Tried to fire my client, it backfired, and somehow our business relationship improved!

phone-call

Yes, you’re reading that right. I tried to fire my client, and it backfired – so well, in fact, that our business relationship has improved!

So what happened? Let me tell you…

Deciding to fire my client

Most of you are probably thinking I’m crazy. Turning away someone who wants to pay me for my skills – absurd (or is it?)!

Truly, though, I had had enough. The project was WAY behind schedule, the client changed her mind on overall design strategy several times, and she spoke in a demeaning manner toward me when frustrated.

The money I was making wasn’t enough to cover the stress, and hearing statements like, “do you even know what you’re doing?” and “everything you’ve done up to this point is just average” made me resentful and less than interested in working on her project.

So, being a very non-confrontational person, I worked up the courage to fire her.

Should you fire your troublesome client?

If you identify with these red flags, firing your client might be in your best interest.

  • You avoid working on their project because of your personal feelings toward the client.
  • The client attacks you personally or speaks to you in a manner you are very uncomfortable with.
  • You’ve exhausted your design time and revisions and you’re not making any headway on the project.
  • You don’t feel the monetary compensation is enough to cover the stress of working with them.

The firing

As I just mentioned, I’m a big chicken when it comes to confrontation. I knew our history of phone conversations, and I knew our personalities, and she would’ve walked ALL over me on the phone.

Thus, I chose the email method – and yes, I feel it’s a big of a cop-out, but I truly don’t believe I could’ve performed the same action over the phone successfully.

My first email was a bit (okay, fairly) scathing. I had my master-of-communications (my boyfriend, who is awesome at people-reading and perception) read it prior to sending, and he told me to start over, leaving my feelings out of it. I didn’t want to, but I did.*

My second email was super-professional, concise and polite. I expressed that I was terminating our business relationship because we were struggling to successfully complete the project, and that I wasn’t sure if we would. I also mentioned that I felt her negative comments were unproductive and diminished our business relationship. I even provided a list of resources for her to find another designer, and provided the project files they’d need to continue. And then I wished them the very best of luck for the future.

Once I sent my second (boyfriend-approved) email, I felt relieved, like a weight had been removed from my shoulders. It was glorious…and I was really proud of myself for standing up for myself and my business!

*Writing that first email paved the way for my second. Without the therapy of venting my feelings, I don’t know if I could’ve expressed myself as professionally as I did. If it makes you feel better and clears your head, write that raw, tactless letter. Then delete it.

Tips for firing your client

  • Be clear – you don’t have to say “you’re fired,” but make sure your client knows you’re ending the relationship.
  • Be professional – don’t let your personal emotions burn bridges (unburning them is hard work).
  • Make it brief – explain your reasons concisely and move on.
  • Don’t apologize – feel free to express regret (I’m disappointed… or I regret…), but don’t send the message that you are in the wrong.
  • Offer resources or advice – while I wouldn’t refer a bad client to a friend, you can point them in the right direction for finding a new designer and getting their project finished.
  • Get a second opinion – ask a trusted, objective third party to read your email to make sure you’re following the tips above.

Why I took my client back and how our relationship has improved

Simply put, my client apologized and provided clear steps to finish the project. I felt my grievances were addressed (and I allowed her to air hers), so I accepted her apology and continued to work on the project.

Since the attempted firing, my client’s attitude has totally changed. She offers constructive criticism on my work and even praises a job well done.

Whether she’s being genuine or just putting on a show matters not to me – that we’re finishing her project and that she treats me with respect is enough for me to stay in the relationship (besides the paycheck).

Why firing a client is a win-win

First, let me say that I am NOT encouraging you to use this technique frequently. Firing a client should be a last resort when you have exhausted all other options of resolving conflict. Firing too many clients will most definitely tarnish your reputation.

That being said, it’s a win-win for you as a freelancer as the very rare out.

Win #1: You get rid of a bad client

Even when you lose, you win. When a bad client (here are the warning signs) becomes so much of a liability that the money you’re receiving isn’t compensation enough, it’s time to let them go.

Win #2: You work it out and improve your relationship

I got lucky; my client and I resolved our issues and are pursuing a long-term business relationship.

Lessons Learned

To some degree, I’m very thankful to have traveled this road with my client. I’ve learned volumes about my limits, conflict resolution, and professional communication in emotional situations.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that getting to this point should be a last resort. I’m at fault for not resolving issues as they occurred and not setting my limits and sticking to them, thereby tacitly allowing bad client behavior to persist. I helped foster the undue stress upon myself, and that’s not good for my business, my clients, or my family.

As freelancers, it’s important to establish that we are partners, not underlings, in our business relationships.

Have you ever had to fire a design client?

What was your experience like? How did you handle it, and what made you decide to end your relationship? Leave a comment on this post!

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Comments

    • says

      Donna,

      Yes, never let your emotions get the best of you in a business setting.

      I’d prefer not to share the specific email, as if it were to be known to my client that I shared it word-for-word, I think she’d be less than pleased to be an example. It’s a small world, and I like to be cautious. If you’d like, I can email you a similar version of my email for your reference.

