We’ve all been there.
We ignored the red flags and the warning signs and ended up in a less-than-ideal situation with a bad client.
As a freelancer, I’ve certainly had to deal with a few annoying clients over the years. Luckily for me, only a couple ever became so untenable that I had to cut the cord and break the contract early.
I genuinely believe, that most professional service providers should strive to remedy the situation before things reach a boiling point.
However, it’s also important that we also learn to recognize when a relationship has soured beyond the point of return. And it’s just as important to learn how to end things professionally, without further escalation.
And so, in this article, I am going to share my best tips on how to fire a client, the right way.
Note: In the spring of 2022, I began slowly scaling back my freelance business to focus on blogging. If you happen to be one of my former clients, please rest assured, I’ve only fired 2-3 clients in my entire freelance career, and they know who they are.
When should you give up on a client?
But first, let’s talk about when to give up on a client.
As business owners – and I count all freelancers and independent contractors as business owners – we should learn how to tell the difference between a slightly annoying client and a truly toxic client.
As with all relationships in life – romantic, friendship, professional – “perfect” is a pipedream. Disagreements will arise on occasion, and conflict-resolution skills will likely be required at some point.
With that said, no bad relationship is worth hanging onto if it is:
- Taking a toll on your mental health
- Making you lose sleep at night
- Taking time and energy away from your good clients
- Costing you money
- Costing you opportunity
Far too often, I hear freelancers who feel they are trapped in a bad situation say that they can’t “afford” to leave. To which I always reply: “Can you afford to stay?”
After all, there are real costs and real consequences involved when you hang on to a toxic relationship for a bit too long.
First, there’s the personal cost. Perhaps it’s putting you in a bad mood, causing you to lose sleep at night and making you easily agitated around your friends at family.
Then, there’s the professional cost. Perhaps the project is so far over the original scope that you’re officially out of pocket or working for free. Or perhaps you’re spending so much time bending over backward for the bad client that you’re putting your good clients on the backburner. Or worse – perhaps you’re even missing out on another potential opportunity with a great client who’s a better fit for your business.
So when should give up on a client? You should give up on a client when the personal and professional cost to keep them, becomes too great.
Quick personal story
In the middle of 2020, I took on a new client who told me they didn’t feel comfortable working with a remote freelancer but felt they had no choice. At the time, lockdowns were in full effect. And even major corporations were implementing remote work policies.
To this day, I am still mad at myself for ignoring that humongous metaphorical red flag.
In the months that followed, their distrust and anxiety over the situation grew to unimaginable levels.
Within a few weeks, the project was well over scope. I was officially out of pocket, stressed to the max, and even putting my good clients on the back burner to accommodate my anxiety-ridden, unsatiable new customer.
It all came to a head the week of project launch.
Just as I thought I was near the end, the client reached out with several lengthy anxiety-fueled e-mails. They were once again second-guessing the project and wanted to delay the launch.
It was at that point that something inside of me snapped.
I politely reminded the client that I had fulfilled my contractual obligations, recommended they find a new freelancer for their future needs, and turned in my notice.
How do you end a relationship with a client?
Reader, if you’re currently in a situation like the one described above, I am excited for you.
I am excited because I know all too well the relief you will feel after you send your toxic client packing.
The freedom is exhilarating.
And, afterward, you’ll be all the wiser for it.
Next time, you’ll know how to recognize the red flags early on so you don’t find yourself in this situation again.
After all, prevention is the true key to avoiding similar situations in the future.
Without further ado, below you will find five ways – with sample scripts – to professionally end your client relationship.
Note: Be sure to carefully read any agreements you have on file with your client to make sure you are not in breach of contract prior to taking action. Also, be sure to include sending a final invoice and collecting any outstanding late payments in your exit strategy.
1. Implement the annoying client tax
There’s a little something in the freelance industry often referred to as the “annoying client tax”.
It involves raising your rates to a level that it is either:
- A rate that your client cannot afford
- A rate that would make you so much money you don’t mind feeling a bit annoyed
And I’m not talking about a slight rate bump here. I’m talking about a comically large increase – as in 2-3x your original rate.
It needs to be a high enough increase to either scare the client off – making it feel like it was their decision to leave – or high enough that it makes the extra headache worthwhile should the client actually take the bait.
