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When a working relationship goes bad: How to fire a client (nicely)

Alexandra Thelin Blackowski's Layout avatar

Sometimes, you’ll find yourself doing work for a client that just doesn’t quite see eye to eye with you. No matter what you produce, the client will have more and more changes. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be able to make reasonable changes for someone—that’s perfectly fine. But if it gets to the point where the project is still always wrong, no matter what is made or however many updates are completed, then there is a problem. If you find yourself dreading phone calls, emails, and additional work from this client, it is not a productive project.

Despite this predicament, there are ways to handle this type of situation. The following points will help guide you if you ever find yourself needing to let a client go, and you want to be able to do so with grace and maturity.

Take some responsibility

It is important to see things from the client’s point of view, and recognize that your own actions may be partially to blame. Before making any decisions or taking any other more drastic measures, see if you can adjust your own attitude and manage your own expectations. With this small change, there may be a visible difference in the outcome of your interactions. If you have been avoiding emails or phone calls, the client may feel that you are out of touch or hard to find. There may be some simple adjustments in your own outlook of the situation that might correct it, and then you won’t need to remove yourself from the situation at all.

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Don’t burn bridges

If it turns out that you and the client are still not in accord after reassessing the entire situation, then it is time to cut ties. However, do not bad mouth your client to anyone, or even talk about your relationship. What occurs is solely between you and the client, and it is no one else’s business. If you tell others how it was a toxic relationship, they will reconsider working with you in the future and may place the blame solely on you. Instead of treating the incident like juicy gossip, keep your thoughts to yourself. Also, do not compose messages to your client when you are angry. If you do so, you are more likely to be harsh in your words, and won’t be able to think rationally. Keep calm and composed.

Don’t rethink your decision

“Once you cut ties with your client, don’t over-analyze your decision. Make it a clean break. ” Wondering if you are making the right choice or not will only continue to drain your mind. If working with the problem client was taking away your time and resources from other projects, it was definitely not a good fit. You don’t want to have to turn down additional work or become delinquent on other deadlines. Make your decision to work more efficiently with others, and then let it go.

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Send your final bill and move on

Presumably, you will have made a contract at the beginning of your working relationship that defines the terms of your employment. After your final round of work, send a bill to the client to receive your owed payment. If you are sending the bill via email, include a short (but not rude) message stating that the final bill is attached and thank them for their time. There’s no need to be abrupt at this point, as you want to keep up your professional demeanor and receive payment.

As much as this type of situation can be a bummer, it isn’t uncommon and will most likely be encountered at one point or another by all graphic designers, web designers, freelancers, and agencies. When handled correctly, it isn’t that big of a deal. It can also be seen as a learning experience, and you will know what types of clients you may want to avoid for future jobs. After you have lived through this type of experience, you will be able to immediately trust your instincts if you encounter similar behaviors at the beginning of future endeavors.

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Lockedown Design

    September 22, 2016

    Though I've gotten better about it, I still occasionally end up with clients that I shouldn't of let into my roster. The best thing to do with these is assess where I went wrong and screening them, finishing the work, and keeping up communication. As you pointed out, you can't disappear on clients who are a bad fit. You have to communicate with them as if you would any other client.

    Most clients come back later for work or maintenance, so the best step is to point them towards someone who would be a better fit. It's not enough just to walk away, but you have to offer a reasonable solution to working with you.

    If in the case you have clients that owe you money, and are avoiding contact, most times you're not going to get that back. I've found doing a paid discovery phase weeds out the cheap and not-so-serious clients.

    Another good point you had Alexandra, is never write emails when angry. I always have someone else look at the email to see if it sounds angry, and then edit.

    If I think the client is angry, I try to get them on the phone. People are less apt to be angry over the phone and they are in email. And it's often quicker, cutting right to the chase.

  2. eric watson

    July 17, 2016

    Client paid 50% deposit, we let in some scope creep since he is a first time client, then when everything was ready he dragged his feet for 2 weeks, which by then the other 50% was due.

    Client said I was paid enough to this point for him to use what I had started but wasn't ready to decide the text he wanted on the site, with an eventual change of all photography, which was the free scope creep we created.

    The text we put on the site was from his executive summary.

    Bet you dollars to donuts he has no money.

    Yet, within 30 days of opening his business, he works there, his wife, another manager and two or three employees. There was on 4 customers there the hour we were there.

    He is using a web.com website until he gets around to paying me.

    Another small claims court situation.

    My last text was: When will you be honoring the contract you signed?


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