6 Signs It's Time To FIRE Your Client
I’m about to let you in on a little secret…
Firing isn’t just for the corporate world. It’s not just for employers and employees. It’s not trademarked by Lord Sugar himself.
It’s for you too.
The humble freelancer, self-employed person, one-(wo)man band, or whatever you like to call yourself.
Yes, you too, my love, can FIRE YOUR CLIENTS.
“Firing” sounds like it’ll be scary though, right? It sounds like it’s going to be dramatic and full of scary confrontation and end up with you making a mortal enemy out of your (now ex) client.
But (and this comes from the recovering people-pleaser who needed to prove themselves at all costs), it doesn’t need to be like that.
Ending a client relationship – especially with the world the way it is right now (we don’t say scmost of schmiving scmisis round here), feels like you’ll never sign another client again. But you will. And that client will be easier to work with, more enjoyable, more dreamy than that client you’re thinking of as you read this blog post.
Breaking up with a client can be the best outcome for you both. It can be mutual, friendly, natural – and it will almost certainly leave you feeling empowered and give you the space to find a dreamy new client who ticks all of your ideal client boxes and doesn’t raise a single red flag.
So, chum, let’s get into the specifics: when might it be time to fire a client? And how can you do it without it ending in misery for everyone?
6 Signs Of A Souring Client Relationship
For us service providers, a lot of our work relies on relationships with our clients, right? We need them to give us the information we need in order to do our jobs. We need to get on with them, at least on a professional level, in order for us to do a good job for them.
But human relationships are tough. Especially for us neurodivergent or mentally ill folk!
One moment, our relationships might be going swimmingly well and we’re feeling on top of the world, and the next you’re feeling that familiar pit of anxiety creeping up in your stomach as you check your emails and hope to god there’s nothing there.
So let’s make things easier. Here are a few warning signs that you and your client might both be better off parting ways…
Toxic Sign #1: Your client isn’t respecting your time
This is a biggy. Because your time is valuable and when you’re working with someone who doesn’t realise that, or even actively takes up more of your time than needed or agreed, you end up feeling busy, stressed and sacrificing your own mental health for the sake of your clients.
Disrespecting your time can look like this:
- Asking for work to be done on tight deadlines
- Contacting you outside of your working hours and expecting quick responses
- Contacting you on multiple platforms when they don’t get an instant response (the annoying as hell “Just messaging you here in case you didn’t see my email yet!” – mate, messaging me on Instagram isn’t going to get you a faster response…)
- Not paying invoices on time (because they value their time over your work)
- Always showing up late to calls without fore-warning you – or not showing up at all
While one of these on its own might not be a big problem, if you’re seeing a few of these cropping up on multiple different occasions, don’t ignore that giant red flag waving itself in your face. It’s there for a reason, pal!
Toxic Sign #2: Pushing the scope of projects
“Can you just do this little thing for me too?”
“Are you able to quickly do this? I’m really busy”
“Would you mind just adding XYZ into that bit of work for me? It’d be really appreciated”
However nicely a client spins it, every single one of those is an attempt to push the scope of your work beyond what was originally agreed, aka ASKING FOR FREE WORK. No Bob. We don’t do that around here.
And again, particularly if you’re early on in your freelancing journey, you might be tempted to acquiesce. It’ll only take a couple of minutes for you to do that little thing, so it’s easier to just do it rather than pushing back. You want to seem flexible, helpful.
But that “one small thing” sets a precedent. It says to your client, “This person’s happy to do a little bit extra now and then, so I’ll bear that in mind next time I need extra work done…”
And then you’ve opened the door. And, if your client doesn’t fully respect your time or your expertise, or the fact that you run a business rather than working for fun, they’ll push that door wide open and make the most of it. And you’ll be left run ragged.
Toxic Sign #3: One client’s work is affecting your other work
Whether it’s doing extra work that pushes beyond the scope of your agreed project or just the fact that their communications are demanding your attention multiple times a day, if your work with one client is having a knock-on impact on the work you’re doing for other clients, RED FLAG!
Because you’re a good soul who cares about all of your clients, one client taking too much time or mental energy is going to mean you extend your working hours or work yourself into the ground to keep up with the rest of your clients.
And that’s not fair. Either on you or your other clients.