Think about it this way, we all have a price. If my bad client came back and said they’d gladly pay me $1,000,000 for a new website, ya know what, suddenly they don’t seem so bad after all!
The template that I recommend for this one is actually similar to the e-mail I send when I incrementally raise my rates, only more direct and with comically ridiculous price bumps.
I’ve never actually personally used this tactic. By the time I am ready to call it quits I don’t even want to give my bad client the option to keep going. But it’s a popular strategy in the freelancer community for dealing with challenging clients.
I hope you and your team are well.
After reviewing my recent operating costs and increasing work load, I’ve made the decision to increase my rate from [$100 per hour] to [$300 per hour].
This change will go into effect on [date].
I hope this notice gives you and your team enough time to plan as needed. Let me know if you have any questions.
2. Refer them to someone else
You can actually use this technique in combination with some of the others – just recommend a replacement freelancer that might be a better fit for their needs (and temperament).
However, I’d like to offer a word of warning on this one.
Freelance community karma is real.
Do not knowingly refer a bad client to a good freelancer without a proper heads up. Tell the new freelancer about the client problems you’ve been having, and let them make their own fully-educated decision about whether or not to take the job.
I hope you and your team are well.
I am writing to inform you that due to [excuse here], as of [date] I will no longer be able to provide services to [client’s company name].
I hope this notice gives you enough time to plan as needed.
If you are interested, I’d be happy to make a few recommendations on alternative [service providers] who might be able to assist you with your [service type] needs moving forward.
3. Write an honest, but professional termination notice
In my personal toxic-client situation (detailed above) I decided that honesty was the best policy.
I knew I had held up my end of the bargain as detailed in the original contract, despite the client continuing to request additional edits and meetings.
Luckily, my contract was quite clear about my obligations to the project. And while that contract left the door open for ongoing work, it also contained a 30-day termination clause that could be implemented by either party, at any time.
Pro-tip: During the onboarding phase, make sure that your clients sign a contract in which they agree to specific milestones, and acknowledge a reasonable termination clause.
And so, when I was ready to call it quits, I sent an e-mail similar to the following:
Below you will find a summary of work and deliverables in relation to [project xyz]:
As you know, our contract included:
– [Milestone One], completed on [date]
– [Milestone Two], completed on [date]
– [Milestone Three], completed on [date]
Since all major components of the project are now complete, this e-mail will serve as your 30-day notice.
In those 30 days, you may call or email me with questions related to the original project. Work requests outside of the original contract scope will be considered on a case-by-case basis and will be billed hourly and invoiced at the end of that 30 day period.
Best of luck in all of your future endeavors,
4. Use a professional excuse
Sometimes it just feels easier to make an excuse.
And really, there’s nothing wrong with a little white lie. Your client doesn’t necessarily need to know the real reason you want to terminate the contract. And you certainly aren’t obligated to tell them.
Assure your client that this is nothing more than a business decision, thank them for the business, and wish them luck in future endeavors.
Consider using one of these professional excuses when terminating the contract:
- Change in business direction (or pivot)
- Desire to scale back
- Change in availability (you’re too busy)
- No longer offering specific services
- Securing a larger contract (or better opportunity)
I hope you and your team are well.
I am writing to inform you that due to [fill in the blank excuse], as of [date], I will no longer be able to provide services to [client’s company name].
I have enjoyed working with you and your team and I hope this notice gives you enough time to plan as needed. Let me know if you have any questions.
5. Use a personal excuse
Finally, if you can’t come up with a professional reason to end the contract – just make it personal.
Again, sample excuses might include:
- Scaling back the business to spend more time with family
- Taking an extended vacation or time off
- Pursuing a personal goal
- Pursuing a higher education
- Considering a career change
I hope you and your team are well.
I am writing to inform you that I have decided to [fill in the blank excuse].
And so, as of [date] I will no longer be able to provide services to [client’s company name].
I have enjoyed working with you and your team and I hope this notice gives you enough time to plan as needed. I appreciate your understanding. Please let me know if you have any questions.
And remember, no matter which strategy you decide to employ, strive to be the bigger person. Don’t play the blame game, and try to avoid escalating the situation.
Do you have experience dealing with nightmare clients? Are you thinking about breaking up with a toxic client right now? Let me know in the comments. And don’t forget to connect with me on social media using the links below.