As a freelancer, you’re going to have great and not so great clients throughout your career. It’s just the nature of the game. A client becoming a “problem” isn’t always a reflection on them or even the company. Sometimes a problem client is a result of a miscommunication or misalignment of goals. Other times, it’s a matter of poor timing. Or, sometimes a client starts out as a great match for you but over time, the engagement begins to make less sense for your mutual needs.

There are many different situations that signal a problem – such as these five. If any of those situations sound familiar, it’s time to fire your problem client. Below, we elaborate on how to know when, as well as walk through four steps to take to fire a problem client as a freelancer.

When a client can’t afford you anymore

You might have an excellent relationship with your earliest clients. They gave you a chance when you were first getting started with little to no portfolio and you’ll be forever grateful for that. But with time – as your skills grow and your work becomes more valuable – you’ll want to increase your rates.

It’s standard practice to negotiate your rates with current clients, especially if your scope of work is expanding. Have a friendly but direct conversation. Lead with the results you achieve for them and explain that you’ve raised your rates with new clients. If you have data on rising market rates for your service, even better. Let them know you’re raising your rates to remain competitive.

If you like working with the client, be open to a mutually beneficial solution. If they can’t afford a larger budget, consider scaling back the scope of work but raising your rate. Just be careful to avoid scope creep. That is when a client starts asking for work outside of your contract.

Here are more tips for negotiating a higher rate with new and existing clients. If your client isn’t willing or can’t work within the rates you need to be competitive, then it’s time to part ways.

When a client stops communicating with you

Clear and consistent communication from both sides is imperative for a successful client/freelancer relationship. For each piece of work, you need to make sure your goals are aligned and that the deliverable is clearly outlined. When a client stops communicating, that becomes nearly impossible. You end up delivering work they’re not 100% happy with and time is wasted by both parties. And that’s time you could have spent making more money with another client.

A lack of communication can be signaled by a client canceling your standing meetings or worse, just not showing up. Or by not answering your emails or Slack messages, etc.

There are ways to avoid this situation as a freelancer. If you see that a client is busy – which is most likely the cause of lack of communication – propose a solution. Propose short, clear weekly updates that they can simply approve or provide feedback on. These can then take place of weekly calls, and you can move them to bi-weekly or monthly. If they’re still not communicating with you after all of that, it’s time to let them go. You’re not a mind reader and your client shouldn’t expect you to be.

When a client is a major cause of bad stress

There are many ways a client can be a source of bad stress. It could be that they’re a small startup or business with a tight budget that makes it difficult for you to achieve the goals they set. They may seem consistently unhappy with your work, but unable to effectively communicate why. Or, worst of all, if they often threaten to let you go. There’s a big difference between providing effective and constructive feedback and being threatening. Other causes of bad stress from a client can include:

  • A lack of communication or consistent miscommunication
  • Scope creep, especially when balancing several clients
  • Unrealistic expectations based on your rates and their budget
  • Inability to provide detailed and clear feedback when unhappy
  • A lack of boundaries (i.e. texting you at midnight with a request)
  • Constant change in process that throws off your workflows
  • They don’t take your professional advice, resulting in work you’re not proud of

There will be times where you’re running up on a deadline or have a large workload and are stressed. That’s different – that’s healthy stress. There’s a difference in experience stress every now and then and always feeling like you’re on pins and needles with a client. If you find yourself losing sleep over a particular client, it’s time to replace them with one you’re better aligned with.

When you’re no longer excited about the work at hand

Maybe your client has changed the scope of work over time to reflect company changes. Perhaps you’re no longer interested in the work you’re producing. Or, you realize that you’re not the culture fit you thought you were. Whatever the reason, this situation can be detrimental to both you and your client. If you’re producing work you don’t enjoy, you and your client (and their customers) are all going to be able to tell in the final product.

Try having an honest conversation with your client about the work. Bring ideas to the table for deliverables that would get you more excited. They might feel the same way and be happy that you took the lead on making a change. If not, or if you find them reverting back to asking for the work you’re dreading, it’s time to at least explore your options. To keep the relationship healthy, consider offering to find a replacement or have a few freelance referrals ready for them.

How to fire a problem client

If you’ve found that you can no longer work with a client, it’s important to part ways in a professional and respectful manner. Keep things amicable and try to maintain a healthy relationship. Not only is there a chance that you’ll one day work together again, but you also want them to be a referral and potential resource for future leads. Here are four steps to letting a problem client go.

1) Get everything in writing

To avoid conflict later, make sure all of your communications are in writing. If you have a great relationship with them and prefer to tell them over the phone, there are two ways to approach this. You can send an email asking for a call. Then, follow up with an email detailing that you’re ending the contract with the timeline and offboarding plan. Or, you can give your notice via email and ask for a call. No matter what, make sure you follow up with an email outlining points discussed.

2) Be honest and professional with your feedback

You’ll do your client a favor by being honest and letting them know why you’re ending the engagement. Do so with tact. Share your feedback in a constructive and empathetic manner. If you’re simply focused on other projects, let them know why. Let them know if you need to focus on fewer projects for work/life balance. Or, if you’re shifting your industry focus.

This oldie but goodie from Entrepreneur suggests keeping a record of how the client is negatively impacting your bottom line or morale that you can present. Don’t be defensive. Listen, empathize, and find a mutually beneficial way to end the engagement. Most importantly, if applicable, illustrate how the change will positively impact their business.

How you deliver your notice can directly impact your reputation. Stress that you’ve made a business decision, not an emotional or personal one. Here are some great scripts for ending a client engagement (though we suggest demonstrating a bit more gratitude than these do).

3) Give plenty of notice

How much notice you give matters too. Your contract might outline how much notice is required. If not, a good gauge is to give at least two weeks just as you would with a 9-to-5 job. If you can afford to give more notice, that will go a long way in maintaining a healthy relationship. Consider giving a month’s notice – that’s more than enough time to ensure everyone involved has all bases covered.

4) Have an offboarding process ready

When sending your notice or follow-up email, be sure to include a hard end date and what work you’ll be completing before then so that there is no confusion. If you really want to maintain your reputation, have an offboarding process ready. Have a checklist of everything that needs to be done, and let them edit it to fit their needs. This will save them time and work, which they’ll appreciate. Also, make sure to have all of your work, logins, etc. neatly packaged and ready to hand over.

Final thoughts

It’s not easy letting clients go. It can be stressful and even get emotional at times. But you have to make the right decisions for your business in order to grow. In the long run, you’ll be less stressed and more successful for it. Try doing an audit of how you’re spending your time and where your resources (time, energy, money, thoughts) are going. Look for places to streamline and identify what work makes you most happy. After you reduce your stressors, you’ll have a client roster of projects you like working on and that yield the pay you deserve.

If you’re looking for new projects to work on, check out the available jobs on the CloudPeeps platform. If you’d like more advice on how to fire a problem client or want to share your story, reach out to the community in the Facebook group.

*Photo by Jason Bricoe.*