No freelancer wants to fire a client. For most of us, a client represents a considerable investment of time in promotion, marketing, and relationship-building. Keeping an existing client is more cost-effective than finding new clients to fill the gap. But, sometimes, client relationships are simply broken. Either they’re taking up too much time for too little payment, or they make it difficult to do good work the freelancer can be proud of.
Knowing when and if to fire a client is a skill. Sometimes relationships can be fixed, but sometimes you’ll breath a sigh of relief that you never have to deal with a particular client again.
Most of the advice in this article applies to all freelancers: designers, writers(that’s me), developers, consultants, and professional services freelancers.
Before I talk about when you should fire a client, I want to briefly discuss how you should fire them. If possible, end relationships on a good note and try not to burn bridges (apologies for the mixed metaphors). A client with a grudge can be harmful to your reputation. If you absolutely have to fire a client, an “it’s not you, it’s me,” approach is best. Even if you’re dealing with a particularly troublesome client, keep it professional and make it clear that ending the relationship is in the best interest of the client.
Sometimes, the gentle approach isn’t possible — especially when there are outstanding invoices — but it won’t benefit you to lose your head and say the things you really want to say — save that for an anonymous post on Clients From Hell.
1. Consistent Scope Creep
Experienced freelancers make sure both they and the client are clear what the scope of a contract is — in fact, it should be written in the contract. What will the freelancer deliver? Which ongoing services are part of the agreed contract?
In my experience, the majority of clients try to expand the scope at least a little. They’ll ask for work that isn’t included in the initial contract and expect to get it without extra payment.
A little scope creep is fine. If you’re building a bespoke WordPress theme for a client, and they ask for a little help configuring a plugin, I’d be tempted to do the work in exchange for the goodwill.
However, some clients — from a lack of understanding or a desire to get work for nothing — will constantly push at the boundaries until the freelancer is putting in hours of unpaid work. That’s hours of money lost. With clients of this sort, I will be as flexible as I think reasonable given their value to my business. If I feel they are going too far, I will talk to them about it, and offer to revise the terms under which I am working.
If that doesn’t work, I will end the relationship as amicably as possible. It’s simply not worth my time to work for free — there are only so many working hours in a week.
2. Lack Of Communication
Most freelancers will recognize this situation. A client is referred to you. You discuss the job and make a proposal about which the client seems enthusiastic. You draft a contract, send it, and hear nothing for two weeks. When you follow up for the fifth time, the client responds and you go ahead with the job. When you deliver the agreed-upon product, you hear nothing again for a month. Then, after more prompting, comes a request for revisions, which you deliver, and wait another month for a response. And so on, ad infinitum.
Working with a client who doesn’t respond to communication — especially when they demand prompt action on your part — is demoralizing. Often, it’s not their fault. They might need the work to be signed-off by the company CEO, who does nothing for weeks.
Nevertheless, a consistent pattern of non-communication (particularly where payment is concerned) is good grounds for saying goodbye to a client.
3. Lack Of Payment
This one needs little explanation. If a client doesn’t pay reasonably promptly, it’s time to stop working for them. Depending on the situation, it may also be time for a letter from your lawyer.
Over the years, I have become more strict about this. Big corporate clients get a little leeway because everything takes longer, but I make it clear in my contracts that I expect to paid promptly and if I’m not paid, firstly, I won’t work, and secondly, I reserve the right to assert my copyright on any work I have not been paid for.
Freelancer-client relationships are professional agreements for work in exchange for pay. A freelancer is a skilled professional who deserves respect. Consistent rudeness and disrespect is grounds for the termination of the relationship.
5. Willful Ignorance
This one is tricky; clients hire freelancers because they lack the ability, the knowledge, or the inclination to perform a specific task. However, it’s impossible to have a relationship with someone when there’s an excessive asymmetry of knowledge and the client will not accept advice.
As an example, less than knowledgeable clients have often asked me to use images in my work that they have downloaded from the web. They take no account of copyright law. In those cases, I will explain to them that they are attempting to “steal” content and delineate the relevant copyright laws. They can choose to take the advice or not. If they insist on copyright infringement, I simply won’t work for them.
Freelancers in technical fields often encounter this problem. The client thinks they know better about the length of time, the amount of effort, or the expertise required to do a job: “I want a 12 page website with a contact form and eCommerce functionality. That shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.” Sometimes, it’s a genuine lack of understanding that can be overcome. But often, it’s part of a consistent pattern of recalcitrance and misunderstanding. Clients who know little and refuse to learn aren’t worth the investment.
Freelancing can be one of the most rewarding ways to make money. It’s possible to establish years-long relationships with good clients. But, if you’re afraid to say goodbye to unhealthy work relationships, your work life will be deeply unrewarding and may well result in burnout.