Firing a client is one of the hardest things you’re likely to do as a business owner.
On the one hand, it’s strictly business:
Deciding to part ways with a customer is sometimes the only option to protect your time, your business, and most importantly – all of your other clients.
On the other hand, firing a client can be intensely personal:
Even when you decide to fire a client you’ve just started working with, there have already been multiple times where you’ve said “yes” to them and their project. Your business responded to the client’s initial inquiry, sent them a proposal after an initial sales call, and countersigned their contract so work could formally begin. After hearing “yes” from your business a few times already, hearing that you now wish to end your agreement can make it hard for clients not to take it personally – regardless of the reason or clearly defined contractual obligations.
Firing a client requires navigating difficult conversations and complicated emotions while balancing what is best for your business – making it one of the hardest things you’ll likely do as a business owner.
In this article, I’ll cover circumstances where I think it’s appropriate to consider firing a client and provide my recommended process you should follow.
Has the person who wrote this even fired a client before?
The short answer:
Yes, nearly a dozen times. While the reasons for firing these clients were all justified, I handled the first few poorly. I hope that others can learn from my mistakes.
The slightly longer answer:
When I stepped into my first big client-facing role at the web design agency I helped scale from 500 to 5,000 paying clients, my official title was “Director of Customer Happiness.” I was responsible for sales but also for customer success. This meant I was typically the first person a new client spoke with after their initial inquiry–and the first line of defense for any serious issues or complaints.
While 99.9% of the customers I worked with were friendly, collaborative, and all-around amazing people, I eventually learned that no matter how effective your sales process is at properly vetting clients to ensure they are a good fit, firing a client is inevitable.
And because it’s inevitable, the best thing you can do is to be prepared.
Why it’s important to have a process for firing clients:
To illustrate why it’s essential to have a process for firing a client, I want to give a real-life example of what can happen if you do not:
For this example, I’ve changed the name and business information of the client, and I’ll refer to them only as “Charlie.”
When Charlie first contacted us about their project, I was the one to speak with them. During our initial sales conversation, it appeared to be a typical project for our agency: building a website for a private practice specializing in animal-assisted therapy. Not only was the mission of this business commendable, but they also seemed like a perfect fit as a client.
However, hindsight is 20/20, and there were two things Charlie asked that I could have dug deeper into or clarified during our call:
- The first was that Charlie asked if there was a limit to the number of pages we could create.
- The second was that Charlie asked if “unlimited website edits” truly meant unlimited.
At this point in our agency’s existence, we had openly communicated that the number of pages we could create and the number of edits we could make to a website was ‘unlimited’: 100%, no questions asked.
This was our first mistake.
After the project kicked off, Charlie completed our standard web design questionnaire. Shortly after, our team sent them a first draft.
When building a website’s first draft, our focus is to nail down the overall design (colors, fonts, imagery, etc.). In order to maximize our effectiveness, we would only initially design 3 – 4 pages and add additional pages once the design was finalized.
After seeing the first draft, Charlie communicated that while the design looked OK as a starting point, the rest of the website was “completely wrong” and that they would follow up with a list of revisions for us to make.
Okay, no problem, we thought.
You can probably imagine our surprise when Charlie sent us a Google Drive folder with 97 additional pages they wanted us to add to their website.
Not only was this a massive request, but at this point in the evolution of WordPress (the platform we built websites on), the platform had a 99-page limit. Even if we wanted to create all these pages for Charlie, it wasn’t technically possible.
What was even more problematic is that while Charlie provided the content, they also wanted us to proofread each page (which we did not do).
At this point, we quickly realized Charlie was not a good fit for us, and, as our agency’s Director of Customer Happiness, I jumped in to effectively “fire” them.
I wrote Charlie an email explaining the WordPress page limit and the fact that we did not offer proofreading services. Because of these two factors, I communicated that we weren’t a good fit for the project and we would provide a full refund plus recommendations for alternative services. In my mind, this email resolved the situation.
This is where I messed up.
Charlie wrote back extremely upset, pointing out that while they could accept we didn’t offer proofreading for website copy, we openly advertised (and also reaffirmed it during their sales call) that we provided unlimited page creation and website edits. Because of this, Charlie said, it could only be a personal reason for insisting that we now part ways, making it very clear that if we couldn’t come to an agreement, they would post negative reviews online and communicate to every person they knew how unethical our business practices were.
While there are some cases where firing a client can be cut and dry, in this example, Charlie hadn’t done anything wrong – there was never any foul language or outright contract violations. The fault rested solely on our agency for not better defining what we edit and page creation limits. I then compounded the issue by sending a quick “see you later” email instead of having a conversation with Charlie where I could explain our missteps and hopefully come to a more amicable resolution.
Ultimately, we had no choice but to agree to complete Charlie’s project, incurring a huge cost and requiring many additional work hours. But our mistakes got us into the situation, and it was our responsibility to make it right.
That said, had we put a process in place for firing a client before getting into the situation, it would have saved a significant amount of money, time, and frustration for everyone involved.
3 Reasons why you might consider firing a client:
Firing a client is not a decision that you should make lightly.
As a business owner, you can decide who you do and do not work with. But, you also can structure your contracts in a way that allows you to fire a client for a wide range of reasons and, sometimes, even terminate a client agreement at any time for no reason.
