Two Great Reasons to Fire Your “Good” Clients

This was a banner year for me as a freelance writer—it was the year I started firing clients. And not just the ones who were difficult, unreasonable, or downright rude. Severing those types of relationships should be a no-brainer if you’re going to maintain your sanity as a freelancer.

This year, I went one step further and found the courage to fire the ones who—although perfectly civil, reliable, and easy to work with—were simply not moving my career in the right direction.

In this post, I’ll explain why I took this drastic step.


Why I Fired My “Good” Clients

Firing good clients may sound pretty foolhardy. After all, we’re going through a deep, prolonged, global recession. I’m lucky to even have clients. If they’re not downright abusive or crazy, shouldn’t I be doing my level best to keep them?

Maybe. After all, it takes time and energy to find and retain new clients. And firing them leaves a hole in both your work schedule and your finances—the bigger the client, the bigger the hole.

But sometimes that’s just the motivation we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. And recession or no, I want my career to be shaped by aspirations, not fear.

Which Clients Did I Fire?

So what kinds of clients did I fire this year? Here are two examples of perfectly good clients I chose to let go of in pursuit of a more focused and rewarding freelance career:

  • The client whose work doesn’t enhance your abilities or your portfolio. Very early in my freelancing career, I picked up a client who needed very light, simple articles written about promotional merchandise—gift baskets, monogrammed golf shirts, and so on. She paid reasonably well for the articles, and they were a cinch to write. The work was easy and stress-free, and the client was easy-going, appreciative, and paid on time every time. But I made the decision to end the relationship with her because the work was doing nothing to enhance my skills or build an impressive portfolio. I realized that every frothy article I wrote for her was taking me away from the type of client work or self-promotion activities that could help me move my career forward. Sure, the relationship was comfy, but where would it leave me in the long term? As freelancers, our portfolios are an integral part of our marketability. If my portfolio is full of fluffy filler, chances are I’ll continue to attract more jobs of that caliber. Refusing to do that kind of work doesn’t automatically guarantee I’ll land better-quality projects in future, but it does give me the time and the headspace to work on attracting quality work—by doing some outreach to a new market, for instance, or taking a course, or improving my website.
  • The client whose work isn’t a fit with your own ethics or values. As freelancers, few of us are lucky enough to work exclusively with clients whose values reflect our own perfectly. However, when the rift is wide, it may be time to let the client go. I made the decision to sever relations with a client earlier this year because their business was moving in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with. I had written web copy for their health supplement, and they were happy enough with my work to contract me for a series of e-newsletters, blog posts, and landing pages. The work was great, and they even stuck with me loyally through two rate hikes. However, the claims they made for their product were becoming more and more unrealistic, and the sales pitch began to feel an awful lot like snake oil to me. I think they truly believed their product was the cure for everything from obesity to asthma to osteoporosis—but I didn’t. And I didn’t feel good about writing inspirational articles about how a few spoonfuls of vitamin powder could solve readers’ health problems. When I finally fired this client, the boost it gave my self-esteem and sense of integrity was well worth the loss of the business.

It’s important to feel confident about the work you do as a freelancer—if it’s not something you want to share with the world, think carefully about whether it truly fits your vision. Do you need the money that badly? What if you could find work that’s personally satisfying as well as financially rewarding?

How to Fire a Good Client the Right Way

Even with a bad client, you want to end the relationship in a positive and professional manner. A good client who has treated you fairly deserves an extra measure of respect and consideration when it’s time to move on and let them go. Firing a good client requires finesse and forethought.

On a more practical note, here are some tips for bowing out gracefully:

  • Do it face to face. Firing a client via email is only appropriate if your communication with them occurs exclusively in this medium. If this is a client you regularly meet with in person, fire them in person. If it’s a remote relationship, but you talk regularly using the phone or VoIP, talk to them voice to voice about the need to sever the relationship.
  • Keep it civil. We’re so used to break-ups that involve anger and blame, it’s easy to default to those settings. Make sure you remain neutral and supportive during the conversation or email exchange. It’s not about laying blame. It’s about explaining to your client that you’re transitioning into a different phase in your career, and convincing them that in future, they will be better served by someone whose objectives are more closely aligned with theirs.
  • Give them fair warning. Your client relies on you to keep their business running smoothly, so don’t disrupt things by leaving them in the lurch. Make it clear that you fully intend to complete any projects that are still in play. To leave a really good impression, offer to continue working with them while they search for your replacement—but do put a time limit on the offer!
  • Refer them to another freelancer. If there’s a freelancer you know and trust that you know would be the right fit for the client’s work, make an introduction. You’ll prove to the client that you care about leaving them in good hands, and you’ll earn the gratitude of the freelancer you refer them to. Good karma all around.

Your Turn

Have you ever fired a “good” client?

Without naming names, share your story in the comments.

Image by jm3

Comments

  1. says

    This is a very thoughtful piece, Hayden—don’t think I’ve ever seen something like it. I agree that you need to keep your business in line with your ethics; I guess I consider myself lucky that I’ve never had a snake-oil salesman in my mix.

    But I have let clients go that, for lack of a better word, bored me. I suppose the best example was the one who was always “reinventing” herself, but really it seemed more like she was simply experimenting without a plan. Lovely lady, but I just couldn’t go to the creative well one more time based on a cocktail napkin.

    And I really, really like your suggestions on bowing out gracefully. Good, bad, or otherwise, it needs to be respectful.

