Breaking up is hard to do. Never does that sentiment ring more true than when you’re considering how to fire a client that’s causing you major headaches.
You know that you absolutely need to get that client’s work off your plate. But, even so, you find yourself at a standstill.
What do you say?
How do you end things—ideally without destroying that relationship (or worse, your reputation) altogether?
You don’t want to continue working together—but that doesn’t mean you want to see that bridge go up into fiery, hot flames.
It’s an undeniably tricky and delicate situation. However, it’s also a somewhat common one. Not every client relationship plays out perfectly, and sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and split up than it is to continue trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
How can you pull this off in a way that’s still polite and professional?
Here’s everything you need to know to dump that troubling client of yours—ideally, with as little screaming, tears, and ice cream-binging as possible.
Why Would You Ever Fire a Client?
Getting rid of a client can seem like a counterintuitive concept. As a business owner or account manager, why would you ever kick that added paycheck to the curb?
Shouldn’t you white-knuckle whatever business you can scrounge up for yourself?
That’s an understandable thought.
But, it can also be a detrimental one. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t propose marriage to somebody you were dating, even if things obviously weren’t working out.
You wouldn’t think, “Well, I already have so much invested—might as well lock this down, even though I’m miserable!”
You aren’t in a romantic relationship with your business’ clients (at least, we certainly hope not—that’s sure to add another complicated layer to things).
However, this same logic still rings true. If things aren’t panning out well with a particular client, both of you are typically better off if you acknowledge that fact and end your professional relationship.
What are some reasons you might want to do that? As Naomi Dunford explains in this post for IttyBiz, reasons for firing a client fall into three main categories:
- You Hate Working With Them: This client makes you clench your fists and grit your teeth. Maybe you dread the work you do for them so much that you’d rather zip yourself into a sleeping bag full of greedy mosquitos than need to spend another minute on their projects. Or, perhaps they’ve never managed to pay you what you were owed on time. Plain and simple, this client is making you miserable.
- They’ve Changed: Suddenly, your client changed the name of the game. Perhaps the project scope just quadrupled. Or, maybe they’ve decided that they now want you to manage their social media accounts—despite the fact that you consider yourself purely a writer. Whatever it is, you aren’t meshing with their new goals and objectives.
- You’ve Changed: Dunford shares that this reason is the easiest one to explain, as it assigns no blame to the client. Instead, you’ve personally shifted your focus or changed directions, and this specific client no longer fits in with that.
Should You Fire Your Client?
Before you turn your attention to polishing up your heartfelt, “It’s not you, it’s me” spiel, it’s smart to take some time to ensure that you actually can fire this client at this point in time.
Comb through your contract if you have one.
Did you sign on the dotted line stating that you would complete so much work or provide a certain amount of notice when terminating your relationship?
You’ll want to make sure to abide by any legal terms you agreed to. The last thing you need right now is to end up in any legal hot water.
Finishing up any work you owe them or—at the very least—tying up any loose ends is also the conscientious way to end that professional relationship, without any major scuffs to your reputation. Plus, it’s often considered proper business etiquette.
No, you don’t need to stick by them and complete that six-month project with a never-ending case of scope creep. However, you want to make sure that you don’t totally leave them hanging with a quickly impending deadline, for example.
Making the effort to not leave them in a lurch will go a long way in ending that relationship on a somewhat positive note.
Part Ways Nicely
Once you’ve checked those boxes and made sure you’re free of any legal or ethical issues, you’re ready to fire a client.
This is the tough part. So, we have everything you need to know to make it through that awkward exchange with as little pain as possible.
Step 1. Determine Your Reasoning
Don’t feel like you’re going to need to provide your client with a lengthy and overly-detailed explanation of every little misstep or annoyance that led you to this decision. However, you should be prepared to offer some sort of justification so that client has a little bit of closure.
Think about exactly why you want to break up with this particular client.
Once you have that reason in your mind, think of a way that you could put a slightly more positive spin on it if necessary.
For example, if that client was just a total pain in the you-know-what to work with, your reasoning could be something like:
“I don’t feel like I’m the best fit to help your company complete this project and reach your goals.”
It can be tempting to crank out a long list of every awful trait that client possesses—particularly if you really hated working with them. But, remember that this step isn’t about venting your frustrations or deflating your client’s ego.
Instead, your goal is simply to offer some sort of justification for your thinking, rather than leaving them totally confused or blindsided.
Step 2. Gather Some Recommendations
One surefire way to cushion the blow of your breakup? If you can recommend someone else that they could work with.
Perhaps you know another business that would be the absolute perfect fit for that project you were supposed to complete. Or, maybe an independent contractor or freelancer you know is actively searching for more work just like this.
Passing along that contact information will give your client somewhere to turn after you’ve ended things.
