It’s a situation that no one wants to deal with, but one that you’ll inevitably run into in your career: at some point, you’ll have to fire a client.
No one wants to fire a client. Beyond being your source of income, client projects push you and your team to tackle exciting challenges, expand your experience, and help you make new connections. But occasionally, a situation becomes untenable. When this happens, the healthy move for all concerned may be to walk away.
In this article we look at how to know when it’s time to fire your client, how to do it professionally, and provide you with a script you can use if and when you find yourself in this situation.
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When to fire a client
Everyone has encountered nightmare clients—look no further than the stories collected on Clients From Hell for proof. But while they may stretch your patience, not every challenging client needs to be fired; in fact, dealing with difficult clients is a key part of successful client management. To understand the difference between a client who needs extra management and a client who needs to be shown the door, you need to first establish boundaries.
Ask yourself what constitutes deal breaking behavior. Think of actions such as:
- Not being communicative, or being overly demanding
- Frequently demanding unreasonable revisions
- Regularly paying late, or not paying at all
- Missing deadlines
- Not respecting your work, time, or fee
- Abusive language or behavior to anyone at your agency
Remember that your deal breakers should not simply show what makes a challenging client; they should show what constitutes toxic, unacceptable behavior. Firing a client should always be your last resort, so your deal breakers should be well thought out and firm. It should be rare for a client to cross any one of these boundaries, and when they do, you should be prepared to act accordingly.
However, because firing a client is your last resort, you should also pause for a gut-check.
- Will this ruin their business? Losing a designer or developer at the eleventh hour can be disastrous for small business owners; is that something you’re prepared to deal with?
- Will firing them put you in breach of contract?
- Will you be liable for the fallout?
Do your homework first, so you can act decisively if needed.
If a client is teetering towards any of your boundaries, there may still be time to save the relationship before resorting to firing. Clear communication, trust building, and educating your client about your work can all help bring the relationship around. If it’s simply not a great fit, but hasn’t slid into toxic territory, you can also opt to finish the current project before walking away.
If you’ve done your due diligence and determined that firing the client is the only way to go, it’s time to address the situation professionally.
You might also like: 4 Crucial Steps to Building Strong Client Relationships.
How to fire a client, nicely
Firing a client nicely is a bit misleading, because no matter who you are or what side of the situation you’re on, this is an emotionally fraught experience. As humans, we like to avoid conflict and by opting to fire your client, you’re jumping feet-first into it. Feelings may get hurt, but there is a way to have these difficult conversations while staying respectful.
To preserve your professionalism, maintain mutual respect between you and your client, and do your best to avoid burning bridges, you need to come to the conversation prepared.
1. Determine the medium
Context matters greatly when it comes to firing a client—firing a brand new client will be handled in a vastly different way than a client you have a long-standing relationship with. Face-to-face or over the phone is often the best option, while firing over email should only be used in very specific situations. Trust your gut: if you’ve only ever communicated by email or if the client is brand new, you might be able to get away with it. Otherwise, pick up the phone.
It’s an extra courtesy to give your client a heads up of what’s coming. Unless they’re completely oblivious, they’re likely aware that there have been difficulties. When you set up a time to meet or speak, let them know that you want to discuss the future of the relationship, so they have time to prepare for the conversation, too.
2. Plan ahead
Depending on how bad the situation is, it can be very tempting to simply walk away from a negative client. Sometimes, this might be the right decision—especially if the client has been abusive or has crossed the line into harassment.
In less severe situations, however, designing an exit strategy will help you ease out of the relationship gracefully. This could include:
- Finishing any outstanding work
- Handing over deliverables
- Providing references or recommendations
- Scheduling a breakup date
Allowing for a transition period shows your soon-to-be-ex client that you respect their journey, and signals to the rest of your industry that you take care of your relationships, even when they don’t work out.
3. Write a script
Unless you’re a truly zen person, having difficult conversations can result in you hesitating, stumbling over words, or forgetting what you want to say altogether. To avoid this, and to ensure that you say the right thing, take the time to write a script before your conversation (or, use our prewritten script below).
“We’ve really enjoyed working with you, but we can’t continue our relationship. But we really like you.”
Sandwiching the negative—the information you’re really here to deliver—between two half-hearted bits of nice feedback often backfires. It makes the positive feedback feel like lies and confuses the ultimate message.
Instead, aim to be empathetic and honest in your conversation. Be clear about the exit strategy you planned, and direct about the outcome of the conversation. Stick to your messaging.
4. Stay calm
Logically, you know that this is nothing personal—it’s a business decision, and you’ll want to treat it as such. But it’s easy to get carried away with the frustration and impatience of the situation, and cross over into personal territory. Avoid this at all costs, and stay polite.
If your client has been a difficult person to work with up to this point, there’s a chance they’ll react to this conversation with further anger or impatience. No matter what they say, keep the conversation professional, and don’t play into the blame game. This situation can and will impact your reputation, so behave in a way that you wouldn’t be worried about other clients witnessing, and you should be okay.
You might also like: Project Budget Management: How to Keep Your Clients Happy.
The needs of every firing conversation will depend on your unique situation, but having a sample script will help arm you with soundbites you need to respectfully sack your client. You can add information as you require, but remember to stay direct, honest, and polite.
Here is a script to get you started:
[Name], thank you for meeting today. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, but after careful consideration we’ve decided that we will no longer be working with you on this project, and will be terminating our relationship on [chosen date].
In the meantime, you can expect us to finish our outstanding work and hand over any deliverables. I’d also be happy to connect you with other professionals who might be better suited to your needs and expectations.
Add or remove information as necessary. For example, if they were truly a nightmare client, you may not want to inflict them on others in your industry, so it may not be appropriate to connect them with other service providers. On the other hand, if it’s simply not a good fit, you may want to go the extra mile and provide them with further recommendations. It all depends on the particulars of your situation.
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Respect your boundaries
Client management is all about knowing and respecting your boundaries and those of your clients. Establishing those boundaries early and knowing what your deal breakers are will help you mitigate negative client relationships down the road.
As you gain experience as an agency owner, you’ll get more comfortable identifying clients that are a good fit for your business—the ones that will help you, your team, and your company grow. Respectfully ending negative client relationships will help you build a strong, healthy company culture.
Have you had to fire a client? What was the experience like? Share your story in the comments below.