  2. says

    As a writer especially, I agree that it is so important to have your values aligned with the marketing piece you’re writing. It can make you feel cheap to write the very stuff you despise to read—at an old job, I had to write tacky car dealer radio scripts. Fortunately, as you continue to grow your portfolio, you can be more and more selective about your work. Great work writing on a touchy subject!

  3. says

    Good article!

    It is important that unlike employees, freelancers can have a lot of power in the brave new world with its dog-eat-dog, globalized economy.

    But we can have this power only if we are able and willing to fire any of our clients, either because we have to (for instance if they take to long or try to lower our rates), or because we want to because they are taking us in the wrong direction.

  4. says

    Very good article. Along the same line, I turned down a new client this week for this exact reason. I felt that the end-result would not be something that I would be proud of, or comfortable sharing as part of my portfolio. It wasn’t easy to do, but definitely worth it.

  5. says

    Yeah!
    Just for the sake of Good Clients, we cannot kill our creativity and abilities.

    At times, we have to put back our clients no matter how good they are as reasons are there. We must learn to move on.

  6. says

    I wish I did the same earlier in my freelancing career, writing false claims about an almost-illegal supplement my client assigned to me really blew my conscience. Whenever I’m having downs in freelancing, I always blame it like I am suffering from a bad karma. Now learned the lesson, I’m paying more attention about the details of a project before accepting it. :)

  7. says

    @Dr. Freelance: Interesting point about the “boring” or unfocused clients. I have one on my roster at the moment, and you’re right, they can be a real energy drain. It’s hard to keep coming up with great creative work when you know it will never actually see the light of day!

    @Steve Vitek: You’re right, we freelancers do have a lot of power, and being able to select our working relationships and the projects we work on is a privilege most employees don’t enjoy. It also means that unlike employees, we need to be constantly evaluating our next move and actively shaping our careers at every step. Unfortunately, too many of us (me included!) let our careers be directed by fear–fear that we’ll “fire” clients and never find new ones, and fear that we’re aiming beyond our talents when we demand more fulfilling work. Getting past that fear and using our power of choice is the key to a happier freelance life.

    @Sophie McCann and @Mandy Barrington: We’ve all taken work we don’t feel good about, whether it’s for financial gain or because we just couldn’t tell the client “no.” One great way to even out the karma is to commit your talents to some worthwhile pro bono work. I donated my writing services to a charity last year, and I felt like a million bucks. The experience also helped me feel more assertive about picking and choosing my paid assignments.

  8. says

    I don’t take on jobs that are not ethical in the first place. So I never fire a client for not having an ethical job for me, since I wouldn’t start with them.

    I am not for firing good clients and I’ll tell you why: I love a client who respects me and my work, who pays well and on time. I had issues with all kinds of ‘freaks’, so I really know how to appreciate someone who’s really nice and honest.

    If their job wouldn’t be ‘cool’ anymore, I could hire someone to do it for me. A fellow freelancer whom I trust can do the bulk and I can just manage it. I would keep an excellent quality and also be able to delegate something that’s not as cool anymore.

    I have a client who wanted something pretty ‘boring’ done, when we first met. The fact I was on time and did a great job made him ‘hire’ me for a long time. Even if we sometimes do things that I might not really enjoy, we do have A LOT OF WORK and I don’t have to meet new people and take abuse, until I find another good client. I already have a great one who appreciates me.

    And, if the job itself is not always thrilling, you can always create your own sites. I run an entire network of sites (blogs and forums) which all give me the joy of doing whatever I please, creatively speaking, so that I can focus on what I do great for my clients: fast job and good prices :)

  9. says

    Dojo, you have a good point; if you can find a newbie designer, that could always be a good solution for giving out work you’re not as excited about, because good newbie designers will be glad to take any work. That’s a good solution, in my opinion, if you happen to know a reliable designer!

  10. says

    ‘Firing client’s who are unethical in respects to one’s business is the definitely the way to go. For some reason, there’s karma some believe, who you choose to work with is a reflection of yourself. Choose wisely.

  11. Spyros says

    Outsourcing is also a good idea.

    You get to keep the client, you don’t waste your time on stuff you don’t want to do and you also build your relationship with a fellow freelancer. Everyone’s happy this way.

    ;-)

  12. says

    Fantastic article. I recently had to sever my ties with a longterm client. I had a few reasons for doing so like the client always calling at odd hours and trying to slip in extra work for free, but the main reason was that the type of work just was not moving my career forward.

  13. says

    I actually had to fire a great client and drop what would of been a very profitable project. And I lost some of my position with this person and their influence. They left their job to pursue a corporate career path to revamp another companies several online properties.

    To make a long story short, once I started working with them, it turned into a corp nightmare of inter-office politics where some guy who knows nothing wastes my time with conference calls to ask questions that could of been answered in an email, and a project that should be completed in about a month, started dragging.

    I knew I had to jump ship.

  14. says

    Your post was so true.

    Firing a good client is not an easy task, it requires a lot of consideration specially if you are getting paid well. This happens mostly on repetitive jobs, at certain point, you will lost interest doing things that are not pushing you forward and yes time ticks and you need to advance your portfolio for future bigger projects.

    cheers

  15. says

    I was tempted to do this to a recent client. She insisted that I correspond with the creator of a software we were to use but wouldn’t update. I still wonder why a client would unhire a writer because the client’s software won’t work.
    I just waited for that to happen. I just can’t fire the client because she was nice and her project is big.

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