“Just don’t give out the information for advisors you have a close relationship with,” explains Angie Mohr in a post for Investopedia, “You don’t want to make your problem clients theirs.”
Step 3. Outline Some Specifics
When you end things with your client, you’re going to need to provide some details. If you have been using Toggl for tracking time spent working on projects related to your problem client you should pull some reports to underline your reasoning. Neatly designed charts leave less space for arguments.
You’ll also want to make sure to outline things like:
- What date you’ll officially be done (ideally, you’ll be able to give your client adequate notice so that they have time to find someone else if necessary).
- What pending work will you finish?
- What pending work won’t you finish?
- What are your expectations in terms of final payment?
Get out a notepad and jot down these details—before you ever strike up this uncomfortable conversation with your client. That way, you’ll be prepared to answer any questions and make sure you both are on the same page before going your separate ways.
The last thing you want is a major disagreement as the capstone of your professional relationship.
Step 4. Have the Tough Conversation
With that groundwork in place, you’re ready to bring your client in on your thought process.
Like so many other circumstances, it’s usually best to have a more serious conversation like this one in-person over the phone or email. But, we recognize that’s not always possible—sometimes email is your only option.
Plus, even if you do have that tricky conversation in-person, it’s still best to put things in writing with a formal client termination letter—just so you have proof of the conversation that occurred. You might never need it, but it’s still smart to have that documentation in your back pocket.
Wondering how to write a termination of services letter?
Check out the below client termination letter sample and template to get started on writing your own farewell email to your client.
Termination Letter Template
I’m writing today with a bit of bad news. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to continue working with [company] after [date].
This is never an easy conversation to have. But, I’ve noticed that [reason you’re ending things].
Because of that, I think it’d be better for both of us if you took your business to another company. I highly recommend [recommendation] to help you with [work or project].
Before we go our separate ways, I will:
[Expectation you identified in step #3]
[Expectation you identified in step #3]
[Expectation you identified in step #3]
Thanks in advance for your understanding, [Name]. Please know that I’m wishing you all the best in your future endeavors!
See The Template in Action
I’m writing today with a bit of bad news. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to continue working with Dunder Mifflin after Monday, October 16.
This is never an easy conversation to have. But, based on the numerous edit requests I’ve had from Dunder Mifflin lately, these writing projects are taking far longer than we originally anticipated (see the time tracking report attached)—leading me to believe I’m not the best fit for your audience and your writing needs.
Because of that, I think it’d be better for both of us if you took your business to another company. I highly recommend Peggy Sue to help you with your writing work. She has a ton of great experience in writing content for small to mid-sized paper companies.
Before we go our separate ways, I will:
Complete the final white paper we had on the schedule for this month.
Wrap up the pending edits on the corporate video script.
Expect a payment equivalent to half of our agreed-upon retainer no later than 30 days after my departure.
Thanks in advance for your understanding, Michael. Please know that I’m wishing you all the best in your future endeavors!
You’ll notice that the example strays from the template just a little bit—and that’s for good reason.
A template is just a template. You can (and should!) make changes and additions based on your relationship, personality, and unique circumstances!
5. Be Prepared to Answer Questions
In most cases, your breakup will be met with a curt yet polite, “Thanks for letting us know. All the best!” It’s short—but, it’s far better than being on the receiving end of a “Screw you!” sort of sentiment.
However, in some cases, even the most well-written and thoughtful message will result in some questions from your client. In those cases, you need to be prepared to answer those—and promptly.
What if your client is aggressive, emotional, or begs you to stick around?
Use this short and straightforward script outlined by Nick Reese:
“Thank you for the feedback, but this decision is final. As mentioned before here is a list of what to expect between now and [date].”
6. Learn and Improve
Firing a client can be a cringe-worthy experience. But, it can also be enlightening—provided you’re willing to take a magnifying glass to that exchange and extract some valuable lessons from it.
No, you won’t always be able to spot bad or high-maintenance clients right off the bat. However, it’s still worth figuring out if there are any takeaways you can get from your experience with this one problem client.
Perhaps this made you realize that you only want to work with small businesses—and not large corporations with all sorts of red tape—moving forward.
Or, perhaps you identified an entire service you no longer want to offer.
That’s valuable information you can use to improve your business as you continue to grow and refine your offerings. Remember, hindsight is 20/20—so don’t miss the opportunity to turn around and look behind you.
Over to You
As much as you might look forward to having that client off your to-do list and out of your inbox, you’ll probably never be excited about the actual act of firing them. It’s difficult and awkward and typically leads to plenty of sweaty palms and shaky knees.
Fortunately, it is possible to part ways with a problem client—without causing any major damage to your professional reputation.
Put these tips and tactics into play, and breaking up might just be a little less hard to do.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.