Updated: May 20, 2022
When and How to Fire a Client
I’ve been there. I mean, it’s been a while, but I definitely had those clients.
Those clients who drag your whole workday down.
Sometimes they’re super negative. Sometimes they’re needy. Sometimes they ghost you. They throw tantrums, engage in passive-aggressive behavior, or just revert to good old fashion bullying.
Toxic. Ick. Gross.
But firing the client isn’t an option, is it? You need clients to do your job. “I can handle them,” you think. “I’m not a baby. I can take it.” And so…dread becomes part of your routine.
But here’s the thing - you don’t need to “take it.” Toxic clients don’t pay in the long run. They can poison your growth, your self-esteem, and even your reputation.
At some point, you’re going to have to - gulp - fire a client.
So. Are you thinking of that client right now as you read this? Are you wondering if it’s time to give them the boot? Well, let’s see…when should you fire a client?
Good reasons for firing a client:
They consume too much of your time and energy.
They don’t honor their commitments.
Communication is hard or draining.
The relationship is not improving.
They constantly ignore your advice.
There’s a general sense of disrespect or toxicity.
You dread meeting with them.
I know. Firing a client is awkward. It’s scary. But we can do this.
And I promise you - I promise you - your life will be so much better once you face it. Once you fire your difficult client the weather will seem nicer, food will taste better, you’ll feel less exhausted - basically, you’ll feel like you again.
Most importantly, your work will be less of a slog and time will open up for better clients.
But! There are some dos and don'ts to firing a client.
In this article, we’ll talk about keeping it brief when you’re firing a client.
We’ll go over building a clear exit strategy and keeping your reputation intact.
And we’ll reframe any lingering fears you may have about losing a paying client.
Firing a Client Nicely: Don’t Explain Too Much
When I was younger, I used to think it was important to say everything that was on my mind.
I mean, how else would people know when they’re being a jerk? How would they learn, if I didn’t tell them? (I know, teenagers are exhausting.)
If you’re thinking about firing a client, an emotional info-dump could feel important…DO NOT DO THIS.
Look I get it. They’ve been difficult. The urge is strong to let them know exactly what’s on your mind, but you gotta fight that urge.
Listing every offense when firing a client - even when you think you’re doing it “nicely” - is like pulling the pin on an information grenade. And you’ll be the only one who crawls away injured.
So think of this less as a “break up” and more like giving notice at a boring job.
“The conversation should be positive,” says the Wall Street Journal, “You shouldn’t use it as an opportunity to lay out all the reasons you didn’t enjoy your job or lay blame on others …Keep it short and professional—you don’t need to give a long dramatic performance on your way out. “
Remember what the real point of firing them is. It’s not to rehabilitate them or wake the client up to their transgressive behavior. The main goal of firing a client is ending the relationship. It’s moving on to better ones.
Don’t get sidelined by a lower goal of telling them exactly what you think or how they could improve. Leave that to their therapists and life partners.
Keep Your Reputation Safe
Firing a client “nicely” consists of getting out of the relationship while leaving your reputation intact.
If you run a service-based business - your reputation is your main asset. Protect it like a baby kitten. Leave the relationship with dignity, professionalism, and on good terms if possible.
On some level, they know anyway. You’re not the first person to fire this client. Your speech won’t have any impact - except to make them angry, defensive, and possibly vindictive the moment your back is turned.
Keep your eyes on the prize - firing the client, putting this behind you, and moving on to a healthy, robust client list that fuels you.
Make your reasons concrete and work-related. Be positive, grateful, and final.
The Exit Strategy - Script It, Time It, and Drop a Referral
I don’t know if you’ve seen any of my livestreams. If you have, you may notice I’m pretty open in them. It’s all off the cuff, super loose, nothing is scripted. But…there’s still a plan in place.
See, these livestreams matter. And the fact that you give me that time matters too. I want to make the best use of them - as an expression of my respect for you and for my message.
So there’s a plan. Always.
When you're firing a client, out of respect for their time and for your message - you need to have a plan. A plan that creates the most elegant, friction-free experience they could imagine.
Email or Phone?
How you break the news - meaning by phone or email - kind of depends on how you’ve interacted with this client so far.
I have a lot of copywriter clients who primarily deal with their clients via email. If that’s the norm, it’s totally fine to fire your client via email. If you’ve had a more face to face relationship - like a coach or consultant - this could feel weirdly impersonal.
Use your best judgment on what’s appropriate. And if you think you can’t do it gracefully face-to-face, then don’t. Lean on the email.
Write It Down
Whether you’re doing it by email or over the phone - draft your statement.
For god’s sake - don’t wing it. You don’t need to read it word for word. But you should have something to keep you on track and professional.
Thank them, emphasizing the positive aspects of the collaboration. Give a neutral reason for detaching yourself. This could be just about client load, or you can say that their needs and your expertise aren't, in your opinion, a good fit.
Outline exactly when you plan to leave.
Depending on what your work is, that could be a time frame - as in two weeks - or it could mean when you sew up a certain project.
Lean into the idea of supporting them during that transitional time frame, but don’t apologize.
It would be great if you could toss them a referral as a replacement. But that can be tricky, if it’s a toxic client.
Definitely have a conversation with your sub. Make sure the new person grasps the reasons for your leaving.
Sometimes it works out fine. Your substitute may have a different thermostat on the exact same things that made you nuts. Your poison may be their “meh.”
Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t lay it on too thick. Just give truthful reasons and let them make their own decision.
You Can’t Afford This Client
Before we wrap this up, I want to address that sense of dread you may have when you think of firing your client. It might be cueing up all sorts of scarcity feelings for you.
You might be thinking you can’t afford to let this person go. I would argue, you can’t afford to hold onto them.
I know. I know. It’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one who has to pay your student loan or get the cat her medication.
But the opportunity cost of holding onto draining clients is - in the long run - a much bigger liability. Difficult clients pay less when you think of the cognitive suck. They’re exacting probably twice as much time and energy than they’re paying you for.
But more important is the sort of viral effect of being a business that absorbs that kind of negative weight. The more you accept difficult clients, the more difficult clients you’ll attract. Your idea of what’s acceptable will start to slide in the wrong direction.
Liberating yourself from a transaction that doesn’t suit you is your first step into the world of mature business.
Firing a client that’s difficult changes your concept of yourself and your clientele. You won’t be a business that follows behind others picking up their mess. You’ll be a tactical and self-respecting entrepreneur whose time is valuable. And that’s who valuable clients want to work with.
“The real cost of any purchase isn’t the actual dollar cost,” says the legendary investor Warren Buffet, “Rather, it’s the opportunity cost—the value of the investment you didn’t make, because you used your funds to buy something else.”
In this case, the “funds” you’re tying up are You - your time, your energy, your brilliance.
Firing a client isn’t easy. But it’s part of learning how to do your job as a grown-up entrepreneur.
Take a moment to review how you got into this relationship, so you can notice the signals and avoid the situation next time. Learn the lesson. Be grateful for it. Then move on to a better kind of workday and the future you deserve.
Ditch the toxic, ick, gross clients for good and learn how to attract clients your fairy godmother would create with FREE coaching calls every month.