Author's note: When I first sat down to write this article, I never imagined then that it would prove to be one of the most popularly requested ones on this website. While I'm amazed at the number of hits this piece gets every day, I'm also gratified to know that so many people have clued in to the fact that there alternatives to working with bad clients.
If you enjoy this piece and find it useful, would you mind dropping me a line and letting me know? I would love to know more about you and your story - please direct email to writer [at] rswarren.com and include "firing clients" in the subject line. Thanks!
I've had to fire clients before. It's not an easy thing to do, especially if they're making good money for you; aside from money, there's also a pride issue involved, an understanding that you probably shouldn't have gotten involved with them in the first place. It's never easy to admit a costly mistake - even though it may have been a good idea at the time.
It all boils down to trust and integrity: if they're not paying their bills, or they're violating the terms of your contract, then that's a given - you'd be a fool to continue doing work for them. But even if the literal business transaction is going smoothly, there can be warning signs of future trouble and justifiable causes for letting them go.
So when should you fire a client?
When they question your honor. My personal policy is to never, under any circumstances, do business with someone who questions my integrity; I work hard to keep things on the level with my clients, and the quickest way to lose me as a vendor is to accuse me of dishonesty. Your honor is everything: the moment a client accuses you of lying to them, cheating them, or generally acting in a criminal fashion, cut them loose. There's no going back from that.
When your client starts lying to you. I'm not a trusting person by nature; I know that. That's why I take my contracts seriously and rarely take someone's word on anything. The moment the lies begin - particularly the ones built on the assumption that I'm an idiot - I know we're headed into dark waters.
Few are saints, and we're all less than coldbloodedly honest from time to time. That's just the fact of living in a human society. But when you begin to realize that you can't trust your client to be honest with you, it's time to reevaluate the relationship.
When they ask you to lie for them. As a copywriter, I get this one often; too many people think that advertising is mainly lying for money, and so feel justified in telling their prospects anything just to get the sale. As a policy, I won't do it and you shouldn't either. A business that lies to its customers isn't one which will attract many. Don't sink your own reputation along with theirs.
When they begin playing power games. The client wants to renegotiate the contract; it's not their fault, they say - someone else is forcing them to do it, so please be a good sport and just sign this new contract, which has been heavily rewritten in the client's favor. It's just stuff to keep our lawyers happy anyway. Oh, and if you don't, we'll be forced to cut off a substantial part of your income.
It's a scenario you can't win, and when it pops up, the relationship of equals is over anyway; if you agree to the new terms, you've relegated yourself to a submissive position. If you don't, you've lost their business. The moment your client begins playing these kind of games with you, prepare for life without them.
When they play the "anything for money" card (otherwise known as the Faustian Bargain). This one comes in all shapes and sizes, but boils down to temptation: the client has a super deal, there's lots of money involved, it's maybe a bit queasy ethically but that doesn't matter because there's lots of money involved. Are you up for it?
Don't get me wrong: I certainly like money, and profit is most certainly my friend. But anyone who deifies it isn't. There are already too many businesspeople willing to do and say anything for a quick buck - these are the people who would juggle babies over hot coals if a high enough dollar amount was involved. You don't want to work with them.
When they play the "if it's good enough for me" card. Everyone chooses their own nonsense threshold - while some people are willing to work with last-minute deadlines and to put up with overly demanding and unreasonable clients, others aren't so willing. When your client is unwilling to draw the line with their own clients, they'll often come back to you with the argument that your standards are too high, and that anything good enough for them should be good enough for you. If the question has even been brought up, it's usually its own answer.
When they abuse your allies. Most of us have trusted relationships with good people (albeit not nearly enough of them); never sacrifice the good ones for the bad ones, and never let a client use you to abuse one of your own allies.
Divorcing A Client
Do you see any of the warning signs in your own client relationships? If so, deliberate before acting; the situation may be one you can talk through and resolve peacefully. There's no need to go nuclear at the first sign of conflict.
If you do decide to fire a client, however, don't do it rashly or emotionally. Keep a level head and cover all your bases:
Make sure your obligations are met. Some clients can handle a terminated relationship reasonably, and others throw temper tantrums. Go over all your contracts before giving notice and make very sure that you aren't legally exposed; don't give the psychotics an excuse to get the legal profession involved.
Get your documentation together and store it. Anything in writing (including email and IM transcripts) could in theory be part of a court case later. Get everything you have on the client into a single file and put it away. Archiving email is also a good idea: I've kept archives of all my incoming and outgoing email since 1998 or so, and at times it's been my savior. You never know when an inconvenient truth may slip out and find its way into the official record.
When your pieces are in place, send a simple termination letter. Keep it formally written, and don't explain any more than necessary; don't pick a fight. Just state the clause of your contract under which you are ending the relationship and then wish them the best. The less said, the better.
Send a final invoice. Get it in the mail immediately and make sure it covers all remaining deliverables. Make the remit due date immediate rather than your normal 30/60/90 day term. Don't make any mention of the consequences of nonpayment; just assume they're going to pay it, until they prove otherwise.
Keep your mouth shut about it. Most people don't get married looking forward to a divorce; there's almost always some feelings of hostility on both ends, caused by the circumstances that led to the breakup. A natural human response is to complain publicly about the other party. Don't do it.
First, it makes you look bad. Other clients and prospects may hear your ranting and wonder if they might be next. At the very least, it diminishes your professional image.
But worse, you could be setting yourself up for slander and libel claims. Legally, it doesn't matter if what you say is true; what matters is whether you can demonstrate that you had court-admissible proof of the fact when you said it. Otherwise, your former client could have legal grounds to sue you for defamation. If you need to vent, keep it to your family and friends - don't take your conflict to the world.
No one enjoys breakups, but sometimes they have to happen. When you find yourself having to fire a client, do it right. Later on, you'll be glad you did.