Everyone who has worked freelance has had to come to this point at some point in their career. It often comes as an uncomfortable surprise for both parties and it’s not always easy but… it is an absolutely essential thing to be able to do if you want to retain your sanity as a freelancer.
So, let’s take a look at 12 warning signs that it’s time to fire your freelance clients: the money sucks, they don’t pay, they’re awful people, they’re abusive to you, they aim for scope creep, they refuse to use a contract, you work too many hours, you clash over style, you hate the work, they won’t listen to you, there’s a better deal out there or you’re not proud of what you do.
Then we give you 3 simple letters that you can use to fire your clients. There’s nothing mean or obnoxious about this process. You’re a “freelancer” and that means you’re free to do what you want with your time.
Table of Contents
12 Warning Signs That The Time May Be Ripe To Fire A Freelance Client
This list should help you work out when it’s time to lead a client out to pasture and find someone better to work with:
The Money Sucks
Sometimes, you find yourself dragging along a client who has been with you for 5-6 years who is still basically paying the same money as the day when they started working with you. In the meantime, you’ve gone from charging 5 cents a word to 50 cents a word.
Every time this client sends through new work – you wish they hadn’t. You’ve asked them for more money but somehow, they manage to deflect every time that you talk to them. You’ve asked them to send less work for the same money, which is the same thing.
There’s no clearer warning sign that you are wasting your time than when a client won’t pay what everyone else is paying. Firing them is absolutely the only right thing to do.
They Don’t Pay
It is important to remember that most clients are good people. Yet, like all people, they can be unreliable and run a little late on paying you. This is because, contrary to many freelancers’ beliefs, the client has a real-life to manage and you’re only one of the things they have to attend to.
You need to remember that so that you don’t jump the gun and fire a client for being 3 days late on an invoice. But, there comes a time when they’re no longer late, they’re just milking your gullibility. Then, it’s time to break out the big guns. You send them a note levying your late fees. You hear nothing.
Then you send a letter via your solicitor and hear nothing. So, then you fire them and before you do, you call them up and read them the riot act. You’re not quitting on the money at this point, you’re stopping all work for the client including any maintenance, etc. on existing work because you can’t pay the rent with pixie dust.
If you do re-hire clients like this – make certain that they pay 100% upfront in the future.
They Are Awful People
Years ago, I signed a contract to work for a review website. It didn’t take long to realize that the whole thing was just a horrendous con job. They didn’t want honest reviews, they wanted lies that earned an affiliate commission.
I raised this immediately because it wasn’t what I’d signed on for and had been clear at the interview stage that I wouldn’t lend my professional reputation to bullshit reviews. The layer of slime that dripped down the phone line from the client would take weeks to wash off.
Yes, I fired him immediately. Yes, it hurt me financially too. This was early in my freelancing career and this was one of my first substantive clients. It doesn’t matter. Working with someone who cheats their clients is a stupid thing to do.
Not only would he have tarnished my hard-earned professional reputation, but he’d have ripped me off in the end too. People who mislead clients have no qualms at all about doing the same thing to their workers.
They Are Abusive To You
I’ve never had an abusive client. I count myself fortunate because I dealt with enough of them in my old sales career that I know how badly the can suck.
I remember picking up the phone in a call center once to be greeted with; “You ****ing ***t, I will ****ing kill you and your family.”
You can’t work with someone who is abusive to you. It shows they have no respect for you or your skills. You can’t teach someone to value you either.
I’d use a “one-warning and then they’re out” process here. Document what happened. Send it to the client with a clear note that this is not acceptable and if it happens again, you’ll end the relationship.
If they end it at this point – they’ve done you a favor, they would have done it again. If they apologize and want to try again, great but if they do it again – pull the plug on the relationship without hesitation. They’re not going to stop.
They Keep Aiming For Scope Creep
Some clients can’t help it. They see “2 revisions” are included and they think this means, “2 complete redesigns, 2 sets of major revisions, 2 sets of minor revisions and any damn thing else I please.”
You begin by reining them in. You draw their attention to the contract and say, “I give all my clients 2 revisions for free. What you’re looking for is outside of this agreement and thus, I’d have to charge $XXX for this.”
Most clients get the message at this point and reel themselves back in. Some, however, take this as a major affront and start to get angry.
You can’t make a living working for clients who want to pay for 5 hours and get 20 hours for that money. If they won’t compensate you for their scope creep, it’s time to wish them luck finding a new freelancer and move on.
They Want To Work Without A Contract
Never work without a contract. Never. Seriously, never.
No-one should ever become your client unless you have a written agreement. It is the sign of a scam waiting to happen when a client insists on using no contract.
When you do use a contract, ideally use your own. Then you can ensure it’s written to cover all the bases you want covering and that it’s clear on what’s expected from each party.
If you do use their contract. Read it. Thoroughly. If you don’t understand it – find someone who does and pay them to review it.
Only sign a client’s contract when you’re certain it’s OK. Don’t be afraid to request changes to their contracts.
And fire anyone who insists that a contract is not necessary. And yes, even a family member (in fact, especially a family member) should only get work with a contract.
You’re Working Too Many Hours
Freelancing is supposed to help you support a better life. You cannot work insane numbers of hours without a break for very long without burning out.
Sometimes, you have to take stock of things and realize you’re simply doing too much. If that’s the case, take the clients you like least who won’t severely damage your cashflow and fire them. Make time in your life for you.
Sure, this isn’t ideal for those clients but never mind. You are not irreplaceable. They’ll find someone else to do their work.
You are irreplaceable to your friends and family, however, and if you want time with them – you may need to send some clients packing to get it.
