How To Gracefully Fire a Client

By / Mar 29, 2012 / Tips
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Clients come in many varieties. Some are thoughtful, professional, cooperative and ALWAYS pay on time. Then there are the other ones. When a client goes beyond “difficult,” to being such a burden on your resources that your other clients suffer, then you may have no choice but to cut the cord. There are many legitimate reasons to end a client relationship, including non-payment, poor communication, client procrastination, and plain old-fashioned disrespectful behavior. Sometimes these situations can be solved with a little conversation, sometimes they can’t. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that you have already decided that you no longer want to work with your client. In that case, here is my action plan to gracefully bow out of a client relationship at any stage of the project.

Read The Contract

Before you attempt to discuss the impending doom with your client, read the contract (you made your client sign one, right?) to see exactly what each party’s obligation is. Ideally, you will have already lived up to all of your obligations, but if not, figure out exactly what deliverables you may still owe your client. Similarly, figure out any compensation that they still may owe to you. Being armed with the facts is the best way to get what is owed to you, so be sure not to leave any loose ends.

How To Gracefully Fire a Client

Find a Suitable Replacement

If you are parting ways with your client due to personal chemistry, or if you just feel another designer could put up with this client better than you could, then it is usually a good idea to have a few lined up that you can recommend to your client. This helps ease yourself out of the situation, while appearing to genuinely care about the future of the project. You probably already have others in mind that you could pass this client along to, but if you don’t, a little bit of research should turn up plenty of designers whose specialties line up with the needs of the project. Of course, if you are firing your client due to non-payment, disrespectful behavior on your client’s part, or if the problem is so severe that you could not in good conscience subject another designer to it, then you should skip this step. The last thing you want to do is create a similar problem for a fellow designer.

How To Gracefully Fire a Client

Set up a Meeting

While you may be tempted to just fire your client in an email or over the phone, the most professional way to do so is always face to face. You should set up a meeting with your client, and simply say that the purpose of the meeting will be to discuss the status of the project. Use your best judgement about where to hold the meeting. You might suggest their office, or if you think it might get ugly, you can hold it at a neutral location, such as a Starbucks. People are much less likely to cause a scene in a public setting.

How To Gracefully Fire a Client

Pull the Trigger

It’s the day of the meeting. Bring your contract, and any other evidence of money that is owed to you, as well as evidence that your client has not lived up to their end of the contract. Above all else, remain calm and let your head, rather than your emotions dictate the proceedings. When explaining your reasons to your client, there are two ways to drop the bomb:

Option 1: Honest & direct

Whenever possible, being honest is in the best interest of everybody involved. It allows you to speak your peace, and tell your client exactly what your reasons are. They may protest, but if their behavior is to blame for impeding the process, then they should know that. What they choose to do with that knowledge is their own business, not yours. After delivering the blow, always allow your client the chance to explain their side, even if you have already made up your mind. It is only professional to allow them their chance to speak. After you have listened to their side, and if you still want out, just politely keep things moving.

Option 2 : Sugar-coat it

While I always recommend being truthful with your client, there are times when you may not feel like it would be worth the drama it might cause. In these cases, you can always give a general, all-purpose excuse, such as that you are booked solid, and cannot continue with the project.

Once you have made it clear that you are no longer willing or able to work with them, this is where you would provide your newly-ex-client with information on other designers if you choose to do so. Explain to them that you feel these designers might be better suited for this particular project. You will then want to discuss any open obligations that have not been fulfilled yet. Has your client paid for anything specifically that you have not yet delivered? Does your client owe you any money for work completed thus far? Be sure that before the meeting is over, you both have a clear-cut understanding of what needs to be delivered to each party, and by what date. These may be touchy issues, particularly if you are asking for money, so be prepared to show exactly why you are owed what you claim. In some instances, it may be worth it to you to just walk away and not demand any additional payment from your client, even if you feel you are owed it.

How To Gracefully Fire a Client

Conclusion

Firing a client is never a happy process, which is why I always recommend weeding out potentially problematic clients before taking them on in the first place. There are all kinds of red flags that pop up early in the process, most of which you can see in the initial consultation. Always trust your instincts, and you will very rarely have to go through this unpleasant process. But if and when you find yourself wanting to fire a client, always do so in a graceful manner that reflects the professionalism that you have worked so hard to build. If you don’t owe it to your client, you owe it to yourself and your business.

Have you ever had to fire a client? How did you handle it? Do you wish you had done anything differently? Leave your comments in the section below.

About the Author

Wes McDowell is the lead designer at The Deep End design studio in Los Angeles, where he specializes in web & logo design. He also co-hosts a popular graphic design podcast called "The Deeply Graphic DesignCast.

16 Comments

  1. Scott Alexander
    March 29, 2012

    The most common mistake is to think that a client cannot change. The majority of the time, clients are unaware of usual processes and practices and it makes them a burden on your time and resources.

    However, if you are honest and direct with what’s troubling you, a lot of the time it will lead to a vastly improved relationship and a surge of effort on the clients’ side to be more respectful of your time and resources.

    Jumping the gun and firing a client prematurely before even confronting them about whatever has been causing the relationship to break down is a sure fire way to losing potential revenue from a potentially good client who is quite possibly just ignorent as to their actions and their effect on yourself and will actually respond well to any criticism about this, leading to a relationship which is much more efficient and a lot more honest.

    Clients love honesty, they don’t receive it often.

    Scott

    Reply
  2. vail
    March 29, 2012

    Great article Wes! Hopefully most designers will never have to do this, but it does seem like an eventuality. An addition I would offer is if the client asks for a refund or for you to hand over the incomplete work, to stand your ground. If your contract had a kill fee clause and you have already worked past it, don’t let guilt force you to give up any $$. You also don’t owe them any incomplete work – the last thing you want is to see your work finished by someone else, unless you can work out something directly with an other designer you trust to do it justice.

