Freelancing 101: Firing Bad Clients

March 3, 2015


It’s late. You’ve been working on a tight deadline, only to see the “New Message” notification pop up on your inbox. It’s from one of your clients… and it’s not good.

Not only is the client unhappy with your proposed direction for his project, he’d like to change the scope of your work significantly – all just hours before the final deadline you had agreed upon.

What do you do? Do you buckle down, acquiescing to his requests without a peep? Or do you stand up for yourself, your business and the terms of the project you and the client had set?

The truth is, every freelance relationship starts out with the best intentions. After all, nobody takes on a new project thinking, “I can’t wait until this client’s endless delays and borderline-abusive feedback leave me wishing I’d never left my day job!”

But the sad fact of the matter is that not every client you take on will be a good fit for your business – just as your unique freelancing skill set means you won’t be the right fit for every potential customer. The key, therefore, lies in being able to tell when a relationship is deteriorating and when it’s time to call it quits so that your time and resources can be directed towards customers that represent a better fit for your business.

Protect Yourself from the Start

The unfortunate scenario described at the start of this post could have been prevented with a bit a forward thinking. Like so many things in life, proper planning and preparation is critical to client-relationship success. Handling bad clients appropriately begins before the situation gets out of control – not when you’re already deep in the weeds with a project that’s ground to a halt.

Start with a trial project

If the scope of your freelance projects makes it appropriate, consider starting with a trial project, rather than a full project load. Doing so will quickly make it apparent whether you and your client are a good fit for each other.

As an example, say you’re a freelance graphic designer who’s been approached by a local business to revamp its website and identity package. Instead of tackling everything at once, consider starting with just the logo or website header. Doing so will ensure that you’re on the same page, style-wise, before you get in too deep.

Document your agreements with contracts

Misunderstandings in project scope and direction are at the root of many freelance relationships that go south, and the easiest way to minimize these miscommunications is with contracts that document every aspect of your agreement.

Make sure your contracts include all of the following elements:

  • Specific deliverables
  • Deadlines you’ve agreed upon
  • Payment amounts and frequencies
  • How disputes will be handled
  • How many revisions will be included (if applicable)
  • Ownership of the rights to any content or work completed under the agreement

It’s also a good idea to have a small business lawyer look over your contract templates. The last thing you want is to hear that your agreement won’t protect you in the event of a dispute with a bad client!

Make use of cancellation clauses

As you’re writing your contracts, make sure to include a cancellation clause that dictates each party’s responsibilities in the event that the business relationship doesn’t work out. Specifically, this clause should address how much notice must be given by either party, on what grounds cancellation can occur, how payment milestones are impacted by the cancellation and who will own the rights to any work completed before the cancellation.

Making the Decision to Fire

Now, let’s say that you’ve entered into your freelance relationship with your “I’s” dotted and your “T’s” crossed. You’ve taken the steps to protect yourself, but still wind up facing the challenges described earlier in this post. In this case, terminating your contract may be the best course of action. Here are a few other signs it’s time to call it quits:

  1. The client is slow to respond. We’re all busy, and delays in communication aren’t unusual in the business world. But if the client’s delays interfere with your ability to execute the project – or worse, get in the way of your work with other clients – you’ll need to either clarify the consequences of slow responses or terminate the relationship altogether.
  2. The client’s demands exceed the scope of the project. It’s unfortunately common for freelance projects to start at an agreed-upon Point A and quickly spiral out-of-control to Point B. If the client is willing to adjust your compensation to account for your increased responsibilities (and you can execute them satisfactorily), that’s one thing; if not, it may be time to move on.
  3. The client doesn’t respect your expertise. It may sound strange to suggest that a client wouldn’t respect your expertise – after all, that’s why they brought you on as a freelancer, right? However, it does happen, and if you find yourself in a position where your knowledge is being ignored or denigrated, it’s worth considering that your time may be better spent elsewhere.
  4. The client is slow to pay (or doesn’t pay at all). If you aren’t getting paid, do not pass “Go” and do not collect $200 – this is grounds for immediate cancellation. While you do have the option of extending your payment deadlines or assessing late fees on past-due payments, not getting paid is never a good sign. Be very careful about allocating your time and resources to clients who don’t respect you enough to pay you.

If you think there’s a chance your relationship can be salvaged, your first step should be to address and resolve the issue you’ve identified in a professional way. But if these efforts are unsuccessful – or if they aren’t appropriate for the severity of the situation – it’s time to put your big kid pants on and fire your bad clients…

Firing Bad Customers Like a Boss

Now, to be clear, this isn’t to say that you go all Donald Trump on your bad clients, yelling “You’re fired!” as you exit in a blaze of glory. As satisfying as that might be, the business world is notoriously small. Burning bridges won’t help you in the long-run, so keep the following tips in mind for ending client relationships in a professional manner:

  • Let your emotions cool. Feeling angry or upset can cause you to say things you regret. Wait until you’ve cooled down and can address the firing more rationally.
  • Terminate the relationship professionally. You don’t need to throw every perceived slight back in your client’s face to end your engagement. A simple statement like, “I regret to inform you that I am unable to continue working on this project,” keeps things simple and protects your reputation. Provide referrals, if appropriate. If you’re working with the client from hell, don’t try to pawn them off on other freelancers in your network. But if it’s the case that your relationship didn’t work out due to workload or experience issues, referring a worker who can take over from you helps to leave things on good terms.
  • Nobody wants to be put in the position of firing clients, but it’s a necessary evil freelancers face from time-to-time. According to Hailey Dale, a freelance designer and business systems consultant with Trunked Creative, “Never feel as though you have to work for someone even if it doesn’t feel right to you. You always have a choice.”

If it’s time to exercise your choice by firing bad clients and opening up your schedule to make room for the right customers, the tips above will help ensure you carry out this unfortunately unpleasant task in a professional manner that reflects well on your business.

Have you ever had to fire a bad client? Share how you handled it by leaving a comment below


about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.