      PS – Awesome street light animation on your website!

      Thanks for sharing!

  1. says

    Great article April! I have fired a few copywriting clients in my career – some were a great relief to let go of, and in a few cases it’s ended up making the relationship better. I seriously think that some business owners or project managers just don’t but the shoe on the other foot to understand what it’s like to work with someone who is so demeaning. I use the two email approach too – you need that therapeutic release of all the anger in order to get to a professional, clear place.

    • says

      Courtney,

      I think you’re spot-on: some people forget what it’s like to be on the receiving end of orders and feel they can treat people with disrespect. Firmly but politely reminding them that they are not allowed to act inappropriately in your relationship is key.

      So glad to hear someone else also writes two emails!

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. says

    I have been very lucky that I have never had to fire a client in part because I try to head off the big issues before they build up to the level of firing. On bigger projects, I establish upfront a “course change” fee and a slow response response. All of my clients know that once the concept has been agreed upon, any major deviation will result in additional fees to compensate for lost time.

    I was having an issue with clients taking forever to respond with design approvals, so I established a 5 day timeframe for their response. If they don’t respond, then their project gets put on “inactive” status and it is resumed at my convenience. I usually only hold off for a day or two. I also let them know that if their project goes inactive two times I reserve the right to terminate the contract and they pay for the work done to date. I have never had to do that thankfully.

    I am a professional and I treat my clients in a professional manner at all times. That being said, I demand they treat me professionally as well. I may be very shy and introverted, but I will not tolerate anyone talking to me in a demeaning manner. There is NO client worth that.

    • says

      Mike (I’ve always seen your name as Michael so I’m trying to break my habit of thinking of you as Michael),

      Wise words of veteran wisdom, my friend. Slay the lizards before they become dragons. Also, great stuff about client response time! Particularly, I’m going to incorporate a termination clause due to periods of inactivity as well. Question for you – do you get a deposit/down payment? How do you determine how much they owe you past the down payment, and have you ever had any resistance to your determination?

      Thanks for sharing!

      • says

        Luckily I have never had to terminate for this, but I generally break a project of this type into three phases with p1 being 50%, p2=75% and p3=100% compensation. I get a 50% downpayment upfront.

        What I do is state the turnaround time they have in writing anytime I send them a proof. After the fifth day, I send a notice that their project has been placed on inactive status and per the terms of the agreement, will be resumed at my convenience. That pretty much gets everyone’s attention and ends any future issues.

  3. says

    About a year ago I had been working along famously with a client until he got a new “business partner” – I’ll use that term loosely. This new guy did things that were nothing less of copyright infringement on my work and I called him on his actions – but his attitude was horrible not to mention his ego!

    As past experience has taught me, I take my time to compose emails that may have “heated” content in them – waiting a day or so and going back to edit before I send anything off. So serious wisdom on that one!! It really does allow one to take much of the emotion out of the content. I respectively told my client that I would have to let him go if he did not do something to address the matter with his so-called partner. Because I was the secret weapon that actually got his business on the map, there was NO WAY he was going to let me fire him. He did address the issue – but ultimately the partner got to be too much for him too and he got out!

    • says

      Barbara,

      Sounds like a terrible situation, but it all worked out in the end – that’s always good news!

      Glad to hear I’m not alone in my “drafting” of emails – and see Courtney’s comment above…she employs the same tactic, too.

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Valentin Heller says

    Great article!

    I’ve actually fired two clients in the past 1 year :)
    My technique was to tell them that i’m taking a break from work in order to take care of some health issues (i live in Romania, Eastern Europe and my clients are mostly from US) and that worked pretty well (it didn’t hurt my reputation and it was an indirect excuse).

    Hope this helps!
    Valentin

    • says

      Valentin,

      You certainly are creative! I caution anyone to be careful about untruths spoken in the business world, but you seem to have pulled it off well.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. says

    Great article. I’m a non-confrontational person too, however it takes a lot for me to get to this point and I’ve had to do it a couple times. The first time I was a basket case. The client was very rude and demeaning. We all have our boundaries and also need to follow our intuition on this one.

    • says

      Chris,

      It’s so important to define your boundaries and stick with them, and props to you for doing so! You’ll be happier at the end of each day.

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. says

    This is true, but in the beginning when I first started freelancing I had no choice but to work with anyone who was willing to pay. Now though things are a little different, but just like you I’m a chicken lol and I have a hard time turning down people. I’m going to take your boyfriend’s advice and I think I’m going to write a concise, to the point, professional emails to couple of my clients. I should have done this a long time ago, but I guess it’s better now than never.

    • says

      Mike,

      When you first start, the money is worth the stress, so you put up with the headaches. Now that you have some breathing room, the money isn’t, and it’s time to decide which client relationships are worth it, which you might be able to make worth it, and which ones you feel are unsalvageable.

      Good luck, and let me know how it goes (you might be surprised!).

