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Know when and how to fire a client

how to fire a client
By Helen Heidel. Last Updated September 18, 2023

As a small business, landing a client feels INCREDIBLE. All that pitching and preparation finally paid off. You like to cherish every single client you’ve worked hard to get. And 95% of the time you do. 

But there’s that one client. You might’ve noticed some initial red flags, such as constant last-minute requests or poor communication. When these snowball into greater issues, like a pile-up of unpaid invoices, it could be time to let them go.  

Not every client relationship will serve you, and that’s okay. Firing a toxic client is a big business decision to make. Ultimately, you want to think about what’s good for your business and mental wellbeing—both are important! 

We’ve laid out some key points to help guide you through the process of firing a client, including:

  • Common types of toxic clients
  • Signs you should fire a client 
  • How to fire a client
  • A sample script for firing a client 

We’ll start by looking at common types of difficult clients and red flags to look for. 

Common types of toxic clients

how to fire a client

As a business owner, you always want to have a good relationship with your clients. However, some clients end up being especially difficult, from the “I’m always right” type to the downright bully. We’ve rounded up common toxic client types to keep on your radar. 

Before you read on, remember that each client relationship is important. Even the difficult ones. Your goal should be to find solutions to apparent issues before considering firing them. 

The “I’m always right” client

It’s frustrating to work with someone who always thinks they’re right. They’re generally not willing to listen to other opinions. If you bring a different point of view to the table, they dismiss your ideas. While you may be the expert on a subject, they believe they know it better. All this makes it difficult to move projects forward!

The dishonest client

Every client relationship should have some level of trust. It’s not just awkward to catch a client in a lie, it also fractures the relationship. This client type might constantly “misinterpret” important information, making it impossible to do your job. 

The aggressive client 

These clients are often considered the worst of the bunch. They tend to be argumentative and in-your-face. Just be sure they don’t creep into the territory of a workplace bully, which is a sign you should drop them immediately. Safework Australia defines workplace bullying as repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety. 

The boundary-breaking client 

These clients have no trouble calling or Whatsapping at any hour of the day, even after you explicitly ask them not to. Deadlines are pushed forward and there are a lot of last-minute requests. You may notice them interrupting you or your team’s workflow, making it hard to manage all other deliverables. 

The disorganized client

This client type isn’t necessarily rude or dishonest, they’re just rather unorganized. They’ll request deliverables on a certain date but will forget to send over the necessary documents. They may miss scheduled calls or ask for rushed work often. You might not need to fire these clients, but they do require extra hand-holding.   

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Signs you should fire a client 

While a client may not fully embody the toxic typologies above, there can still be signs that the relationship should end. We’ve laid out some telling ones. 

1. The client is abusive.

Examples of abuse include:

  • Intimidation
  • Threats
  • Insulting you or your employees 

If a client is abusive, it’s time to call a lawyer and fire them immediately. 

2. The client is unreasonable.

A client can be unreasonable in different ways. Some include: 

  • They make demands you can’t meet 
  • Their criticism is unconstructive 
  • They ignore communication boundaries 

3. There are constant payment issues.

Payment issues shouldn’t happen. If they often do, that’s a big red flag. This disrupts your cash flow and creates financial anxiety—bad for your business and mental health. 

4. The client takes up more time than they're worth. 

Unfortunately, some clients are just unprofitable. You either spend too much time or money on their projects, stifling your business’ potential growth. 

5. The relationship isn’t improving 

If you’ve tried, on multiple occasions, to talk about issues like those listed above and things still aren’t getting better, you may have to move on. 

firing a client

It's normal for a few client hiccups or miscommunication issues to arise along the way. Some clients are challenging but not necessarily problematic, and there are always ways to improve client communication

The grounds for firing a client occurs when there are repeat offences and you’ve exhausted all options of trying to improve the relationship. 

How to fire a client

Building client relationships is one of the ways to prime a business for success. It's never easy to give up on one. You’ve sat down with the difficult client, explored all avenues for improving the relationship and gave them your all. Still, things haven’t improved. 

You’re now sure it’s time to fire the client for the wellbeing of your company, employees and yourself. 

