When and How to Let a Difficult Client Go
One of the best aspects of being a freelancer is the freedom to work with clients of your own choosing, on projects that personally interest you.
There is no boss who dictates what you have to work on, and if you’re fortunate enough, you don’t need to chase work or take every job that comes your way.
Even if you’re a less well-established freelancer or agency owner and need every opportunity you can get, you’re likely at some point to encounter a client who is an encumbrance. They absorb way too much of your time, rob you of your enthusiasm, annoy your team, and are slow or dismissive in remitting payment.
If this happens, even if it means you’ll take a financial hit, getting out is generally the best option. In the long run, working with clients who create chaos is barely worthwhile even if they pay you enough money to make up for it (which is pretty rare).
So how do you know when to let a client go, and how do you go about it without tarnishing your reputation? In this post, we’ll talk about the telltale signs that it’s time to call it quits with a client, and offer some tips and methods you can use to end the liaison amicably. We’ll also share some ‘lessons learned’ that will hopefully help you avoid making similar mistakes.
There are a few circumstances in which a client relationship becomes too difficult to sustain, at which point your best bet is to part ways. Some of these are glaringly obvious, while others are more subtle. Either way, it’s important to pick up on the clues early, and then act swiftly in your best interest.
Let’s take a look at these.
This is the most obvious one. Most freelancers and agencies aren’t running a charity – you need to be compensated. It’s not uncommon for clients to pay late on occasion due to a gaffe in accounting, but if it’s happening more often than not, and you or your team are wasting precious time chasing remittance, consider it time to renegotiate or end the relationship.
What you decide to do will depend on the size of the client and the amount of work you’re doing for them. If you’re earning a decent sum without having to do much (i.e., it’s largely passive income), then holding on to the relationship may be beneficial. If the client is valuable to you in other ways, it’s worth working out a system for ensuring they pay in a timely fashion.
If you decide to stick with the client but you want to get them to pay more promptly, amend your contract to introduce penalties for late payment. And then make sure they pay them! I’ve had clients try to get away with paying the original invoice amount after two or more reminder invoices were issued, each with an interest charge added.
Identify what the pressure point is to get that client to pay what you’re owed. For example: try changing the time in their accounting cycle that you issue invoices, or introducing a tougher penalty for non-payment.
I have one client I built a microsite for some years ago, which I now host for them. They are invoiced for this yearly, but never pay before the due date. In the first year it took four months to get anything from them, and that was after my contact in the organization made a visit to the accounting department. (No longer an option since that contact left.) Now when I send out my invoice, I politely but succinctly state that if payment isn’t received, I’ll assume they no longer need their site to be hosted and it will be closed down after the invoice due date. Sure enough, the money always arrives in my account overnight. :)
It’s normal for clients to want to negotiate on rates when the relationship begins (although I tend to be wary of clients who engage in this tactic). If an established client tries to barter for lower rates on subsequent projects and it happens repeatedly, this sets off alarm bells.
Clients that do this are often strapped for cash and may struggle when payment is due. If you’re really unlucky, they go out of business during the course of the project, which puts you in a very difficult position.
Even if neither of these is the case, dickering erodes the trust between client and web designer/developer, and isn’t healthy for a long term relationship. If this client isn’t a very profitable one, I would politely let them go.
In an earlier post I explained why deposits are so important to protect agencies and freelancers from clients whose businesses fold or who change their minds partway through a project. There were some contradictory views in the comments to that post, with some clients saying they would refuse to pay deposits. That’s certainly their prerogative.
But it’s also your prerogative to decide which clients to take on. If a client refuses to pay a deposit for the initial project you do with them, I recommend that you don’t take them on. It will be much easier than chasing payment later, not getting paid at all (if they bail on the project after you’ve started), or ending the relationship on a sour note (because your dedicated time and efforts went uncompensated).
Sometimes you’ll get a client who treats you just fine but has little respect for your team. The client issues unreasonable demands and edicts, putting undue stress and pressure on your team.
Your team is more important to the long-term health of your business than any client, so it’s important to nip this unacceptable behaviour in the bud. You don’t have to let the client go immediately. Instead, try having a conversation stating your concerns, and mention what you’d like the client to do differently going forward. Note, it’s very important that you personally do this; do not delegate the task to any of your team members.
If the client isn’t willing to adopt your suggestions, perhaps assigning different team members to the project will improve the dynamic (it could be a personality issue, after all). If these attempts don’t remove the strain, politely let the client go.