  7. says

    I had to fire a client from her constant need of discounts or free services. I politely put her in her place and she bit back thinking she was in the right. I cleared my head and came up with a solid solution. Unfortunately there was no change in her attitude/appreciation for the work I was providing. I’ve decided to complete the latest project and believe it will be the last business transaction with her.

    Stress free is the best way to work.

    • says

      Marcus,

      Sounds like you’ve done all you could to make her a better client, but she’s just one of the bad apples. A friend of mine is in a similar situation right now, too.

      Thanks for sharing, and here’s to better clients!

  8. Jacs in Africa says

    The first client we fired was the husband of another client who had been great to work with (liked whatever I did, paid the bill on time, etc.).
    He, on the other hand, was total pig. When he wasn’t insulting me and demanding cheaper rates, he was trying to make moves on me … eeeuw!
    After much stress and tears, I eventually wrote a rather scathing letter, and filed it. Then wrote a much calmer note telling him we could no longer work on his project. His wife paid for the work I’d already done, and was so professional at all times. I think she must have realised what an a-hole he was!

    Another client we had to fire still hasn’t found someone else to complete his project, almost two years later. We were asked to update an old website. He had had a new logo designed by someone else, but it wasn’t very good. I offered to tidy it up at no charge while doing the website. However, he became very demanding, and everything I did with the logo was met with criticism. Apparently, I was taking too long on this urgent project, and “hadn’t done my research properly” as I’d got the traditional headgear featured in the logo totally wrong. My research was extensive and actually proved the opposite. I suggested he find another designer, but after all this time he has still done nothing. The site and old logo remain just as they were. So much for the rush ;-)

    • says

      Jacs,

      It sounds like you’ve gotten rid of some pretty terrible clients! Good for you for drawing your line in the sand and saying “enough is enough” when they cross it.

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. MP Mace says

    Wonderful post, thank you. I just had my first major (and not so great) experience with firing a client (several actually) today. The downturn in business over the past few years led me to be a, “yes” gal to every job that came my way over the last year or so. This resulted in quite the motley crew of clientele and made climbing the few steps to my attic studio each day seem more like ascending Mt. Everest. I dreaded each morning’s first glimpse of emails and worse the calls, I’ve worked with the phone permanently on DND for the first time ever in my 17 year design career. The breaking point was reached after the handful of bad-seeds where affecting my ability to do good work for any/all clients and combined with problems getting paid. I wish I would have handled it a little bit better than I did, though I managed to keep any honest feelings out of the emails I was still a bit blunt and quite clear on the fact that I would not be performing anymore work for them … so on the one hand I’m truly relieved to be free of them, on the other I still feel a little guilty for not having given them some notice but I know what would have happened by giving them notice. My biggest lesson was to make better choices from here on out about who I take on as a client AND perhaps most importantly to identify problems immediately and have honest direct conversation about it and not let client behaviors get this far out of hand ever again!

    • says

      MP,

      When you have that feeling of relief afterwards, you know you’ve done the right thing for your business and yourself. Not wanting to go to work is no way to freelance!

      Congratulations on turning over a new leaf!

      April

  10. Sarah says

    Hi April,

    I have a “flame retardant client” – one who seems to be immune to the firing process. It has become clear to me that the project is not going to end with her wishes fulfilled, as she is perpetually dissatisfied with the work. After countless professional emails on my behalf opting to end our business relationship, she continually asks me to do more work – all of which is unpaid – and disregards the emails that explain why the business relationship has deteriorated and my desire to disengage. Face to Face communications do not seem to achieve this desired result either.

    What else can I do other than sending her a literal Dear John letter – by certified mail, no less!?

    - S

    • Stir Fry says

      Goes both ways. As a business, we’ve had terrible experiences with ad agencies and graphic designers.

      Seems there is some snobbery in the ad agency world that only wants the big, monthly paying clients. One wanted us to fork over a $5K deposit just to drive down to discuss our needs which could have been accomplished by phone or other means. Like extortionists, they unabashedly questioned how much our company was willing to spend up front and monthly.

      The two graphic designers we’ve tried to work with have disregarded our requests and acted independently on our behalf without authorization then delivered what they think we should have. They have imposed unwarranted delays by failing to respond then give a snappy response along with a poor product that was clearly rushed. Failing to deliver a duplicate of a design we submitted, they they want to charge us additional hourly fees for mistakes they made. Outrageous!

      We’re done with “creative folks” with inflated egos that attitude of whom is brilliantly expressed in this article. We’re continuing to develop our graphics in-house as before which anyone with a computer an an ounce of creativity can do.

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  1. [...] Tried to fire my client, it backfired, and somehow our business …By April GreerTried to fire my client, it backfired, and somehow our business relationship improved! Posted August 29th, 2012 by April Greer & filed under Client Advice. phone-call. Yes, you're reading that right. I tried to fire my client, and it backfired – so …Graphic Design Blender [...]

  2. […] Example: For me, the perfect client is friendly, cheerful, mostly organized, and looks to me as a trusted source of design expertise. I’m perfectly fine with constructive criticism of my work, but rudeness and aggressiveness or finger-pointing is not something I’ll tolerate. […]

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