Problem Clients, Part 3: How to Fire a Client
Every business owner runs into a problem client from time to time. Even as you get better at defining your ideal client, watching for red flags, and setting clear boundaries and expectations, someone is bound to sneak through the gates and wreak havoc every now and then.
The good news is that you run your own business—and that means you don’t have to work with people you don’t like. Here’s how to quickly and painlessly put an end to these situations.
LETTING GO OF FEAR
When business is booming and you have more clients than you know what to do with, it’s easy to let go of the clients with low budgets and bad attitudes. But when money’s tight and you’re stuck in a scarcity mindset, fear can take hold and lead you into the Land of Bad Decisions.
When a client starts to go awry, trigger anxiety, or make you avoid checking your email, Fear says, “Just ignore it—they don’t mean it. Just keep working and finish this project. They pay well, and you need the money.”
Fear leads you to rationalize, even when your gut knows that you’re making the wrong decision. In reality, dropping problem clients frees you up for the clients who treat you well. Firing bad clients will also generate new work, since your time and energy can go into finding amazing new clients.
DETERMINING YOUR BOTTOM 10%
In part 1 of this series, I talked about mapping out your projects on the Love/Hate scale. In that post, clients and projects were more or less interchangeable. Now, take out a piece of scrap paper and draw that simple XY axis again. This time, however, only plot your clients onto the grid.
- Which clients pay well and treat you well? (Love it/$$$)
- Which clients pay well but cause you anxiety and stress? (Hate it/$$$)
- Which clients don’t pay well, but are a pleasure to work with? (Love it/$)
- And finally, which clients don’t pay well and treat you poorly? (Hate it/$)
Look at the clients in the Hate it/$ quadrant and repeat after me: “I will not work with clients who don’t respect me and pay me what I’m worth.” Prepare to say sayonara to these folks (feel free to use the starter email script, below).
Also take a good, hard look at the clients in the Hate it/$$$ quadrant. They might pay you well, but are they a royal pain to work with? Are they worth the emotional rollercoaster they put you through on a daily basis? Are you rationalizing keeping them even though your gut says you need to let them go?
Now tally up the lowest of the low: which clients make up your bottom 10%? These are the folks you need to fire as soon as possible.
FIRING A CLIENT PROFESSIONALLY
When firing a client, it’s best to get straight to the point. Don’t wiggle around or try to let them down gently: be direct, professional, and polite. You can cite your reasons for firing them if you want (“due to your repeated late payments/rude behavior/refusal to take my advice”), but note that this will likely just make the aggressive ones more combative.
Here’s a simple script to get you started:
As of [date], [I/company name] will no longer be able to provide you with [editorial services].
I suggest [insert a solution or way of wrapping up the project cleanly, or give them a referral to a colleague who would be a better fit*]. Below is a list of the remaining action items involved in this project, which I will wrap up before [date].
[List of action items]
Thanks for understanding.
If the client reacts negatively to being fired, be firm and stay professional. If they send you a ranting email, for instance, respond with something like, “Thanks for your feedback, but the decision is final.”
It can be emotional and stressful to fire a client (especially the first time around!), but you’ll feel so much better when it’s all said and done. Just remember: you didn’t start your own business to work with people you don’t like. Firing bad clients will open doors to better work, higher pay, and people who respect and adore you.
Now that you’ve defined your ideal client, set clear boundaries and expectations, and dropped any clients who weren’t a good fit, it's time to learn how to attract the perfect clients for you.
*If the person is a true problem client who won’t work well with anyone, don’t refer them to a colleague. No one appreciates being handed a bad client!
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