Freelancers are generally optimistic little beans. We think of our clients as a positive in our lives. And mostly, they are.
However, not all clients are created equal. Some are genuinely not the right fit for you or your freelance business. And at some point, you may face one of freelancing’s biggest questions – should I fire this client?
Firing a client can be a tough decision, but sometimes it’s necessary for the health of your business and your creative confidence.
Here are ten signs that you may need to fire that client and move on!
They are always over project scope
Scope creep is a natural part of the freelancer-client relationship; it can even signify a growing trust and desire to keep the relationship happening.
However, part of healthy client-freelancer engagement is to manage the scope and the expectations effectively. If your client keeps asking for more work than you agreed to or tries to add extra tasks to the project without additional compensation, it may be time to cut ties.
Scope creep can be a sign:
· The client does not respect your time or expertise
· They have trouble with boundaries
· The project brief is not fully formed yet.
Scope management pro tips:
Always push back on scope creep in terms the client can understand.
“If we divert our attention to this additional element, it means you won’t have time or budget for <existing element>. Do you wish to proceed?”
“If we include this idea, that means an extra X hours at a cost of $Y. Would you like to proceed?”
They never pay on time
Late payments can cause a significant strain on any business, particularly if you rely on that income to pay your bills. If a client consistently pays late, despite reminders or penalties, it may be time to let them go.
Late payer pro tips:
Before jettisoning a client entirely, consider what you can do to encourage better financial habits by:
· Using your terms and conditions as leverage to pursue late payments
· Including late fees or discounts for prompt payment as part of your business model
· Offering direct debit or payments via Stripe that include credit card
· Making use of Rounded’s late payment notification features.
They make weird and sleazy comments
Let’s make this abundantly clear – no one should settle for sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, including freelancers.
If your client is making inappropriate or uncomfortable comments that make you squirm, it’s important to act. A toxic work environment is not worth the money.
Managing gross client talk pro tips:
You may be in the position to challenge comments and behaviour that make you uncomfortable with the following phrases:
“Please don’t speak to me like that. I don’t appreciate it.”
“If you continue to speak to me this way, I will end the call (or meeting or project).”
“I am here to help you, but I am not your punching bag. Please refrain from using that tone with me.”
Always make your safety the priority. It may not be possible to stand up to a client, but that doesn’t mean you cannot:
· Limit your interactions with the client
· Ensure someone is with you at all times
· Create an exit strategy away from the relationship.
They run late all the time
Waiting for the assets to arrive? Deposit still MIA? Is the deadline for the draft feedback whizzing past?
This is bad enough. But when a client is not punctual but expects you to meet the deadlines no matter how late they run, this can really disrupt your work timetable and mess with your head.
A client who is consistently late for deadlines and milestones, but expects you to be on time, is not showing respect for your time. This can be a sign of a lack of consideration for your work and the value you bring to the project. It may also warn of disorganisation or problems within the client’s company.
Disorganised client pro tips:
With anything running late, your best bet is to leverage and modify the timeline accordingly.
· Always start a project with a timeline in mind
· Factor in your own timetable a best, desired and worst-case scenario so you aren’t caught out
· Use the best or desired case scenario timeline with the client
· Proactively highlight what happens if they miss a deadline or milestone.
“As I was expecting the deposit last Tuesday and only received it today, the earliest I can schedule you in is next week. That means we’re approximately X days behind. I will adjust the delivery timeline accordingly.”
“Until I get feedback on the first draft, I can’t continue the work. If you leave it any later than Friday to get the feedback to me, it means we will miss the launch deadline.”
And if the client cannot change the behaviour, it’s OK to let them go.
They misuse the work
If a client blames you for their inability to implement your work correctly, despite simple instructions, it may be time to move on. This can be a sign of a lack of responsibility on their part. Or maybe they’re not as clued in as they claimed.
Their failure to activate the work you give them properly is not your fault.
You can take steps to minimise the gaps by:
· Identifying clients that may need extra help early on
· Building the project to meet their level of understanding
· Setting aside time and budget for paid training
· Creating a handbook as part of your customer service.
Work misuse pro tips:
Learn to separate the difference between supplying work and the functional life of the work after delivery. Some clients are going to ask for things they don’t need, they don’t understand or even don’t want.
As wasteful and confusing as this may be, ultimately, the consequences are the client’s. Putting a bit of distance between you and clients that are on the clueless side of the scale may be the only option.
They are always negative towards you
If a client seems consistently unhappy with your work, despite your best efforts, it may be time to reassess the relationship. This can be a sign that they are not a good fit for your business or that their attitude or approach isn’t compatible with your own.
It’s helpful to clarify feedback by asking for further insight and explanation. It may also work to reflect the meaning of what they say back to them, to ask for clarity and to ground them.
“It sounds like you really hate my new design. What about the design causing you such a powerful reaction?”
But let’s get this straight – no one does their best work if they are constantly told their work sucks. There’s a vast difference between providing actionable feedback and speaking to someone in a way that makes them feel devalued.