Your clients know their own business, and their customers, inside out. You shouldn’t try to tell them about their own bread and butter, even if you don’t agree with all of their methods. However, when it comes to web design, online marketing, social media, development ― or whatever it is they’ve hired you for― this is your area of expertise. Which means you’re entitled to expect them to heed your advice on these topics.
You can’t expect clients to take every single suggestion you offer; sometimes they will be attached to their own ideas, or heavily influenced by outside sources. Or what you’ve proposed might not quite fit their brand or customer base.
If they consistently discount your advice on issues that are fundamental to your chosen profession, it can get very frustrating. Examples might include:
- Clients who refuse to incorporate accessibility into their site despite your objections.
- Clients who reject your site designs in favour of one they’ve knocked up themselves or had their kids do.
- Clients who disregard your determination to make their site responsive, claiming that their visitors will all be on desktop.
- Clients who ignore your recommendations on usability because they have an ‘instinct’ for these things, or ‘know better’.
- Clients who override your input on what platform to use for their site, based on research they’ve done in their spare time.
Remember that you can’t expect clients to align with your ideas all the time ― it’s their website, after all. However, if you find that a majority of clients are sidestepping your advice, you may need to reevaluate your own communication skills and improve your persuasive abilities.
Clients consistently refusing to accept your recommendations can be demoralizing, and eat away at your confidence and vocational acumen. It can also lead to a finished product that you’re ashamed to have worked on.
Unfortunately, this has happened to me. In the early days of my agency, I had an unbending client with such stringent ideas (which I caved to), that the resultant website was something I wanted no association with. I actually removed my credit line in the footer.
Scope creep can be a real challenge on lots of web design and development projects.
Sometimes this can be your fault. If you don’t agree to a clearly worded project brief up front, then you can’t blame the client for thinking they’re allowed to add more work to the project. If this is the reason, you need to amend your project briefs so you can avoid the problem going forward. It may be possible to accomplish this without breaking off the client relationship.
Clients will always identify revisions or additions once a project is underway; it’s human nature and inherent to the creative process. Ideas will come to them, or they’ll be inspired by conversations they have about their website redevelopment, and want to include these in the project.
Depending on the nature of the addition, you might be able to incorporate it. But if it involves substantially more work or time, you need to do one of two things:
- Add it to the project with associated additional fees, and push delivery dates back.
Make sure your rates for extras like this are included in your contracts. Mine state a flat rate for the project as defined in the brief, as well as an hourly rate for any items outside of the original scope.
- Put it in a list of post-launch enhancements.
Once this project is over and the site has been launched, revisit this list with the client and agree what will be done, when, and at what cost. You’ll often find that many of the things on the list are no longer as urgent, or even wanted at all.
If the client refuses to cooperate with either of these suggestions and insists on pushing the boundaries of what was originally agreed on, it may be time to end the project.
I once worked with a client on a large project that involved extensive customization to a third party theme. There was a clear project brief that itemized everything that my team and I would do. The contract stated what the cost of all this would be, and also stipulated an hourly rate for extra work. As the project progressed, the client added new work almost every day. I added items to a post-launch list, but the client had gone behind my back, getting members of my team to do extra work without telling me.
I had no option but to tell the client that this was in breach of our contract and I wouldn’t be able to continue with the project. It was becoming extremely stressful for me and my team. Although I was never compensated, it was a huge relief to move past it.
When I look back at this project now, I can see that there were warning signs in the beginning that I failed to acknowledge. In particular, the client insisted on haggling (see above).
Some clients think that once they’ve hired you, you’re committed to doing just about anything they ask, regardless of whether it conforms with your professionalism and ethics.
I’ve had potential clients who’ve asked me to engage in so-called ‘black hat’ SEO tactics, which I’ve refused to do. (Not only am I against this, I know it no longer works.) I’ve dealt with potential clients who wanted me to create a site that breaches copyright or plagiarism laws.
Then there have been those potential clients with truly inane ideas for online businesses that I couldn’t support while keeping my self respect intact. Oh, and those with no regard whatsoever for accessibility or diversity in their approach to a project.
In all of these cases, I’ve rejected the work before even taking on the client. Issues like these tend to make themselves apparent very quickly in your dealings with a potential client. Regardless of what they’re prepared to pay you, if you think a project might involve illegal or unlawful activity, or just feel icky about what it entails ― walk away.
So… you’ve identified that the relationship with a client is unsalvageable. You’ve tried to explain why there is an issue, and attempted some sort of compromise or negotiation, but the problem persists.
