Firing clients.

Hello hello, freelancer. 

Do you have a client who you don’t like working with? She might be the temperamental yelling type. Or calling you uninformed, throwing your day off track. Or just gives confusing feedback that you don’t clearly understand. Or doesn’t show the same urgency in processing your payments as she does in holding you to deadlines. You know a client whose thought you dread, but continue working with them anyway. 

Have you ever considered firing them?

Most freelancers I talk to complain endlessly about bad clients, but never really cut ties and leave. They will “lose the pay” or “not find another client.” This is the worst reason to stay in that relationship.

The freedom in freelancing is not just about choosing your hours, but also about choosing the people you work with. If some clients don’t vibe well with you — trust me, not everyone is good to work with — you can and should let them go. Here’s how I would do it.

1. Define the kind of client you want to work with.

I work best with people who are honest, straightforward and respectful. I don’t mind some unreasonable requests, if they invest in having a relationship with us. I don’t mind being in WhatsApp groups, if they’re otherwise fair and professional. Like that, what is important to you? Make a list. It could be:

  • Should not call without scheduling time

  • Should give feedback within three days of delivery

  • Should pay within 10 days of sending invoice

  • Should be specific with feedback

Some of these might change depending on where you are in your career. Like I don’t need people to be specific with feedback, I have developed an intuition for what they mean when they say something. But sharing positive feedback for work well done is non-negotiable for me. I can’t work with “no news is good news.”

So, don’t Google “what makes a good client.” Sit with yourself and think about the best relationships you’ve had. Identify what you need to do your best work.

2. Set your thresholds.

We all need to put up with some level of bullshit. That’s the way of the world. You decide what your level is. For instance, I give all my clients three strikes (after clearly telling them what I appreciate). If my threshold is a 30 days payment period, I tell them the first time they delay that I will have to terminate the agreement if the next payment is delayed. 

If a customer takes more than 30 days to clear an invoice three times in a row, I fire. This decision is pre-made. There is no case-to-case basis. It’s just how I like to work.

3. Determine your exceptions.

Of course I’ve one client who pays late, but I continue to work with them anyway. Allow yourself some exceptions. But keep them to a minimum. If every threshold has multiple exceptions, what’s the point? For instance, a client who pays 20% more than every other client but pays in 60 days, might be worthwhile. But that’s a call you need to make very carefully.

4. Prepare to fire.

Don’t make firing decisions on a whim. Notice that I didn’t say don’t take them emotionally. For me, every decision is emotional. When I fire a client, I feel exhausted for 2 days after. But, if you fight with a client and decide to fire them immediately, you’ll place disproportionately more value on the fight and less on the relationship before. So, take your time to fire.

Document your first discomfort. I generally write a journal or talk to my operations folks. Make a list of the client’s bad behaviour. Weigh pros and cons.

Before making the decision, carefully evaluate if you’ve tried to train the client to work well with you. Sometimes, freelancers just expect clients to know how to work with them. Most people don’t. Train your client to work with you. Tell them what your conditions are. Take responsibility for making that relationship work.

If it still doesn’t, then do step five.

5. Make the damn decision.

Before you actually fire, make the decision to do so. Don’t go into a conversation wanting to fire and then return convinced by the client to stay on. This is a grave mistake. It makes you look like the boy who cried wolf. Don’t do this.

Decide to fire. Stand your ground. If it’s over, it’s over. If all you want is to negotiate, be very careful about threatening to fire.

6. Build your exit plan.

The best way to end any relationship is by ensuring a reasonable transition for them. Look at your contract to see what you owe them on termination — notice period, last deliverables, handover etc. Make a plan for how to deliver all of this.

7. Fire professionally.

Inform the client. It’s best to do this in person. If not possible, do it on the phone. The absolute last option is email or text. 

Make this unambiguous. Tell them something like, “I’ve made the decision to terminate this relationship.” Make sure you leave no reason for them to misunderstand you.

Feel free to tell them why. But, remember that this feedback will not be useful to you in any way, so, decide if you want to share it at all. However, if you give a false reason like personal issues or health reasons or some such, they will reach out three months later and ask to work with you again. To be done for good, you need to clearly tell them that this relationship isn’t working for you.

Assure them that you will serve notice and facilitate any reasonable transition. Do not leave the day of firing the client (unless they get pissed and don’t want to see your face). 

They will likely try to turn around the conversation and want to try again. If you’ve decided to quit, don’t let them talk you back into it. 

They might get upset — yell, blame you, whatever else. Expect it. Be calm. Let them say their piece. Listen carefully, but stay your ground.

8. Serve the notice entirely. 

Complete as much of the promised work as possible. If you have incomplete work, pass it on to them. If you’ve created checklists or processes that might be useful for the next consultant, hand it over. Make your notice period the best transition possible. 

9. Mentally check out.

Bad clients can take a big toll on your emotional energy. So, once it’s over, carefully transition out. 

  • Invoice ON TIME. Follow up for payments. You are owed every penny, even for your notice period.

  • Check out of the project. I generally journal to get all the emotions out of my system. Do what works for you.

  • Archive the files, folders etc. so you don’t trip on them while looking for something else.

  • Work through any regrets you might have. Get closure.

Listen, friend. Terminating contractual relationships is common. The largest of large guys do it. If the client doesn’t like your work, they’ll fire you in a blink. So should you.

Your only obligation is to be professional. Don’t ghost them or hide from their emails. Do it right.