How do you go about doing that? Most importantly, avoid burning bridges.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

  1. Always make sure you’re adhering to the terms and conditions laid out in the contract.

  2. Don’t leave a client hanging on project needs. If you’ve agreed to it, complete the project. If not, create a list of handovers for the next person. 

  3. If you can, refer the client to another business or freelancer who could take over the project. 

  4. Don’t get into the blame game. Keep it professional and polite. 

  5. Don’t just fire the client over email. Like a breakup text, nobody wants that! You can initiate the conversation over email to keep record of what’s being said, but try to follow up with a phone call. 

  6. Make sure you have all the important bits in writing.  

Unless the client did something illegal or inappropriate (in which case, fire them and get a lawyer stat), it’s a good idea to express your appreciation for their business. After all, last impressions are as important as the first. 

Now what do you actually say when firing a client? 

People have different ways of going about this. We’ve outlined five approaches you could take and what to say. 

The referral approach

It feels good to do good. This scenario involves helping the client find your replacement. You’ll make a better last impression and you can build business connections by referring someone in your network. 

What you can say:

  • Let the client know you’d love to work with them but aren’t in a position to meet their needs. You’re not obliged to go into detail if you don’t want to. Refer them to other businesses you think could help.  

The upfront approach

Business owners tend to use the upfront approach when they feel the client relationship isn’t salvageable or the client has done something completely unreasonable. In this scenario, a direct conversation is needed with zero uncertainty over the terms. You can adopt a firm yet polite tone. Just remember to avoid pinning blame on the client. 

What you can say:

  • If the relationship isn’t salvageable: You’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with them, but have noticed issues in the working relationship. You can explain you’re not the best fit for each other and that you’re going to need to terminate the contract effective [date]. 
  • If the client has done something abusive or outrageous: It’s time to stand ground. Let them know this type of behaviour isn’t tolerated from employees or clients and you’ll be terminating the contract immediately. 

The rate increase approach 

This approach is risky. If a problematic client accepts your raised rates, you’re back to square one(ish). However, this might be the right technique if you’re not fully certain you want to fire them yet. 

What you can say:

  • Inform the client of the changes you’re making to your pay structure and let them know your fees will be increasing. If you can refer them to a pricing page on your website, even better. 

Wait the contract out approach 

This approach works if you can see light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps your contract is coming to an end shortly anyways. If you won’t be renewing the contract, give the client enough time (around one month) to find a new provider. 

What you can say: 

  • Thank them for the opportunity to work with them. Gently let them know you won’t be able to offer your services moving forward due to whatever reason you want to give, really: other contracts coming up, changes in your offerings, etc.

A sample script for firing a client

If you’d like more direction on what to say when firing a client, we’ve outlined a general structure you can follow:

Dear Client,

1. Mention the positives.

It’s been a privilege to work with you and your team. 

2. Let them know you won’t be working with them. 

Unfortunately, due to [reasons], we won’t be able to offer our services, effective [date]. 

3. Offer an apology and a referral. 

We’re sincerely sorry for the inconvenience! To avoid any interruptions in service, we’d like to refer you to [company or freelancer name], who we think could meet your needs. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help with the transition period.  

4. Mention any project items you’ll complete. 

Below is a list of items you can expect from us between now and [date]. 

[list of items] 

5. Thank them for their business. 

Thank you for your business over [time period]. We wish you all the best. 

Each person has a unique client relationship and reason for leaving their client. While these are guiding points on what you can say when firing a client, you should always try to personalize your departure. 

Great clients are still out there

Working with a bad client is disheartening, but don’t let that ruin your confidence in delivering good work. When a client relationship doesn’t serve you, chances are, it’s not serving them either. Sometimes it’s best to rip the bandaid off. 

Plus, there are a number of great clients out there. When you find them, you’ll want to nourish the positive business relationship—after thanking the heavens.

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Helen Heidel

Helen is a creative copywriter with over six years of agency experience in the marketing and branding world. She’s crafted campaigns and content for brands like Accor and Ford to lean and local small businesses. Based out of Bangkok, when she’s not typing away at her keyboard, she’s probably stuck in traffic.