Breaking Up with Bad Clients: A Guide for New Freelancers

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

How to know when it's time to fire a client and approach the difficult conversation professionally so as to avoid provoking retaliation.




As a new freelancer, you may understand that there are times when it will make sense to end a client relationship, but it can be hard to know if you’re seeing the situation objectively. I hope that this article will serve as a framework to give you a balanced perspective.


We’ll first look at the boundaries you should set and when to know a client has crossed them. After that, we’ll look at how to end the relationship professionally. While firing clients is never fun, doing it the right way can minimize the likelihood that they’ll flip out and work to damage your reputation.


Standards and Dealbreakers


1. Reliable Payment

If you’re dealing with a substantial corporate client, they may require up to three months to pay an invoice due to their internal processes and the large volume of vendors they handle. Smaller clients may be able to pay you sooner, but can be disorganized or have cash flow issues.


Steps you can take to minimize issues include following-up and having enough savings to act as a buffer. However, there needs to be a point where you draw the line based on the context and patterns of behavior. You can’t afford to continue working for a client that isn’t reliable — even if they are a prestigious name or are offering a project that will look great in your portfolio.


2. Clear and Consistent Communications

These days, even the most diligent and well-organized professionals can get overwhelmed and neglect to respond to messages. They could be flooded with calls, emails, and notifications from many different communications platforms.


On top of this, even if your contact is generally an excellent communicator, they may not be knowledgeable about the work they are seeking to outsource to you. This can result in vague instructions and sudden changes in the scope of work. Of course, problems are compounded if the person you are dealing with is disorganized, negligent, and a poor communicator. They may also blame you for the issues that result.


While it will always be case-by-case, there comes the point at which your efforts will not be enough to compensate for the difficulty of dealing with the client.


3. Fixed Scope of Work & Deadlines

Scope creep and urgency are facts of life. However, you are not a machine. It’s crucial to agree in writing on a defined scope of work and deadline for every task and project. Anything that falls outside of this should be subject to additional fees and an agreed scope and timeline. If a client won’t respect this, then it’s time to consider the best way to end the relationship.


That said, if you are the one who neglects to complete agreed work or misses deadlines, you should consider, on a case-by-case basis, offering a discount or perhaps doing the job for free. If you are working via an online freelancer job marketplace website such as Conyac, underperforming can result in a poor review from the client, which will affect your ability to make a good first impression on future prospects.


4. Respectful & Professional Communications

Sooner or later, you will attract a hot-tempered client who says unkind things once they snap. How much of this you are willing to take will depend on how badly you need the work and your personal tolerance levels.


At one extreme, some freelancers manage to stay cool with even the angriest clients — as long as they perceive the payment and reviews at the end are worthwhile. Meanwhile, other freelancers have a much lower threshold and refuse to deal with any client who shows a hint of negative behavior. Where you draw the line is a personal choice.


5. A Good Fit

If your finances are stable, then you have more leeway to focus on projects that are enjoyable and interesting to you. You also only want to be taking on work or dealing with clients that match your values. If, after taking on a job, you realize it’s not what you want to be spending your time on, review if it’s worthwhile completing. However, keep in mind that suddenly withdrawing will likely inconvenience the client.


If it’s a massive project, then it may make sense to respectfully withdraw after explaining that it’s not what you had expected. Depending on how far the project has already progressed, you might offer to complete just the current milestone. If the overall project is not overly large, then consider completing it in full only this one last time to the best of your ability and avoiding similar work in the future.


Evaluating the Situation


You shouldn't hesitate to pull out of working relationships that aren't beneficial. However, sometimes, it may be appropriate to give them one last chance. Perhaps the relationship can be salvaged and, with a few changes, be worthwhile continuing.


If possible, try to set up a call to explain the issues and see if it is possible to arrive at a solution. They may be willing to make changes to keep working with you.


  • Payments: Explain how their delays are making it continuing your relationship unfeasible and what terms you need.

  • Communications: Explain that you need more precise directions to be able to continue doing the work.

  • Scope Creep & Unrealistic Deadlines: Explain that you have other clients and so the current situation is not sustainable.

  • Behavior: Consider whether it is worthwhile or fair to give the client one final warning before terminating them for unacceptable behavior.


Exiting a Client Relationship Smoothly


1. Commit to Doing This the Right Way

If you’ve been enduring a nightmare client, then you’re most likely fantasizing about ending the relationship in a way that expresses your resentment.