    Reply
  3. Cliff Huizenga
    March 29, 2012

    It really is a tough situation, but if you’re thinking about firing a client, there must be a good reason(s) why. As long as you stand your ground and have enough documentation to form a great foundation for your arguments as to why, there shouldn’t be too much trouble. If the client *does* give you trouble, then maybe your decision to fire them was justified.

    Freelance designers tend to be softer on clients, more pushover-y and tend to stick with bad clients in the hopes for some income. Don’t. Stand up for yourselves and weed out the bad clients. Some clients just don’t care; If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. You’ll end up working 3 times as long on a project, which means your time has just devalued equally.

    I think that’s the key term to think about here: Value. What is the value for your time and work? Does the client value it the same or more? Is the value of staying with one client equal or outweigh other opportunities? All things to think about before “pulling the trigger”.

    Reply
    • wackyomo
      April 24, 2012

      I totally agree.

      Reply
  4. Ronny Karam
    March 29, 2012

    While the article is very interesting, since you don’t see people blog about such topics enough, it feels unreal to believe that meeting like this actually end well.
    No matter how solid your arguments are, the client always reacts depending on how HE sees YOU;
    * were you professional?
    * were you punctual?
    * did you always deliver on-time?
    * how did you handle communication with the client?
    * did you delay any deadlines?
    * …

    and most importantly:
    * does he like the outcome so far?
    * does he think his money is well spent?
    * does he trust you enough?

    So before you fire a client, create a disaster case study and see what you’re loosing in the process. If you can handle the damage (on paper, not with your ego) then go for it, and just be honest.
    If the damage is too big (client still owes you a lot of money, client is part of several projects, client is simply… a big fish!), then each case is approached differently, and can range from pushing a trusted middle-man in between you and the client, right to filing a lawsuit.

    Reply
  5. Wes McDowell
    March 29, 2012

    Scott, I agree with you 100%. I would always suggest trying to talk it out first, but this article is just coming from the angle of someone who has already decided that firing their client would be the best course of action. And if a client is just plain disrespectful, that’s a fireable offense in my opinion.

    Vail, yes, if the client wants to terminate the agreement, thats a whole other story. Always have a kill clause in your contract that states your refund policies as well as who keeps the copyright in the event of non or partial payment. I personally hold all copyrights to the work until I receive payment in full.

    Reply
  6. Heather Burns
    March 29, 2012

    I recently got to “that point” with a client whose procrastination and non-communication had reached unexcisable levels. I decided to schedule an in-person lunch meeting to resolve the situation in a non-confrontational way. I got up at 4:30 AM for the commuter shuttle and flew the 400 miles to the client’s location. 90 minutes before our lunch, the client phoned. “oh I’m terribly sorry…awful headache…can’t do it today…I’ll phone you next week.” As usual. Naturally I was polite and accomodating in my response on the phone, but what I was thinking in my head is fairly unrepeatable.

    I knew, above all, the client was never going to phone the next week. I was proven right. One month after our scheduled lunch I sent the client a handwritten note letting them go. I enclosed a cheque refunding their deposit minus my expenses and flights. It hardly surprises me that the client has neither acknowledged the note nor deposited the cheque. I’m sure they will have an excuse at the ready when and if they finally do.

    Reply
    • Wes McDowell
      March 30, 2012

      @Heather, WOW, that might be the bad client of the year. If they knew you were flying out for the meeting, there is no justification for cancelling it like that. Sounds like you made the right move and not a moment too soon.

      Reply
  7. Leon Panjtar Web Design
    March 29, 2012

    Hey, now this is a topic we can discuss about all night long. Nice tips though. I will try to use them with my clients that are beyond “difficult” :D. I have a few…

    Reply
  8. Oladiti Najmudeen Dayo
    March 30, 2012

    Great post Wes! But i want to come from this angle that keeping your client and maintaining good working relationship is usually more rewarding than firing your client. Just think about it, may be latter in future you bid for a job and your fired client has great influence on who gets the job, he definitely will rule you out.

    Reply
    • Wes McDowell
      April 1, 2012

      True, but sometimes it does get to the point where it just isn’t working, and I would never advise sticking with a client who isn’t paying you, is disrespectful, etc. Sometimes you have no choice. But of course, this is a last resort.

      Reply
  9. Morgan & Me Creative
    April 3, 2012

    I agree with Wes too. If all else fails and you know there’s no way to every salvage the situation, ie. client starts to get edgy and throws insults…, then it’s time to cut the cord loose.

    Reply
  10. Jared Erondu
    April 5, 2012

    What a necessary article. I’m sure there are MILLIONS of people who need this, lol. Firing is never an easy thing to do. Especially when you’re not ruthless and actually care how you’ll come off. Thanks Wes!

    Reply
  11. dezebo
    April 9, 2012

    I would always suggest trying to talk it out first, but this article is just coming from the angle of someone who has already decided that firing their client would be the best course of action. And if a client is just plain disrespectful, that’s a fireable offense in my opinion.

    Reply
  12. wackyomo
    April 24, 2012

    I just fired someone today. I wrote an email to the client (who was really a go-between to the real client). Anyway, it was suppose to be a simple project, but, programming-wise, it just got too complicated and spent a lot of hours on this. I told the client they did not need to pay the invoice. I figured, in the long run, both sides would be happier. BTW, Amen to cliff’s response. :)

    Reply
  13. Debbs Hosting
    May 27, 2012

    Great points. Actually, I’d say that firing a client is a very painful process, too. You’d have to go through all the diplomatic ways to avoid any damage to your company. That’s why training and seminars on people management would be a huge help to those who are in a company, don’t you think?

    Reply

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