How to Fire a Client the Right Way!
By Jena Kroeker
If you’re new to the freelance or virtual assistant industry, you may be surprised to see this post is about “How to fire a client.” In the corporate world, we usually think of ourselves as the ones who are fired. But that’s an employee mindset we need to shake. As online business owners, we work in partnership with our clients. And if a partnership becomes unbearable, we aren’t stuck with it.
Think back to the first time you didn’t enjoy a job in the corporate world. How did that situation make you feel? I remember a couple summer jobs I dreaded. At the first one, I’d hold my breath as I walked into the back of the store, smiled, and said hello to my employer. He’d let me walk into the front of the store… pause… and then call me back to reprimand me for things I had done wrong. Except I hadn’t always done anything wrong.
At another summer job, the goalposts were moved each day. One day, employees were required to follow a certain routine. The next day, managers would change the routine and say we were doing things wrong. I started having sleepless nights, dreading walking into work the next morning.
Have you experienced these sorts of feelings in your virtual work? In a previous Freelance University Virtual Office Hours session, co-founder Craig Cannings talked about difficult clients who ignore our concerns, degrade us, or behave disrespectfully. Craig calls these types of clients “Demanding Dan.” Imagine this scenario with a fictional character named Jane…
Jane wakes up in the morning and glances at her phone. Ten text messages and five missed calls! Although they live in the same time zone, Jane’s client tried to reach her at 10:00 p.m. last night, and again at 6:00 a.m. this morning. He was urging her to complete an important project immediately.
When Jane asks for clarification on how to proceed, she doesn’t hear back from him until the next day. He then chides her for being slow to finish her work. And he says, “You know, there were lots of other more qualified freelancers I could have hired. You’re lucky to have this job.”
At a video conference meeting with the team later that week, Jane cringes as her client announces, “We were late finishing this project because of Jane. She’s impossible to get a hold of.”
Jane leaves the meeting with a headache. It’s not the first time she’s been blamed for situations like this. She thought she would enjoy working virtually, but instead she feels burdened and overwhelmed. Not to mention the fact she submitted her invoice over a month ago and hasn’t been paid yet. Her FreshBooks account has sent automated reminders, but to no avail. Reminding herself that she’s an entrepreneur, she analyzes the situation to see whether she needs to let this client go.
Problems with Jane’s Client
Jane’s client contacts her late at night and early in the morning, expecting an immediate response. In her contract, Jane has clearly outlined her office hours (9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) and indicated that she’ll respond to messages within 24 hours. She’s stated that her phone number is only to be used for emergencies. Abdullahi Muhammed shares his insight on these types of scenarios in his article, “4 Signs You May Need To Fire A Client And How To Do It Right”:
“You will encounter some clients who are just extremely ‘needy.’ They want you available at all hours; they want you to be reporting progress on an unreasonable schedule. Usually, this is because that client has not used outside contracting before and is nervous; sometimes, it is because that client has a controlling personality. Whatever the reason, you now find yourself feeling harassed. This can’t go on.”
Jane was being urged to complete a project quickly and expected to be on call, yet her client was unreachable when she needed clarification. As Jock Purtle says in his article, “Why firing your client is completely OK + how to do it right,” it may be time to move on if your client is hard to reach, since their lack of responsiveness can cause your work to be late or below standard, ultimately hurting your reputation as a freelancer.
Jane’s client shows lack of respect by criticizing her for being slow to complete a project, when he played a part in causing the delay. He then tried to preserve his own reputation by blaming her in front of the whole team. And instead of appreciating the skills she brings, he degraded her by saying she was lucky to have this job. As entrepreneurs, we hope to have mutual respect in our client relationships. Jane’s client treats her like an employee and insults her to save face.
Jane’s client hasn’t paid her yet, even though she submitted her invoice over a month ago with payment terms clearly stated. We explore the topic of late or non-payment situations more fully in a previous blog post titled “Help! My Client Won’t Pay Me!” In it, we share the following advice:
“If the missed payment was small, and your client has communicated with you and proven to be reliable in the past, you might decide to continue work, but require prepayment for any future projects or tasks. If your client is being underhanded or encountering severe financial difficulties, you might decide it’s time to end your contract and move on.”
Above are just a few of the many types of issues that can lead you to end a client relationship. Here are some other examples:
• Scope creep (unexpected tasks not included on your contract)
• Micromanaging (lack of trust in your abilities and no freedom to complete tasks independently)
• Changing role (tasks change drastically from what you were hired for, with no respect for your chosen niche)
How to Fire a Client the Right Way
Important note: If you are being sexually harassed or feel unsafe as a result of your client’s behavior, please contact your local authorities and seek professional help. In other circumstances, the below strategies may apply.
1. Hold a meeting.
Before deciding to end a client relationship, it’s important to meet with your client by phone, video conference, or in person. Zoom video conferencing is a great option because it provides a recording you can send to your client. Discuss your concerns, and give your client a chance to air their concerns.
You may find that you’re able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement and uphold the terms of your contract. You may decide to set a trial period to test whether the relationship can continue. Or you may see your client exhibiting more of the same behaviors that caused you to call the meeting in the first place. If your client proves unreasonable and incapable of change, it’s time to consider firing them.
In an article titled “How to Know When You Need to Fire a Client,” Amelia Bartlett says, “If you can get past the fear of missing out on your existing revenue, you enter a space where you can imagine a better situation and even make a plan for a healthier future.” Remember to exercise the freedoms you have as an online business owner.
2. Form an exit strategy.
Depending on your client, you can choose from a variety of exit strategies:
• A Quick Exit – Your contract may include a clause that states the agreement can be terminated by giving the other party a certain number of days written notice of termination. If the client situation is unbearable, it might be best to end it as quickly as possible, while still upholding the terms of your contract.
• A Well-Timed Exit – If you’re in the middle of completing a project, you may decide to either complete the project or stop work at a certain point where it can be handed over to someone else. It’s best to treat clients as you’d like to be treated. Another way you can show respect is to time your exit either before or after a product launch or major event so you aren’t leaving them in the lurch.
• A Gradual Exit – A good way to avoid burning bridges is to help your client transition to a new freelancer who’ll replace you. If you can endure working with your client for a while longer, you can help train someone to take over your role so your exit won’t negatively impact your client’s business.
3. Take the high road.
No matter how bad a client is, be sure to treat them with respect. Ideally you’d like to fire them while maintaining a positive view of your freelance or virtual assistant services. Avoid venting about them on social media, and be careful not to criticize them in public. You never know who might be listening to your conversation in a coffee shop or restaurant.
Jen Hubley Luckwaldt explains it this way in her article, “5 Signs That It’s Time to Fire a Freelance Client”:
“The trick is to know when it’s time to go and to make the parting as pain-free and professional as possible. Go about things in the right way, and you’ll free up time for more worthwhile investments, while still maintaining the goodwill of your former client — which you want to do, because it’s a small world, and you never know when you’ll see them again, or whether they’ll turn out to know people at your next big project.”
And remember to be kind to yourself. If your client’s behavior has caused you to doubt your own abilities, speak with a trusted friend, mentor, or counsellor about your feelings. Don’t let a bad client change how you view yourself as a professional.
Think about what you’ve learned from this experience and how you’ve empowered yourself to seek new clients who respect and honor your relationship. Look forward to more fulfilling work in the future. And celebrate the fact that as a freelancer or virtual assistant, you’ve exercised your freedom to choose who you work with.
If you have any questions or thoughts on how to fire a client, please share them in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you and support you through these challenges in your online business.