Perhaps you’ve imagined ghosting them (i.e., suddenly cut off all communications and blocking them on all channels), telling them to go ______ themselves, or even exact some kind of revenge. Perhaps you’d love to do all of the above! I totally get it.


However, this can backfire.

  • If you’ve secured the work via a freelancing marketplace site such as Conyac, then they may leave a bad review, which will hurt your chances of getting future work.

  • In a worst-case scenario, if they are mentally unhinged, they might seek to exact revenge on you somehow. The amount of damage they can do to you will likely depend on how much information they can find about you online.

  • If they have a lot of influence in a particular field or community, they may seek to damage your reputation.


While the world is indeed a big place, it pays to not leave a trail of burned bridges and mortal enemies in your wake. Furthermore, depending on your field, you may be in a situation where you may need this client to serve as a reference. Thus, you should do all that you can to end the relationship as respectfully and professionally as possible.


You can’t control how they are going to react, but you can control how you handle this breakup from your side. You should come to the conversation prepared. Below we’ll look at several steps to get you ready to face them.


2. Choose Your Medium

The medium you use for firing the client will depend on your relationship with them and how you have communicated to date. At one end of the scale, if you barely know the client and have primarily communicated via text, then that is the medium you would use. However, if you have been meeting them in-person frequently, then it will only feel fair to them that you took the time to deliver the news in person.


If it requires a call or meeting, consider giving them a heads up by telling them that you would like to discuss the future of the relationship. This prevents them from feeling blindsided and lets them prepare for the conversation. I recommend recording the call or meeting if possible. If not, follow-up with a written summary after the meeting so that you both have records of what was agreed upon.


Of course, if the client has been abusive or you need to exit urgently, then consider sending them a thoughtfully worded message and issuing them a refund.


The goal is to minimize offense to the client and make them feel that you’ve put in the effort to be respectful and professional about it.


3. Plan The Transition

If the client has been difficult but not abusive, consider planning an exit strategy that allows you to exit the relationship cleanly while minimizing disruption to them and letting them feel respected. If it is a large project, and it is feasible, perhaps you can agree that you will finish just the current outstanding milestone.


In some cases, you may have agreed to a notice period up-front. You must, of course, honor this and ensure that you take care of all agreed tasks before the final hand-over and wrap-up. For one client, I had committed up-front to giving them a month’s notice. However, since I knew they would struggle to find a replacement, I gave them three. They really appreciated it, and I’ve remained on good terms with them.


4. Write Out Your Message

Even if you are going to deliver the bad news in person or via a call, it can help to prepare and rehearse what you are going to say. You can then use it as a message to send afterward, confirming everything in writing for both parties.


Here is a rough structure to use. You’ll need to calibrate it to the recipient and situation, of course. Remember to stay direct, honest, and polite. The parts in square brackets are notes to help you write your custom version.


_____________________


[Dear/Hi] [Name],


Thank you for your time today. [If applicable.]


I appreciate the opportunity you have given me to work with you.


This wasn't an easy decision to make, but after careful consideration, I've decided to discontinue working with you and will be terminating our relationship on [chosen date].


In the meantime, I will do my best to finish all outstanding work and hand over any deliverables. I'd also be happy to recommend other professionals or resources who might be better suited to your needs and expectations.


Best regards,

[Your Name]


_____________________


Tips:

  • Add or remove details as necessary. Adjust the style and tone to fit. Being too short and terse may unnecessarily trigger a negative response. However, being too wordy and vague can lead to misunderstandings.

  • Decide whether or not to mention the reason. If it's going to potentially trigger retaliation, then it's best to leave it out. Consider giving one that is true but palatable to their egos and lets them save face.

  • If they were indeed a terrible client, you may not want to inflict them on others, so you can leave the part about referrals out. If, however, it was simply not a good fit, you may want to take the time to provide them with recommendations. Anything you can do to make the transition less of a hassle for them will be appreciated and help decrease the likelihood that they will look to retaliate in any way.


Conclusion


Part of becoming a successful freelancer is knowing and respecting the boundaries of both yourself and your clients. As you gain experience, you'll get more comfortable identifying clients that are a good fit, and that will help you grow. Respectfully ending relationships with bad clients will free you to focus on the good ones.


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