Firing a client isn’t easy for any professional. It’s especially harrowing for those of us with small businesses (freelancers, I’m talking to you, too). Can you replace them? How will it affect your business? How will it affect your reputation? And, you know, can you actually fire them if you have a contract?

The Importance of Acknowledging Red Flags

I’ve written before about the importance of acknowledging red flags in potential clients to minimize a future headache. If you see red flags, you need to be honest with yourself about them. People don’t change because you’re YOU. They will still be who they are. Just a quick run down of things you should watch for to save yourself some serious hassle:

  • They can’t really give you a basic description of what they want or what they need you to accomplish. I understand that some people may just have an end goal in mind and not really KNOW how to make that happen. Pay attention to what people say and don’t say…and ask questions.
  • They’re vague about deadlines. Not all people want to use a deadline…and that’s their prerogative. Just keep in mind that if they hem and haw about a date and yet also want to make their project to be the most important one on your plate, that’s a worrisome sign. I promise that when it is time for them to pay you (if they didn’t pay a retainer of some sort), they’re gonna hem and haw about that, too. Recently, I had a new client ask me to do a rush job on a weekend. I don’t work weekends if I can help it. I wrote what they needed and edited it. They put the money in escrow on Upwork…and now they won’t respond to messages. The good news is, I know how to contact Upwork about it.
  • You can’t find much on the person (or the company) online. I understand that sometimes new businesses won’t have a lot of feedback. What you do find out about the person contacting you or the business (or both) can help you decide whether you should work with them.
  • They seem to understand exactly what you say to them over the phone / email and then turn around and introduce you to another person as something you aren’t. Run, bro. Don’t even agree to the project. You do NOT need this sort of trouble in your life.

I could probably list at least a dozen more. You can probably think of several on your own. Don’t ever ignore a red flag. Ever.

How to Fire a Client

I do not fire clients often. Generally, it happens before the work ever begins. So, with that being said, my walk through for how to fire a client starts with this:

Read Your Fucking Contract

If you have a contract, read it. Also, don’t ever enter into a contract without reading it. Also, get your own standard contract drafted. It really IS worth the expense. MyVirtual.Lawyer is a good option if you don’t know anyone in your area and dread the thought of calling around and going to an appointment. Please stay away from free state-specific contract sites and legal form sites because you’re probably not going to read it to make sure it is (a) following the laws in your state and (b) includes the right provisions to protect YOU. Also, those sites can’t give you legal advice. Well, one does…for a fee. A lot of lawyers now offer subscription model and flat fee options for small business owners.

Your contact should state the reasons why either party can end the contract. It should give several options, including whether either party can just say (in a business professional way), “You know what? I’m sick of this shit and don’t wanna work with you anymore.” Long term contracts are for suckers.

Determine If You Owe Them Anything

Before you fire a client, review your agreement (if you have one), emails, or private messages to determine if you still owe them any sort of work. If you have a contractual obligation and you don’t have an escape clause, fulfill your obligation. Otherwise, you could damage the reputation of your business.

If there is no contract and they’ve always paid you on time for your work (despite being a royal pain in your ass) and you’re in the middle of a project, do what you can to finish it. Give them some notice that you won’t be available for future work. This is, again, about protecting the reputation of your business.

Clarify to Yourself Why You Want to Fire the Client

Before you fire them, make sure you understand WHY you’re doing it. Please understand that in many cases you don’t have to answer follow up questions about why you’re doing it after you’ve did the deed…

Clarity is a necessity because you’re going to write them a Dear John email. You don’t want to be vague, but you also don’t want to come off as a total dick. You want to be firm and yet professional.

Again, if you have a contract, read it. Make sure that you’re within your rights to fire them. If necessary, talk to a lawyer BEFORE you do it.

Compose Your ‘Dear John’ Email

Let me say that I do not like firing clients. If it needs to happen, I prefer that it happens before the work ever begins. A lot of people show their true colors directly after engaging your services (with or without a contract).

The recipients should include your direct contact and the person who hired you, if that is separate from your direct contact. Also, BCC yourself.

Be clear, be concise, and do not be mean. The blame game gets you nowhere. Just be clear and concise and wish them well. If you have a contract, be sure that you can point them to the clause that allows you to get out of it (if necessary).

It’s also much easier to write something like “When this project concludes, I will no longer be available to fulfill your needs for X.”

I recently fired a client for grossly misrepresenting what I do to a third-party. I sent them a private email first to remind them we had already discussed, twice, what I do and my limitations as a PARALEGAL (and writer). To misrepresent me as a lawyer is just not okay. I cannot and will not allow that to happen. UPL is real. Some states are VERY aggressive when it comes to prosecuting paralegals for that sort of misrepresentation. I taught paralegal ethics. This is a big no-no. The response I received was ridiculous and amounted to “We know but we want to impress third-party.”

We do not have a written contract. I hadn’t officially started drafting any templates for them. It was on my to-do list for this week. I knew I had to fire them, but verified it first with my business attorney.

I also waited until I calmed down. I was livid about purposefully being misrepresented. My email was direct, but not a dick response. I stated why I was ending the business relationship and that UPL is a serious issue that I do not want to have to deal with in the future because someone was told I was something I am not. I wished them well.

That’s it. Past that, I don’t owe them an explanation. I was very clear.

What about Firing Clients on Freelance Platforms?

Well, to some degree the answer to this is to rinse and repeat some of the above. Make sure you don’t have any outstanding deliverables, particularly if you’ve been paid in advance. Finish up whatever outstanding project and send a polite and direct message that just states you won’t be available to assist them with future projects.

What If They Leave Bad Feedback?

Bad feedback is a legitimate fear for freelancing platforms, including Upwork. And some people, no matter what you do to bring the contract to an end that benefits both of you, will still leave you ugly feedback…especially if you stuck up for yourself in some fashion.

The good news is that you can often take those situations to Upwork for help. Depending on whether you’re Top Rated, you may have other benefits available for your use. To my understanding, all freelancers can comment on any negative feedback left for them. This gives you the opportunity to clarify why the arrangement ended.

What If I Want to Leave Them Bad Feedback?

My initial thought is don’t be petty…but you can be honest. You can use the star system to rate the client on several factors. Your honesty can help other freelancers. Don’t be a dick in your commentary. Again, you can be honest…but don’t be a dick. (How to succeed in life: don’t be a dick!)

PS – Yes, you’ll live…and yes, you’ll replace them.

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