Firing a Client: How to Handle It Like a Pro
Firing a client is something nobody really wants to talk about, but when running a service-based business it’s a reality that comes with the territory.
Sometimes you reach a point when you need to part ways with a client that’s no longer a good fit — and that’s okay. The truth is that firing a client can actually be good for business in the long run if you handle it like a pro.
Let’s face it, clients are not always easy to come by, so firing a client is typically the last thing any creative, consultant or agency owner wants to do.
As a service business owner, you’re focused on getting more clients, not getting rid of the ones you already have. But chances are, you will have to deal with this scenario at some point.
That’s exactly why I consider knowing how to fire a client an essential skill for every service business owner.
Top Reasons to Fire a Client
The wrong clients can be dead weight for a business. Hanging onto clients that you no longer want to work with can be a drag on your energy, peace of mind and profitability.
Truth is, you’ll be better off without them. Here’s why:
Reason #1: Clients from Hell
Maybe you’re dealing with a client from hell.
They’re overly demanding, expecting you to be at their beck and call and being downright disrespectful. No matter how much they’re paying you, working with people that treat you like crap isn’t worth it.
From my own experience and that of the service business owners I mentor, I could spend all day telling you stories about clients from hell.
Here’s the thing — once you’ve tried to set things straight and nothing changes, it’s time to cut your losses; they aren’t going to magically become your dream client.
Firing a client that’s a nightmare, opens up space for clients that you’ll actually enjoy working with.
Reason #2: Annoying Clients
Sometimes clients aren’t quite a nightmare, but let’s just say they’re not exactly a delight either.
Maybe this client is a constant source of scope creep, last-minute requests or they can never seem to make up their mind about what they want. Or maybe your personalities just don’t click.
You find yourself rolling your eyes every time you see their name pop up in your inbox and wishing you had something better to do. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to be besties with every client or be passionate about every project, but you also don’t have to put up with clients that aggravate you or refuse to respect your boundaries.
You didn’t go into business for yourself to spend all day doing stuff you don’t want to do, and that includes working for people that annoy you.
Reason #3: Unprofitable Clients
Sometimes you’ll discover that certain clients are simply unprofitable.
Maybe they’re an old client that you’ve kept around for a little too long paying your old prices. You’ve long since raised your rates, but you either assume they can’t afford the increase or they’ve told you they can’t.
Or perhaps you charge a flat rate and servicing this client takes longer than most.
It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, but sometimes, even if you raise the price they’re still not going to be profitable, or even can end up costing you valuable time and money.
By firing an unprofitable client open up the opportunity to get new profitable clients that put more money in your pocket. More importantly, when you have your services running in a profitable way, you’re building a much more sustainable business.
#4. Bad-Fit Clients
Sometimes clients are a bad fit for your business, or they’re no longer the right fit for your business.
Our businesses are constantly evolving. Just because a client was a good fit three years ago doesn’t mean they are right now.
A bad-fit client could be one that has unrealistic expectations, it could be one that you’re not able to get results for or it could be one with misaligned values.
You’re not doing yourself or the client any favors by keeping them on board when they aren’t the right fit.
Whatever your reason for firing a client, you should always deal with the split professionally—no matter what.
How to Handle Firing a Client Like a Pro
Once you’ve determined it’s time to break up with a client, it’s time to take action.
The worst thing you can do is let the feeling fester and avoid the inevitable. This will only result in growing resentment that will drag you down. Strained client relationships can go south fast, and I’ve seen things quickly spiral out of control that could’ve been completely avoided.
When firing a client, you want to end the relationship as amicably, professionally and quickly as possible.
#1. Make a Decision
If working with this client is affecting your mental, emotional or physical health, they’ve got to go.
While I will be the first to recognize that there are often financial considerations when letting go of a client, nothing good comes of keeping a client that’s causing you stress in this way.
Even if you have bills to pay, it’s not worth it. Trust me, no client is worth damaging your health or your relationships with the people you care about.
There may be other times when you decide based on considerations that are more practical in your business, and those are equally as valid.
Regardless of your motivation, keeping a client around for longer than absolutely necessary will do more harm than good. You have to get to a place where you are willing to end the relationship.
#2. Craft Your Exit
Once you’ve decided that you’re firing a client, you may need to be willing to walk away and cut all ties. It might feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to be firm and kind.
When you notify the client, keep the communication minimal and factual. Make it clear that this is your final decision and not up for discussion.
Typically, your exit will either be a “hey I need to wrap things up, here’s what that looks like” or “this isn’t working, we’re done as of now” situation.
In the “we’re done” situation, you may need to refund the client or make other concessions. Decide in advance what those will be so you have a solid plan and can communicate that as part of your exit.
Also, keep in mind, the client’s reaction might not be what you expect. If you had a decent relationship but are walking away to take your business in a different direction, they might take it personally. Don’t let them guilt you into staying or feel bad for “abandoning” them.
Step #3. Remain Calm and Professional
Working with clients can be an intimate experience, which means sometimes our emotions can get tangled up in the process. If the client has been taking advantage of you, disrespecting you or wreaking havoc in your life, you may be tempted to flip out.
But while getting things off your chest might seem like the exact stress reliever you need at the moment, you’ll likely regret it later.
I know it can be difficult to remain calm when a client is throwing blame at you or being unreasonable. But believe me, you’ll thank yourself later for taking the high road and remaining professional.
Have I ever lost my cool?
Yes, and I’m not proud of it. It reflected poorly on me, not the client, in the long run. And I wish I’d handled things differently.
When you lose your cool, nobody wins.
If you feel like you really need to blow off steam, pretend to give them a piece of your mind. Go into full rant mode in a Google Doc or talk to a trusted friend or mentor. (Believe me, I support clients through these situations all the time.)
#4. Take Time to Debrief
Firing a client doesn’t mean you’ve failed or wasted your time. Think of everything as a learning experience and focus on how to make things better next time.
Take a thorough assessment of what went wrong, including owning your own mistakes. Did you ignore red flags at the outset? Did you lowball your pricing? Did you overpromise or fail to set appropriate expectations or boundaries? Did you hang onto a legacy client for too long?
#5. Focus on the Future
No matter the reason for firing a client, you don’t want to get yourself in the same position again.
Take a look at your remaining clients and consider how you can head off potential problems at the pass. Take a look at the prospective clients you’re targeting and determine whether or not you need to make some adjustments in your marketing.
Next, take steps to set new boundaries and expectations to avoid getting into a similar situation again in the future. One step we always take when firing a client is to update our proposals and contracts to reflect what you’ve learned.
Say Goodbye to Problem Clients
Firing a client can be the best thing that ever happened to your business. Not only are you relieved of the problems they were causing, but now you’ve cleared the way for something better.
If knowing what to say and how to handle firing a client is what’s holding you back, check out the Client Communications Kit which includes a workshop on tricky client situations and a scripts library that includes two take and tweak scripts you can use to fire a client.