of the direction of their business and that you think it is great, exciting, and (insert positive adjective here). It should also clearly state that it's over between you professionally with a kind reason. Don't lie. But just like any break-up, find a way to end things thoughtfully. Someone once gave me this advice about dating: Leave the person better off than you found them. The same applies here. But leave them.

Firing clients is never fun (is breaking up ever fun?). But it has to be done. I've learned this the hard way, but boy have I learned it.