No freelancer is immune from bad clients. Sometimes the patron saint of small business owners is caught napping, and a bad client slips through the net. You know the type. They suck every moment of pleasure from your work and make you think flipping burgers at some greasy joint might not be so bad.
But what do you do when you find yourself saddled with a client who needs to be turned loose?
As scary as it may sound, parting ways with a bad client gives you back the most valuable asset in your business: time. (Click here to tweet this thought.) And with more time and a clearer picture of your ideal client, you can become laser targeted with your marketing and attract better-suited, higher paying clients.
Here are five simple steps to help you get better at (politely) firing bad clients — and finding better ones:
1. Get on the phone: There might be something worth saving
Whether a repeat or first time offender, it’s safe to assume your client has slipped under your business standards if you’re seriously considering firing them. If that’s the case, this isn’t the time for long, wordy emails.
Many conflicts can be avoided or resolved with a quick five-minute chat. Rather than write a scathing email detailing your client’s every fault, make a list of concerns you want to raise, then send a short email requesting a call to discuss the status of their project.
Be mindful; it could be your client doesn’t understand where they’ve fallen foul and only needs steering in the right direction. Whatever you do, reserve firing off one of those killer emails for only the most serious of violators.
2. Dust of your termination letter and be prepared to send it
Now’s the time for a short email with your standard termination letter attached. Your email should cover the concerns discussed on your “warning” call and briefly detail what’s taken place since. A standard termination letter doesn’t need to be complicated. Address the client by name, state you’re no longer able to do business with them and give your reason why.
It’s tempting to start dishing out blame and sarcasm at this point — don’t. Take extra care to keep the tone professional and respectful. Having a template already prepared will make sure you keep the standard of communication professional, yet firm.
3. Resolve any outstanding financials quickly and considerately
Parting ways with a bad client isn’t always as simple as a standard termination letter and a stiff drink. Sometimes money’s involved — either money they owe you, or money or services they believe you owe them. That’s why when it comes to email, it’s best to keep everything concise, professional and courteous at all times.
If you decide to opt out of a project, but have already supplied work you haven’t been paid for, behaving courteously throughout offers you the best chance of being paid what you’re owed.
Despite the validity of your reasons, being cut loose can be humiliating and confusing to a client. Holding back the money you’re owed can be their way of regaining some control. Don’t give bad clients silly reasons not to pay you.
I have a policy that if I decide to fire a client, unless it’s for the most serious breach of contract, I’ll return their deposit. But it’s up to you to assess what level of work has been done by your company and whether or not returning the deposit is both feasible and fair.
4. Remember the terms of your contract — there was a reason for clause 3.8.2
Some clients won’t take being fired lying down, especially if they think they’re still owed services from your company. The key here is tact and diplomacy. Where possible, frame your rationale for ending the working relationship in their favor. The feel, felt, found method works well for this. But make sure that, should the need arise, you can make clear references to the conditions of your contract. You do have one of those, right?
Think carefully about the content of your contracts. Don’t just download some free template and hope it scares clients into behaving. Your contracts should be written to cover the best interests of your business and give you clear leave to exit from a particular project should you need to.
Remember, if a client is demanding you finish a project, hand over files or do maintenance work, it’ll be the clauses you set out within your (signed) contract and terms and conditions that allow you to side swipe their demands gracefully.
5. Accept that your business has grown and is ready for a higher standard of client
The sign that you’re at a stage in your business when you’re ready to fire ill-fitting clients rather than “put up and shut up” is a major business milestone. But learning to improve your pre-qualifying process is what will save you time and earn you more money in the long run.
How do you get better at pre-qualifying potential clients?
Have a standard checklist of criteria that helps you quickly decipher whether a prospect is a good fit for your business or not. The criteria doesn’t have to be complex, but as a business owner marketing your services, it’s essential you have a clear idea of what your most desirable client looks like.
Having a rarely negotiable client criteria helps to filter out unsuitable prospects quickly, meaning you’re not just turning projects away; you’re actively creating time and space to work with the right clients. It’s this focus and unwillingness to compromise that’ll bring the biggest financial benefit to your business.
There you have it: a simple process for quickly (and politely) firing bad clients and the steps to help you get better at pre-qualifying prospects so you have fewer bad clients to fire in the first place.
Have you ever had to fire a client? What was the hardest part? Come and share your experiences in the comments.