When and How to Let a Difficult Client Go

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For me, one of the best things about working freelance is the freedom to work with whom I want, on projects that interest me.

I don’t have a boss who tells me what I have to work on, and I’m fortunate enough to not need to chase work or take on all the work that comes my way.

Even if you’re less well-established as a freelancer or agency owner and you need every client you can get, there will occasionally be a client who is a drain. They could take up way too much of your time, drain you of your enthusiasm, annoy your team, or maybe be reluctant to pay their bills.

If this happens, even if it means you’ll take a financial hit, I think the best option is to get out. In the long run, working with clients that cause you problems will only be worthwhile if they pay you enough money to make up for it, and they rarely do.

But how do you know when to let a client go, and how do you go about it without tarnishing your reputation? In this post, I’ll outline the telltale signs that it’s time to end a client relationship and I’ll give you some tips and methods you can use to end the relationship amicably. And as always, I’ll share some stories and anecdotes, so that you can learn from my mistakes and not repeat them!

When Should You End a Client Relationship?

There are a few circumstances in which a client relationship can become too difficult to sustain, and it might be time to let go.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

1. The Client Doesn’t Pay Bills Until You Chase Them

This is the most obvious one. No-one working freelance or running an agency is running a charity and you need your bills to be paid. It’s not uncommon for clients to pay late occasionally because of slip-ups with their admin systems, but if it’s happening every time, and you or your team are wasting precious time chasing those bills, it could be time to either renegotiate the relationship or end it.

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 making a lot of money without having to do much work (i.e. it’s largely passive income), then you may not want to end the relationship as it’s not costing you much in terms of time. And if the client is valuable to you in other ways, you’ll want to work out a system to make sure they pay their bills without losing the client.

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 make sure they pay them. I’ve had clients try to get away with paying the amount on their original invoice 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 their bills – it might be changing the time in their accounting cycle at which you issue invoices, or it may be introducing a tougher penalty for non-payment.
I have one large corporate client that I built a microsite for some years ago, which I now host for them. Every year their hosting fee is invoiced and every year they don’t pay the invoice 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 personal visit to the accounts department. But now that contact has left the organization and I don’t have that option. So when I send out my invoice, I include a statement saying 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’s due date. They never do pay on time but on the day before the invoice is due I send them an email reminding them of this and letting them know (very politely) that if I don’t receive payment, their site will close the next day. The money always arrives in my account overnight!

2. The Client Repeatedly Tries to Haggle

It’s normal for clients to want to negotiate on rates when the relationship begins (although I tend to be wary of clients that do this). But if a client tries to talk down the rates for later work or subsequent projects, and it happens repeatedly, this sets off alarm bells.

Clients that do this are often cash-strapped and may struggle to pay your bills. If you’re really unlucky they may go out of business during the course of the project, which will put you in a very difficult position.

Even if neither of these is the case, haggling erodes the trust between client and web designer or 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.

3. The Client Refuses to Pay a Deposit at the Outset of a Project

In a recent 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 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 first project you do with them, don’t take that client on. It will be much easier than chasing bills later, taking the hit if they bail on the project after you’ve started work, or ending the relationship later on.

4. The Client Treats Your Team Badly

Sometimes you’ll get a client who treats you just fine but has no respect for your team. They see them similarly to their own employees and issue unreasonable demands and edicts, making your team’s job much harder.

Of course this can happen both ways: there are web designers out there who don’t always treat the client’s team members with as much respect as they should.

Your team is more important to the long-term health of your business than any client, so it’s important to challenge unacceptable behaviour. Don’t let the client go immediately: instead, have a conversation stating your concerns and working through what you’d like the client to do differently in future. You should do this, not your team members. If the client refuses to accept that something needs to change, then you might assign different team members to the project (it could be a personality issue, after all) or politely let the client go.

5.  The Client Won’t Listen to Your Professional Advice

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. But they don’t know more than you about web design, online marketing, social media, development, or whatever it is they’ve hired you for. Which means you’re entitled to expect them to listen to your advice.

You can’t always expect clients to take every piece of advice you offer: sometimes they will be attached to their own ideas, or will have other people influencing them. Or your advice might not quite fit their business or client base.

But if they’re consistently ignoring your advice on issues that are fundamental to your area of expertise and not theirs, it can get very frustrating. Examples might include:

  • Clients who refuse to incorporate accessibility into their site despite your advice.
  • Clients who reject your site designs in favour of one they’ve knocked up themselves or got their kids to do.
  • Clients who reject your advice to make their site responsive, claiming that their visitors will all be on desktop.
  • Clients who reject your advice on usability because they have an ‘instinct’ for these things and claim to know better.
  • Clients who override your advice on what platform to use for their site, and prefer to go with their own research that they’ve done in their spare time.

Remember that you can’t expect clients to listen to you all the time – it’s their website, after all – and that if lots of clients ignore your advice, then you may need to improve your own communication and influencing skills!

But if a client consistently refuses to accept your advice, it can be demoralising. 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 a client with such fixed ideas that their eventual website was nothing less than a dog’s dinner. I was so ashamed of it that I removed my credit line in the footer.

6. The Client Keeps Adding More Work Without Expecting it to Take Longer and/or Cost More

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 a clearly worded project brief before starting work, then you can’t blame the client for thinking they’re allowed to add more work to the project. If this is the reason, then you need to amend your project briefs, which will help you avoid the problem arising again. You might find that you can do so with this client and avoid breaking off the relationship.

Clients will always identify changes or additions once a project is under way: it’s human nature. Ideas will come to them, or they’ll be inspired by conversations they have with others about their website redevelopment, and they’ll want to add them to the project.