Toxic Sign #4: Your client doesn’t trust your expertise
Everything you do for them, they second-guess. They challenge you at every turn. They make “helpful” suggestions, they tweak things after you’ve handed them over, they edit everything – because they think they know best…
Instead of seeing you as an expert in your field, they probably see you as just an extra pair of hands that they’ve outsourced to. They don’t trust that you know best, they don’t recognise that everything you do is for a reason, and they probably think that they’re paying you purely for the time you spend on their work, not your years of experience and expertise. And time doesn’t equal money in my book.
Sure, with any new client, there’s a teething period where a client might have helpful, constructive feedback on your work – because they do know their business, brand and needs more intricately than you do.
But if your client is still questioning, challenging and “tweaking” as your relationship progresses, that’s a sign they’ll likely always think that they know best!
Toxic Sign #5: Things feel really one-sided
The polar opposite of the time-sucking client of Toxic Sign #1, this client will be completely silent – until they need something from you.
Working with a client should be a mutual relationship and you should be able to reach your client when you need extra information or you have suggestions or questions or anything that you need your client’s input on.
But these ghost-clients are impossible to get hold of. They ignore messages. They ignore emails. They claim they’re “too busy” to answer your questions.
They’re especially poltergeist-esque when there’s an invoice to pay…
But, on the flip side, as soon as they need something from you, they’ll be emailing you, messaging you, DMing you – hassling you until they get what they want.
It’s completely one-sided and means you can’t do your job properly and the power balance is heavily in their favour. Which just feels crap for you.
Toxic Sign #6: There’s a sinking feeling in your stomach whenever you see their name…
This is where I remind you, once again, to trust your instinct!
Your gut is a magical place. It knows what’s best for you and it can sniff out toxic clients who are bad for you from a mile away.
Whether it’s a dull ache in the pit of your stomach, a flash of increased heartrate, or just a little niggle at the back of your brain – LISTEN TO IT!
It’s your body telling you that that client isn’t a good fit. They might not be throwing up any major red flags or being the worst client imaginable, but if your instinct is making you feel uneasy, there’s a reason for that.
And ignoring that warning sign will probably lead to more anxiety, resentment, lower quality of work, and the declining health of your client relationship. All of which are bad for you. So listen to that instinct and fire that client before they have a chance to give you any other warning signs!
Is it possible to rescue your client relationship? It might be!
Cutting ties completely with a client feels like a big deal – even if they’re showing every single one of those toxic signs. And finding new clients to replace that income brings its own heap of stresses and strains for your business and your mental health.
So instead of seeing one toxic sign and firing that client on the spot, is there anything you can do to turn things around?
There often is – and I’m about to share some ways you can try to rescue a souring relationship.
But, big, massive, GIANT caveat: if you know in your gut that this client just isn’t the best fit for you, don’t try to flog a dead horse!
You don’t owe it to anyone to try to change the behaviour of a client. You owe it to yourself to do what feels right for you – if that’s ditching that client right away, great. And if that’s spending a little bit of time and energy trying to resurrect the relationship, that’s also great.
So, if you do want to rescue the situation and make things better for both of you, what can you do?
Remind & reinforce your boundaries
Sometimes, clients may over-communicate or ask for things you aren’t comfortable delivering simply because they don’t know what your boundaries actually are.
So, if a client is pushing your boundaries, gently remind them that those boundaries exist and ask that they follow them.
If they’re communicating with you on the wrong platform, replying with something like, “Thanks for getting in touch! Could you please send this over via [insert preferred platform, e.g. email] so I can get back to you? To get a prompt response from me, [preferred platform] is always the best way to reach me!”, will nudge them back to where you want them to be.
If they’re expecting immediate responses, you could say something like, “Thanks for getting in touch. As a reminder, so that I can achieve the work-life balance I need to deliver my best work for you, my working hours are XYZ – messages received outside of those hours will be responded to when I’m back at my desk.”.
Whatever boundary they’re pushing, reinforce it – clearly but firmly. It might be a simple case of them forgetting your boundaries, and reminding them could salvage the relationship.