You Have A Clash Of Styles
I’ve had a couple of clients hire me because they’ve loved my biting wit and pithy style. Except, of course, when I’ve tried to introduce those things into their copy. Then they’ve wanted to tone things down.
In fact, bland is generally the personality shade of most professional writing and that’s OK, they’re paying the bills. The client calls the shots.
What’s not OK is when the client objects to everything about your style. Designers who find the client loves sharp edges when you do soft curves are going to hate the job. Writers who use semi-colons and have clients who loathe them may struggle. And so on…
It’s a good idea to try and clear the air with a client when this starts to become noticeable. Many clients just like to pick at stuff to feel that they’re making a valuable contribution themselves. Reminding them that they hired you because they like your work is a good start.
However, if it doesn’t work and you can’t get the client to work with you; you might be better off heading for greener pastures and leaving them behind.
You Just Hate The Work
There is nothing wrong with firing a client because you really, really hate the work. We’ve all taken on an assignment thinking; “This’ll be alright” and then found that it wasn’t alright at all.
Now, with some clients, there may be some room to maneuver and to redefine the work so that it better suits you. If that’s the case – talk to the client.
However, if there’s no such scope, you may be better off asking the client to get someone else to do the job. Good clients will appreciate your honesty and they’ll be glad you didn’t trash their project while dragging your heels and doing the bare minimum to get it done.
The Client Won’t Listen When You Talk
They hired you because you’re a professional and then they treat you like the office junior. These clients are the worst. They get angry when you challenge their “knowledge” in your field of expertise.
They try to force you into doing things that won’t work and are unnecessarily complex.
There’s no point in staying around clients like this. In fact, I wouldn’t even bother to have a conversation with them. The client that doesn’t listen will never listen. Fire them and free yourself to work with somebody who is less of an idiot.
The Client Fails To Respect Your Time
It’s the rare freelancer that gets a nice hourly rate to invoice for client meetings. Which is fine, you build in the billing for meetings, etc. in your finished product rates.
What’s not fine is when the client wants to waste hours of your time each month. Everyone can be late for a meeting every now and again. When they’re late every time, they don’t respect you enough to pull their finger out to attend.
When a client treats you like a serf and not like an equal, why would you want to work with them? Say au revoir and find someone better to work with.
There’s A Client With A Better Deal On The Table
Loyalty is fine but more money is better. Your clients don’t need to have done anything wrong to get fired. Sometimes, you just need to clear the decks for better-paid work. This is how businesses grow.
It’s possibly the most uncomfortable reason to fire a client but it’s a good one. It shows that you’re succeeding as a freelancer and that you’re going to be better able to care for yourself and your family.
You’re Not Proud Of The Work You Do
If the work that you do is something you wouldn’t want people to see in your portfolio – you might want to jump ship. A freelancer lives and dies on their ability to generate great work that clients want to buy.
When you’re working on projects that you’re not proud of – you’re not contributing to your own future success. There’s probably no better reason to can a client. Pride may go before a fall but if you have no pride in your work, how can you expect anyone else to have any?
How To Fire Your Freelance Clients – 3 Quick Letters To Let Them Go
Now, while it may be tempting to go the other way at times; it is best to fire a client in a professional manner rather than setting fire to your bridges and pursuing a scorched earth policy.
It depends on what you’re trying to achieve as to how you fire your clients.
In my second year as a freelancer, I had a bunch of clients that I liked as people who had just become uneconomic to continue working with at our current rates. I made my decision to fire them all unless they agreed to raise their rates.
So, I crafted a “Raise Your Rates” letter:
“Dear Clienty-Person (Obviously, I used their names here),
I’ve really enjoyed working with you over the last year or so. However, my business is a very different animal now from when we started this relationship.
So, I am going to have to raise my rates to keep you in-line with my other clients. Your current rate is X$ and it will rise to Y$ on the 5th of December.
Please let me know if this is acceptable. If not, I’d be happy to refer you to another freelancer who may be happy to work at a lower rate.”
I sent out 8 of those and only 2 clients came back and said, “OK.” I was very happy, I’d increased my rates by a factor of 10. I would now work for 2 clients and they’d pay the same as 20 clients under the old terms. Less work and more money? Result.
Then there’s the Gentle Goodbye letter
The purpose of a gentle goodbye is to tell a client that you’re moving on but that you’ve enjoyed the relationship and wish them well in the future.
Something along the lines of:
I’ve really enjoyed working with you over these last few months/years/whatever. However, I’ve decided to streamline my business and get more focused on a few big projects.
That, unfortunately, means that I will no longer be able to serve your needs in the manner that I have. As I don’t want to compromise the service I provide, I will have to stop working with you from December 5th.
I’d be happy to refer you to someone else if you’d like?”
This keeps the door open in case things don’t work out for you in the future and you want to get a client back (I’ve done that twice).
Then there’s the Get Lost letter
Let’s be blunt. Sometimes, you just want the client to go and never come back.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to work with you on XYZ project. But I’ve spent a while thinking over recent events and I’ve come to realize that we’re just not the right fit.
It would better serve the project if you found someone that has a similar vision to you. Therefore, I will cease working on this project from December 5th.
I wish you well in the future.”
Note: Don’t offer to refer nightmare clients. You don’t want friends to hate you, do you?
Every freelancer fires a client at some point or another. I’ve fired quite a few. Most clients get fired not because they’re “bad people” but because you have other priorities.
When you fire a decent client, try to arrange a handover to another provider and wish them well. When you fire an absolute git, on the other hand, forget them and move on as fast as possible. You’re a professional and not a slave. You choose who to work with. Don’t apologize for that.