How do you know when it is time to fire a client? How can a freelancer end a relationship with a client without burning bridges?
—I Prefer My Bridges Structurally Sound
When you’re a freelancer, your goal is usually to collect as many clients as possible. More clients means more money, right? It’s easy to start out your freelancing career without thinking about the day you’re going to have to fire one of those clients, but believe me, that day will come, and when it does, you’re going to want to know how to approach it the right way.
How do you know when it’s time to fire a client? Here are some of the more common reasons:
-The client pays much less than your other clients, and you’d like to free up time and energy to pursue a higher-paying client.
-The client has asked you to do something unethical.
-You have more work than you have time to complete, and one client has to go.
-The client is difficult to work with and you’d rather lose money than ever complete another assignment for them again.
Although many freelancers agonize over when to drop a client, we rarely make the mistake of dropping clients too soon. Instead, we hang on to clients for too long and let low-paying or annoying clients steal energy that could go to finding better work. But learning how to fire a client is an important step in moving from entry-level to mid-level freelancing.
The first and most important step is don’t assign blame. Sending an email that reads “I’m quitting because you aren’t paying me enough,” or “I’m leaving because you are the worst client I’ve ever had,” is not a professional way to drop a client. These are blatant examples, but there’s a chance you’ll want to vent a little, even if it’s subtle, when making a change. Instead of making your client feel badly about your departure, simply draft a short email that reads “I wanted to let you know that I am moving on to other opportunities. I plan to complete all of our outstanding assignments including X, Y, and Z, and our last day of work together will be May 19, 2015.”
Should you give notice? It depends on the client. If you are writing for a client who expects a certain amount of work from you every week, it’s both courteous and appropriate to give a standard two-week notice. I gave two weeks notice when I said goodbye to a recent client, and I think it was appreciated.
If you are working for a client that gives you an assignment every month or so, you do not need to give notice. Instead, you can write something like, “I wanted to let you know that after I complete this assignment I will be moving on to other opportunities.”
What should you do if a client makes a counteroffer? I was once in a situation where I announced my resignation to a client and the client offered me more money to stay. I accepted the counteroffer—and trust me, it was a mistake. Why? Because all of the other issues I had with that client were still there. I stopped working for that client a month later.
If you choose to accept a counteroffer, make sure the money isn’t simply buying off an underlying problem. A difficult client is still a difficult client, and a difficult client is often an energy suck that will stop you from finding that next wonderful client.
Do you need to secure a new client before dropping an old one? Carol Tice advocates for always finding a new client before letting an old one go:
This isn’t always possible, but ideally, you don’t want to see any interruption in income. Try to keep control of the situation. Bide your time and do your assignments until the moment you’re ready to ditch them in favor of a better client.
I’d agree with Tice’s advice, with one caveat: if you are working for a client who is directly impeding your ability to succeed, such as calling you at all hours or asking you to complete work you aren’t proud of and aren’t comfortable sharing as part of your portfolio, it is okay to fire them without having a replacement lined up. Do what’s best for you.
Should you keep the door open for future work? Let’s put it this way: Unless the client is completely awful, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the door open. Consider ending your resignation email with something non-committal like “It has been great working with you, and I hope we cross paths again sometime.” Maybe you’ll work with that client again, maybe you won’t. Maybe the editor who received that email will go on to bigger and better things and ask you to join. You can’t predict how a freelance career will go, so keep doors open when you get the chance.
Lastly, is there a way you can make your client feel good about getting fired? Why not offer them three names of other freelancers you know who are chomping at the bit to get this work? The freelance business is all about referrals, and continuing to speak positively about your client—whether you are recommending freelancers to them or recommending them to other freelancers—is a great way to show your clients you still appreciate them even though you had to fire them.
Nicole Dieker prefers to think of firing a client as adding one more client to your extended network. Have another question for Ask A Freelancer? Email Nicole at email@example.com.