And, if you haven’t actually told your clients what your boundaries are, it’s time to start making that a normal practice for you! Including your boundaries in your onboarding process (e.g. in your welcome guide, or your contract, or somewhere in the kick-off process) means that your clients see those boundaries right at the very start – and means, if they do start pushing them, you can go back and gently remind them that they’re all in that fancy-pants welcome guide you sent them earlier…
(Psst… not sure how to phrase your boundaries or where to put them or what the heck to do with them?! I’ve got you, chum. Check out my Boundaries Bundle for a helping hand.)
Keep within the original scope
If clients are asking for little favours here and there and you’re nearing the end of your tether with it, let your client know. It doesn’t have to be confrontational or foot-stomping or even an outright “no, I can’t do that” – it can be a gentle nudge to say, “As you know, our original project covered XYZ. I’m happy to help out with extra bits as a gesture of kindness, as I have done already by doing XYZ – but please note that any further work beyond the scope of our original agreement will be chargeable at £XYZ.”
Usually, the mention of extra money being involved will at least make clients think twice before they ask you for “a small favour” – and if they do continue to ask you, at least you’re now being paid for it!
To help stop clients pushing the scope of projects, even just a little bit, add something into your contract or your proposal that states your fee for any additional work. That means that you can feel confident in reminding your client of the extra charge from the first time they ask for extra work.
Make sure your communications are clear
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I skim read. A lot.
So if I’m your client and you’re sending me a 30-page contract to read, and your boundaries, working hours, additional charges, etc. are buried in a half-page-long paragraph on page 13, I’m likely to skim-read the contract and forget bits.
When it comes to you telling your client how you like to work, when they contact you, when their invoices are due, what they need to do, etc. there are two key things to bear in mind:
- People skim read. So they need clear, concise, even bullet-pointed information for it to really sink in.
- No amount of repetition of these important points is too much. Include them in your email signature, your welcome guide, your Instagram highlights, your contract, your welcome pack, your invoices – wherever it makes sense to add a little reminder, add it!
If a client relationship looks like it has the potential to turn sour, revisit how you communicated your boundaries and expectations to that client. Was there any room for misunderstanding? Were those points front and centre, or were they buried deep in documents? Did you mention those points once, or many times?
If you realise that you perhaps weren’t as clear or repetitive as you could have been with that client, revisit your boundaries and send them out to your clients. You could put together a quick PDF or Google Doc and email them over to all clients saying, “Hi Client-XYZ! I’ve been working on making my boundaries and client communications as clear as possible recently, so wanted to send you over the attached Boundaries Guide to let you know how our work together can be as simple and stress-free as possible for both of us. If you have any questions, let me know!”.
Check out my guide on how to confidently communicate your boundaries to your clients for help.
Remember that you’re the boss!
If you either tried these things and they didn’t help or you feel that there isn’t a way to salvage a particular client relationship, remember that YOU are in charge!
You run a business, you don’t work for the fun of it. So if something doesn’t feel right to you or a client keeps doing things that drain your mental energy, it’s okay to let go.
You don’t need to justify firing a client to anyone. You don’t need a long list of reasons or a meticulously-kept record of every misdemeanour – if a client relationship doesn’t feel right anymore, that is reason enough.
Whether you put effort into resurrecting the relationship or not, it is OKAY (and even admirable) to fire a client who isn’t feeling right to you. You are the boss, my love, and you have to prioritise what’s right for you and your business.
Helping you believe this and giving you the practical steps to achieve it is one of the five modules in my course – Work Less, Earn More, Be Free – which opens again in September. Check it out and sign up for early access!
I’m ready to fire my client - now what?!
Hurray! Let’s ditch those toxic clients once and for all!
Deciding to let a client go is a BIG DEAL. And one which, even if you’re absolutely positive it’s the right thing to do, might feel uncomfortable. You might procrastinate for a month or two and hope things get better. Or you might be ready to cut ties instantly.
Whichever feels right for you is fine.
But how do you actually fire a client?! It’s scary and terrifying and discombobulating and any other adjective you can think of that means “SHIT, am I *actually* doing this?!”.
It’s okay pal, I’ve got you.
Firing a client doesn’t need to be scary. In fact, having worked with lots of client pals who’ve fired clients, a lot of the time it ends up being mutually beneficial – after all, if you’re feeling that the relationship isn’t working for you, they might also be feeling the same!
