How to Fire a Difficult Client
The first time I had to fire a difficult client, my pits sweated right through my shirt as I was composing, backspacing, and rewording that email.
Look, we’re gonna to do our best to make sure we don’t ever end up in this position, but sometimes you have to fire a difficult client.
I encourage you to do this at the second sign of inappropriate behavior. For the most part, I’ll give people grace on their first asshole comment, late payment, or questionable Zoom background.
But the second time?
Cut your losses and get out.
You don’t necessarily even need to have a clear egregious error. Sometimes you just drift apart. You’ve got a 5 year contract and 2 years in you’ve decided you want to shift your business focus.
Instead of providing a full suite of graphic design services, you’re pivoting into the niche of writing each wedding guest’s name in calligraphy on individual grains of rice that they’ll chuck at the happy couple. Totally cool.
Pivots happen all the time.
The bottom line is don’t do this:
Even if you really really really want to.
When you recognize it’s time to part ways your first stop is your contract. Whip that baby out.
It’s gonna have a section on cancellation. The most common clause I see says that the contract can be cancelled by either party with 30 days’ notice.
Email your client and say… whatever you want. But not too much. Unless you want to.
My point is you aren’t obligated to say much but if you’ve had a good relationship and want to preserve it, you can provide some detail.
How to fire a difficult client:
You can be as efficient as “Hey there – It breaks my heart to do this but I need to sever our partnership. Our contract asks for 30 days’ notice – please consider this the notice. I’ll continue to give my best on this project in that time and I have someone in mind I’d like to transition you to if you want a recommendation.”
You don’t have to mention calligraphy on wedding rice.
You also don’t need to provide a recommendation if your client is a jerk. Because the colleague you’re recommending doesn’t deserve that behavior either.
If they’ve specifically breached the contract in some way, you don’t have to wait the 30 days either. You just need to point to that clause in the contract, like “Todd, when you commented on the size of my butt at last week’s meeting, it was a breach of the sexual harassment clause of the contract, which is cause for immediate cancellation. I’ll be sending my final invoice over shortly.”
I’ve been in less clear situations where I had to say something like “The ongoing reshuffling of my scope and responsibilities is making it impossible for me to fulfill the obligations laid out in our contract. Further, I need to be able to trust a partnership – that’s how we plan out our business strategy. This partnership is not working for our business model any more.”
Copy/paste these as much as you need.
Take a deep breath and hit send.
And if you’ve loved these folks, consider shipping them a parting gift of wedding rice.
Do not forget to send the final invoice.
Sometimes we don’t review our contracts very carefully before signing and end up agreeing to a clause that’s less fair, like one that says only your client is allowed to cancel. If that’s you, still try one of these options listed above. Chances are that once you convey that you’re unhappy, they’ll also want to part ways.
If you’re screening your prospective clients well, firing a difficult client will be rare (so bookmark this page for when you need it). I have to do it once every other year.
When it happens to you, it sucks but I’m here for ya. Email me and tell me what happened and how they reacted. We’ll get through it together.