We often design culture to focus only on the critique and not on the coaching or development of understanding. You can sometimes open a client’s eyes and gain a better balance by asking questions like:
“What did you like about the first draft?”
“Is the tone right?”
“Can you give me an example of something that worked?”
Challenging client negativity pro tips:
· Try to balance the feedback with the positive and the negative
· Push back on anything that is intangible and without a path to clear action that you can take
But remember – clients aren’t paying you to soak in their negativity.
They’re so emotional
Cue the Whitney Houston – we’ve got a live one here! Clients that can’t keep the emotion out of their feedback and how they interact can really take their toll.
If a client becomes overly emotional or aggressive in their feedback or interactions, it can be a sign that they cannot separate their personal feelings from the professional relationship. This can be a toxic dynamic that can affect your mental health and your confidence.
Handling overly emotional client pro tips:
For freelancer and client alike, it’s important to remember the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. And the problem is more likely connected to the project than either of the people involved.
· Move away from personalised language
· Redirect the complaints towards the project itself
· Challenge any over emotional displays
· Don’t be afraid to activate an exit strategy like you would if they were harassing or bullying you.
They want to break the law
The chances of your client asking you to take part in a bank heist may be low. But there are clients out there who will attempt to encourage you to go against industry regulations, best practice, misuse social media platforms or use black hat techniques.
If a client is pushing you to break ethical guidelines or industry regulations, it’s OK to stand firm in your values. Going against your principles can have serious consequences for your business and reputation. It may also land your client in everything from Facebook jail to the real one if it goes unchecked.
Risk management pro tips:
· Research what could happen if they choose that direction and outline it to the client
· Leverage the consequences for the client as a deterrent
· Step away if they wish to continue.
And if you hear the “but everybody does it” excuse:
“That may be the case – but the person’s business I am responsible for is yours. And I do not believe the risk is worth the reward.”
They’re on the road to nowhere
Never forget that behind every client is a human. And humans can be confused, deluded, off-track, disorganised or chaotic. A chequebook or a company does not make them immune.
And if a client is disorganised or lacks direction, their inconsistency is likely to create more work. It can also stress you out as you never quite get a reliable fix on the rationales of their choices.
Some ways you can greet the chaos with an alternative are to:
· Identify the impact of the chaos and explain it to the client. E.g. “When new items are introduced into the project at late stages, it is a struggle to create my best work”
· Adopt transparent working styles. For example – allowing them to see progress and ground them via Trello, Asana, or Slack
· Highlight the incompatibility between working styles compassionately. This can sometimes even lead to client disclosure that can help form a better working format going forward.
But in all things, remember the toll inconsistency and dealing with the unexpected can take. Always make sure you feel not only accountable but autonomous in the work you do.
You dream about leaving them
If you dread interactions with a client or dreaming about ending the relationship, there’s a reason for it. It might be the client, or maybe how you feel about them has shifted. Either way, you probably shouldn’t ignore the desire to escape.
Dreaming of leaving that client pro tips:
Check in with your feelings about clients, your offerings, the styles of projects you do, and even freelancing regularly.
Be on the lookout for signs it might be time to step away, such as:
· Avoiding contacting the client even though you probably should for an update or to keep the project humming
· When their name appears in your Inbox or on your phone, you think “what now?” over “what do they need?”
· Wishing that you listened to your instincts and directing that resentment towards yourself or the client.
You’ve become infected by their negativity
Whether we like to admit it, optimism is the driving force of freelancing. You don’t assume this much risk because you want your life to be full of drudgery! And yet, good freelancers with healthy, positive creative outlooks can start embodying some of the darker hearts of their client or industry.
If a client’s negativity is influencing your outlook and behaviour in your business, it’s time to reassess the relationship. Toxic clients can have a ripple effect on your mental health. It can also start shaping your view of other clients through a lens of suspicion and cynicism. Or act as an early warning sign of freelancer burnout.
Looking after your best asset – which is you – should always be your priority.
Bad client attitude management pro tips:
· Remember that it is OK to re-assess client relationships, the choice of industry or vertical you service, and the services you provide on a regular basis
· Reflect on the impact your emotional state is having on your work. Review the work from an observer’s perspective, and make space for journaling and reflective practice
· If you or the people who love you have noticed changes in your stress levels and resilience, take those changes seriously. Book an appointment with your GP or counsellor.
No one ever said firing a client is easy. But your time, mental health, and business success are all valuable. A poor fit of a client is going to cost you more time, more brain space and more labour in most circumstances. Don’t spend your time trying to please the clients that don’t understand the benefits you bring. Do the right thing by your client and let them find their better fit.
Still wondering if you need to fire that client? Check out the Hug a Freelancer resources, get those vibes off your chest with the client management survey, and head to the Freelance Jungle group now! We’re here to help!
Thank you to our sponsor, Rounded, for supporting this blog post and making it possible. <3 If you’re looking for more advice to make your freelancing sing, check out their whopping 71 pieces of advice from successful freelancers.