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When it’s Okay to Fire a Client

Just as clients can fire the contractors working for them, freelancers and independent consultants also sometimes have a need to fire one or more of their clients. And that’s completely OK. As an independent contractor you get to pick and choose who you work with as much as clients do.

Let’s look at some signs that it might be time to fire one of your freelance or consulting clients:

Why Fire a Client (When is it OK)?

  • A client is making excessive demands which are seriously or completely decreasing your profit margins on a project, such as nitpicking over every small detail when you’ve already met all of your contractual obligations. Of course if you made mistakes you should fix them. But every now and then you’ll run into a client who doesn’t know what they want until they see it. And they think you should stick around making endless changes until that happens. This is why the scope of your job, edit or revision requests, etc. should be covered in your agreement.
  • A client is attempting to make a lot of demands they can’t legally make regarding how, where, or when your work is done (remember, a client can’t control you in that sense when you’re an independent contractor; if they want those rights they can hire an employee and pay the taxes and benefits that come with that).
  • Your client is making changes to the scope of the project which either can’t be accounted for in your schedule, or which they’re not willing to pay extra for. If your client isn’t clear about what they want from the beginning, you shouldn’t be the one paying for their mistakes and lack of planning. An example would be a client ordering monthly blog content where you agree to write the content and put it on their blog. Then they might start pressing you to source legal images, manage the social media promotion for that content, or complete other tasks without extra pay. That’s “scope creep.”
  • Your client is insulting, disrespectful, or demeaning. If they don’t like you or your work, let them take their business elsewhere.
  • Your client is causing you extreme amounts of stress unlike other clients, which could be a result of any of the things already mentioned.
  • The client is repeatedly late on payments.
  • Your client takes forever to get back to you to provide details and answer questions (especially if they then expect you to drop everything and respond to their requests immediately). You’re a professional. You have a schedule and other clients. You shouldn’t be expected to shuffle everyone else’s work around one client’s disorganization.
  • The client can’t or won’t pay your rates (could be clients who came in on a limited sale and expect that rate forever, those who expect to pay your old rates indefinitely when your demand increases and your rates increase with that natural growth, etc.).

A lot of independent professionals, especially early in their careers, are afraid to fire a client because they’re afraid they won’t find others to replace them. But there are good reasons to fire toxic clients if you have them:

  • You’re not making any money because their constant demands are costing you money or wasting time that would otherwise be billable.
  • You’ll be more productive in work for your other clients when you’re not constantly stressed because of these few.
  • You’ll be less likely to burn out and hate your work if you eliminate these kinds of clients.

Firing bad clients is ok and a perfectly acceptable thing to do as an independent professional. But keep these things in mind:

  • If you find yourself wanting to fire the bulk of your clients, take a look in the mirror because the problem probably lies within you and not them. You’re the common denominator.
  • Don’t walk out on a contract unless the client is violating their own contractual obligations. It’s better, and easier, to simply let them know that you won’t be accepting any further projects from them when the current contract is satisfied. Always read contracts carefully and make sure there’s an exit clause if things don’t work out.
  • If you want to fire a client who has you under a long-term contract, give them at least a short notice period to find someone to replace you for the project. Even better, if this client isn’t a total nightmare to work with, consider referring them to colleagues or helping them find a replacement for you.

Have you ever had to fire a client? Why, and how did you go about it? How did things turn out?

This post was originally featured on October 1, 2007. It was updated and republished on its currently-listed publication date.


  1. Jennifer Mattern

    Well Joe, you have to do what you have to do, right? 🙂

    Oddly enough, no sooner than this topic came up in the forums and inspired this post, that I was re-reading Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants yet again (one of my favorite business books). McLaughlin and Levinson talk about the 80-20 rule in this exact topic (firing clients), and how 20% of your clients will cause 80% of your problems essentially. I think that’s a pretty fair statement. I wonder how the numbers work out for others.

  2. Joe

    That rule is true,

    I actually heard that from Stephen Spencer,

    There is also that 95 / 5 rules as well

    You will make 95% of your income from 5% of your clients

    Once again great blog post!

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