While I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, here are three reasons when it may be appropriate to fire a client (and you should consider adding these reasons to your contracts or ToS):
#1 – They use inappropriate or abusive language
Listen, we’re all humans. Delays and mistakes will happen.
I firmly believe it is never acceptable for a client to use inappropriate or abusive language toward me or my team members. This type of behavior is not only unprofessional but also creates a hostile working environment.
That said, it’s up to you as a business owner to decide how you want to handle occurrences of abusive or inappropriate language.
For me, any foul language used when referencing a team member’s work is cause for a single written warning. In contrast, language targeted specifically at a team member is grounds for immediate termination of a client agreement.
If a client uses inappropriate or abusive language, it is essential to document the issue in detail and save any electronic copies of the communication.
#2 – They consistently make late payments or refuse to pay
Late payments or refusal to pay can be a significant issue for any design agency. Not only does it impact your ability to pay your team and maintain your business, but it can also create a stressful working environment.
It is also important to have clear payment terms outlined in your contract or agreement. It can help prevent misunderstandings and provide a basis for action if a client is consistently late or refuses to pay.
Finally, it is important to document any late payments or refusal to pay if you need to provide evidence should a client dispute your decision to fire them.
#3 – The client is simply not a good fit
My last reason for firing a client can be one of the toughest to navigate, as it’s less cut and dry than the first two. What makes it even more complex is that it’s often challenging to include it in a contract or written agreement.
A client you need to fire because they aren’t a good fit can happen for several reasons, such as different design styles or difficult/incompatible working styles.
When deciding to fire a client, being honest and clear about your decision is essential. Provide specific examples of why the client is not a good fit and offer to help them find an alternative design agency. Offering support in finding a new agency can help prevent misunderstandings and maintain a positive relationship with the client.
How to fire a client:
If a client puts your business’s financial health or overall well-being at risk, it’s your responsibility as a business owner to fire them. You owe it to yourself, your colleagues, and your other clients.
That said, just because you have a responsibility to put your business first or even a legal right to fire a client doesn’t mean you can say, “Okay. We’re done…bye”.
Rushing to fire a client too quickly or without a plan of action can negatively impact your reputation with current and future clients and, in worst-case scenarios, may even result in legal action against your business.
To help you navigate this complicated process of firing a client, I’ll give you my suggestions for things you should do before you fire a client and additional steps to take after you decide to part ways.
Before you fire a client:
Ask yourself: What is the ideal outcome?
It’s essential to clearly define your ideal outcome before deciding to fire a client. Sometimes, resolving the situation without firing the client may be possible.
Understanding the ideal outcome you hope to achieve will help determine if there is a way to resolve the situation without ending the working relationship.
In situations where there is no clear resolution or when the reason why you are firing them is particularly serious, prepare yourself with documented reasoning as to why firing the client is necessary.
Speak directly with the client before sending anything in writing (in certain scenarios)
If it is possible to resolve the situation without firing the client, consider scheduling a time to speak with them directly as your first step. This helps prevent your client from jumping to conclusions or misunderstanding what you have to say.
During this conversation, be transparent and honest about your expectations, and ask your client about their own. Throughout my time working with clients, I’ve been frequently surprised by how effective conversations like these are for finding a middle ground.
Send a written warning before firing the client (when appropriate)
In some cases (for example, late payments), it may be more appropriate to send a written warning to your client before officially firing them.
This warning should detail the specific issues that need to be resolved for you to continue working together, along with a clear timeline.
After you decide to fire a client:
Ensure you have the proper documentation
Once you have decided to fire a client, it is crucial to have proper documentation. The documentation you’ll want available generally includes the following:
- Specific parts of your contract or agreement that details when you have the right to fire a client
- Documentation about steps you have taken to try and resolve the issue
- Copies of any electronic communication that provides evidence as to why you are firing the client
- Additional documentation explaining your rights and the rights of your client after you part ways
Keep it professional
Firing a client is a business decision.
Make sure your client knows why you’ve made the decision and why it’s necessary for the health of your business. Even though it’s challenging, you should avoid getting emotional or irritated in your conversations with the client before and after you decide to part ways.
From my experience, charged emotions can often create an opposite and equal reaction that draws the process out even longer. When firing a client at my last agency, I’d often repeat the phrase, “focus on facts, not feelings.” This helped me keep a level head and maintain a high level of professionalism throughout challenging conversations.
In situations where the client you are parting ways with was not a good fit, offer to support them in finding an alternative service.
Send the client a written notice
When finally telling your client that you’re parting ways, I suggest you send this communication via email, as telling them on a live call can open up a whole host of additional variables. Plus, sending notice via email means you have a backup of the communication in your “sent” folder.
I recommend your final notice to a client informing of your decision to part ways includes:
- A clear summary of why you are choosing to end your agreement
- Supporting documents such as contracts or terms of service
- Any written documentation about actions you have taken in an attempt to rectify the situation
- A timeline for when work with the client will end
- Details about what happens after your work together ends, such as anything you will return to the client, like designs assets or a monetary refund
While, from my experience, needing to fire a client is rare, you need to be prepared for when the situation arises – and if you are in business long enough, this situation will arise.
I hope this article has provided the information necessary to create a plan that allows you to quickly, effectively, and painlessly handle the process of firing a client.
Do you have any tips or suggestions on firing a client? Agree or disagree with me? Share your thoughts in the comments below.