Depending on the nature of the addition, you might be able to incorporate it. But if it involves more work, you need to do one of two things:

  • Add it to the project and charge more (and also, maybe push delivery dates back). Make sure your rates for extras like this are included in your contracts: my client contracts state a flat rate for the project as defined in the project brief, with an hourly rate for any extra work.
  • 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.

If the client refuses to co-operate with either of these suggestions and insists on continuing with scope creep, it may be time to end the project. I worked with a client some years ago on a large project that involved extensive customization to a third party theme. There was a clear project brief that itemised all of the customizations that I and my team would make. 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 then the client started 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 that I wouldn’t be able to continue with the project. It was becoming extremely stressful for me and my team (and probably the client) and although I took a financial hit, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was all over! When I look back at this project now however, I can see that there were warning signs at the beginning of the project, when the client insisted on haggling (see above).

7. The Client Expects You To Do Work You Don’t Feel Ethically Comfortable With

Some clients think that once they’ve hired you they can tell you to do just about anything for them, regardless of how that fits 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 because I don’t like it but also because I know it no longer works. I’ve had potential clients who’ve wanted me to create a site that breaches copyright or plagiarism laws. I’ve had potential clients with downright stupid ideas for online businesses that I couldn’t support and still respect myself. I’ve had potential clients with no regard whatever for accessibility or diversity in their approach to a project.

In all of these cases, I’ve rejected the work before even taking the client on. Issues like these tend to make themselves apparent very quickly in your dealings with a potential client. However much they’re prepared to pay you, if you feel uncomfortable working on a project or think it might even involve illegal or unlawful activity, don’t do it.

How to Let a Client Go

So, you’ve identified that the relationship with the client is unsalvageable. You’ve tried to explain why you have a problem and attempted some sort of compromise or negotiation, but still the problem persists.

You want to let the client go, but you don’t want them to then go around trashing your reputation with colleagues or other potential clients. How do you let them go politely and amicably?

Here’s my five point plan.

1. Swallow Your Pride

You think it’s the client’s fault the relationship has broken down, but they’ll think it’s your fault. If you’re going to make this an amicable break, you may need to accept some part of the blame for the breakdown. Whatever you do, it’s important to be calm and subjective in all dealings with the client.

If the client hasn’t fulfilled their side of the contract, things will be easier, but if things are a little more blurred, you may need to tell some white lies, and take more responsibility than you’d like to. 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.

2. Explain (In Writing) Why You Can’t Work with the Client Anymore

If you’re still trying to salvage the relationship, it’s good to communicate in person. But if you’re now letting the client go, make sure you do everything in writing, so you have a paper trail in case things get messy or lawyers are involved.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be polite and friendly. Don’t use legalese but 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 blame them: your pride is still deep within your stomach, don’t forget.

3. Explain (In Writing) What Happens Now

The client will still need their website to be designed, or built, or hosted, or supported. Give them information that will help them to do that without you.

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 after things come to an end, but that might 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 placed to work with this client, recommend them.

Explain very clearly 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, but will leave it a day or two, again accompanied by a polite and friendly email referring back to the original email.

If you need the client to take some other action such as returning equipment or work to you, make this clear.

Wish the client all the best for the future of their business or their project. Be magnanimous.

4. Respond to Their Reaction Politely But Firmly

The client could react in one of three ways:

  • They might plead with you to continue with them, promising that things will change. If you’ve already tried to rescue the relationship, you’ll know that these promises are unlikely to be met.
  • They might be angry and email or call you to tell you how unreasonable they think you’re being. In a way, this is good as it means they’re letting the relationship go. Just as long as they pay you!
  • They might be relieved themselves and thank you for being honest with them. You’d be surprised how often this happens: if you’re unhappy with the relationship, the client probably is too.

If they try to change your mind, resist. If they insult you or your team, resist the temptation to respond in kind. Respond by reiterating what you’ve already said, telling them you understand that this will cause them some inconvenience and that you are sorry about that but that it doesn’t change your decision.

5. Don’t Badmouth the Client Afterwards

Once it’s all over and you’re no longer working with this client, it can be tempting to broadcast how unreasonable they’ve been. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to put out a tweet warning other developers not to work with my corporate client that doesn’t pay their bills! But I always resist.

Even if the client is publicly critical of you, badmouthing them makes you look much worse than it does them. It makes you look petty and unprofessional. Resist!

There’s one exception – if the client approaches a colleague that you want to protect from the problems the client caused you, you might want to have a quiet word with them. The WordPress developers I’m closest to know who my client is that doesn’t pay – after all, I don’t want them to suffer the same problems.

Letting Clients Go Isn’t Easy

Letting a client go can be incredibly stressful and it can make you feel as if you’ve failed. But if you run an agency or work freelance, 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 from working for or who doesn’t pay your bills will drain you of your time and your creative energy. Once some time has passed, you’ll be incredibly relieved that you’re now free of that relationship. And if you follow my tips above, it won’t affect your ability to attract (and forge better relationships with) new clients.

When you work as a freelancer or run an agency, sometimes you’ll find that a client relationship isn’t working out anymore (e.g. they’re demanding too much of you and refusing to pay extra, they’re late paying bills, they won’t listen to your advice, they treat your team badly, you don’t enjoy working with them). This post will help readers identify when the relationship is past saving and give them tips on how to extricate themselves without appearing unprofessional or making the client angry.

Do you have clients you wish you would rather not work with? What do you do when you have to let a client go? Let us know in the comments how you deal with difficult clients.

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