So here are some tips for moving towards an amicable break up with your red flag client – without the fear factor.
Check your paperwork
Does your contract state how much notice you need to give a client to end your work together? It probably does, so make this your first step.
If you haven’t got a contract with your client, check back through any emails you have from the start of your relationship – were there any terms mentioned in those?
If you’ve got nothing concrete about your relationship, any notice period you give your client is up to you – go with what feels right for you, but if you’ve got no clue most bog-standard contracts will specify four weeks’ notice, so use that as a guide!
(And, side note: if you aren’t asking clients to sign contracts or agreements or some kind of “official” thing before you start working together, pleeeease consider doing so! It gives you so much more confidence and control over the situation, and doesn’t leave you with unpaid invoices and no legal leg to stand on…)
Decide a timeline
Once you’re clear on how much notice you need to give from a legal point of view, the next step is to look at your own timelines and figure out when would be the best time to bring your relationship to a close.
There are often clear break-points in client work where it will be easier to say goodbye and leave a smooth exit transition. This might be at the end of a part of a project you’re working on, or at the end of the month when your invoices are sent, or even at the start or end of a year or quarter – these logical break-points will help you to close the door in a way that doesn’t completely leave the client at a loose end!
Pick a tactic
There are two routes to firing a client – the About Me route, or the About You route.
And they kinda do what they say on the tin, let’s be honest.
The About Me route is where you explain to your client that you’re adjusting your services or reevaluating your offerings or reducing your capacity or generally doing something in your business that means you won’t be able to work with them any longer.
The About You route is where you explain to your client that you no longer feel that you’re able to provide them with what they need. You explain that, as your relationship has progressed and both your businesses have developed, you’ve realised they need something slightly different to what you can offer them, and so it’s best for both of you to part ways so they can find someone who can really fulfil their needs.
Both options mean very little confrontation and both will need you to be clear about what that means for the client, in terms of final working dates, final invoices, which bits of work you’ll be able to do beforehand and which you won’t, etc. (You’ll see in the next section what specifics you need to include!)
And both options aren’t scary. They’re not saying, “You’re a terrible client to work with and I just can’t cope anymore. Good luck finding someone who’ll put up with your demands” (even if that’s kinda what you want to say…) – they’re explaining, calmly and cooly, that you won’t be able to continue working together after XYZ date and this is what will happen between now and then.
Yes, you might need to dig out your big girl pants before you can pluck up the courage to hit send – but you CAN DO IT!
What to include when you fire your client
Whether you choose the About Me or About You option, there are a few logistics things you need to tie up when you’re firing a client. Here’s what you’ll need to include:
- Your “official” last day with the client (either the day you’ve chosen or the day that follows the official notice period your contract specifies)
- Details of the work you’ll complete for the client between now and then – and anything that won’t be done before your time together concludes
- A reminder of how best to communicate with each other until work concludes, e.g. Slack, email, etc.
- What you need from your client, e.g. any last feedback/edits to be provided by X date, so that you have enough time to deliver the final project before your work period finishes
- Any logistics to wrap up your work – for example, if you deliver work in a shared Google Drive, let your client know that they should download copies of all your work before your final day together, as you’ll be archiving that folder once your work has finished
- When your client will receive their final invoice and when that final invoice is due for payment
You might also want to offer to send through some recommendations of other freelancers who could take your place – but that’s up to you! If they’re a major red flag client, you might not want to spread the pain to a fellow freelancer…
And now, you’re ready to fire your client!
I’m proud of you, chum.
Even reading this blog post means that you’re moving closer to the ultimate goal of working with clients who respect you, love your work, and allow you to live the life you want to live.
We’ve all taken on clients who we know aren’t quite right for us. And sometimes, quite frankly, we have to. We’ve got bills to pay!
But realising that there are some clients who just aren’t worth the money they’re earning you is a BIG step. And I’m so proud of you for coming to that realisation!
So now, all that’s left to do is send you the biggest of air-hugs, the biggest of “you’ve got this” fist bumps, and the biggest of big-sisterly love – go forth, fire your client, and move on to greener pastures!
And if you want me to hold your hand through the process and help you figure out exactly how to fire your client and start working with just dream clients, my course – Work Less, Earn More, Be Free might be for you. It opens in September and you can sign up to get early access now!