You want to let the client go, but you don’t want them sullying your reputation with colleagues or other potential clients. How do you let them go politely and amicably?
Below is my tried and true method.
If you’re going to make this a cordial break, you may need to accept some responsibility for the breakdown. Whatever you do, it’s important to be calm and subjective in all dealings with the client.
It will be simpler if the client hasn’t fulfilled their side of the contract, but if lines are a little more blurred, you may need to take more accountability than you’d like to, and fabricate a bit.
I once decided to let a client go when it became clear that their demands for website support were in excess of what I could offer. Instead of telling them I thought they were being unreasonable, I said that I was very sorry I didn’t have what was required to give them the support they needed.
If you’re still trying to salvage the relationship, it’s good to communicate verbally. But if you’re letting the client go, make sure you document everything in writing. That way if things should get messy or lawyers become involved, you’ll have a paper trail.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be polite and friendly. Avoid legalese; make sure you’re clear in your message and the client can’t misinterpret what you’re telling them.
Send the client a polite email explaining why you’re unable to continue working with them. Don’t become argumentative or resort to debasement; maintaining your reputation trumps bruising your ego.
The client will still need their website to be designed, built, hosted, or supported. Give them information that will help them to do that while removing yourself from the equation.
Explain what will happen to the work you did for them and who owns it. (Normally if the client has paid for it, they’re entitled to it upon the conclusion of your business, but that will depend on your contract.) Offer suggestions as to how they might be able to complete the project or find an alternative provider. If you know other agencies or freelancers who would be better suited to this client, recommend them.
Iterate how much money they owe you (if any) and when this is payable. Personally, I prefer not to issue an invoice with the Dear John email, and will defer it a day or two, again accompanied by a polite and friendly email referencing the prior dissolution discourse.
If you need the client to take some other action, such as returning equipment or materials to you, spell this out.
Wish the client all the best for the future of their business or their project. Be magnanimous.
The client could react in one of three ways:
- They might plead with you to continue your business association with them, insisting that things will change. If you’ve already tried unsuccessfully to rescue the relationship, realize this is likely to be an exercise in futility.
- They might be angry and reach out to tell you how unreasonable they think you’re being. In a way, this is good (just as long as they pay you), as it means they’re letting the relationship go. So let them vent, and move on.
- They might be relieved and thank you for being honest with them. This happens more often than you might think. If you’re displeased with the relationship, the client has probably felt the tension too.
If they try to coerce you into changing your mind, stay firm. If they insult you or your team, resist the urge to respond negatively. Try restating what you’ve already said, and acknowledge that you understand this may cause some inconvenience and while you are sorry about that, it doesn’t alter your decision.
There is the obvious formal act of breaking ties with a problem client. It’s also important to purge any negative headspace that’s left behind from the experience. You don’t want any lingering bad juju to potentially affect your clients in good standing, or the positive thoughts and actions that have gotten you to the successful place you are now.
Don’t take it personally or give it more weight than it deserves. Remember that it is the majority of your clientele that comprises your book of business and builds your reputation, and that every experience, good or bad, is an opportunity to learn and grow. So if there is a “next time” in undesirable client experiences, you will be much better prepared to handle it.
Once it’s behind you and you’re no longer working with this client, it can be tempting to broadcast how unreasonable they’ve been. I’d be lying if I said I never felt compelled to make a post on social media, warning other developers away from Client XYZ who skips out on payments due. But holding your tongue (or typing finger, as the case may be) is always the better option.
Even if the client is publicly critical of you, slinging mud back at them reflects much more poorly on you than it does them. It makes you look petty and unprofessional. Always strive to take the high road.
There is one exception where speaking up is perfectly acceptable. If a troublesome client approaches a valued colleague, it’s natural to want to shield your friend from the discontent you went through. In this case it’s okay to share your experience, but make sure to do so using a private venue.
The WordPress developers I’m closest to know who my red flag clients are; I’ve warned them so they don’t get caught in the same tangled web.
Letting a client go can be incredibly stressful, not to mention it can make you feel as if you’ve failed. But if you run an agency or work freelance, you have an advantage in that you don’t have to put up with people who make your working life miserable.
Sticking it out with a client you don’t get any satisfaction working for or who doesn’t remit timely payment for your efforts will drain your focus and creative output.
When you look back on it through the rearview mirror, you’ll be incredibly relieved to be free of any poor client relationship. And if you follow these tips, it will improve your ability to attract new clients, and forge better relationships with them.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and relevancy. [Originally Published: July 2016 / Revised: August 2021]