If you’re starting on your freelance journey the topic of this guide may seem insane. However I can ensure you that knowing when to fire a client is a critical component of building a successful freelance business.
A few years ago I was hired by a fast rising startup. The company had skyrocketing growth and I was hired to build their platform. After going through the interview process I was hired. Soon after taking the client I met with the developer who was leaving the organization.
After the developer walked me through the system he gave me a word of warning. He mentioned that the CEO of the company had a favorite word: urgent.
I filed the information in the back of my mind and started working on the application. Within days I learned why the previous developer left the fast growing startup. Literally EVERY email the CEO sent me contained the word urgent in some form or another.
Through the course of around a year I worked with the company and built out the full system. However I noticed that my quality of life was negatively affected by this single client. My nights and weekends were no longer filled with spending time with my family. Instead that time was spent working through countless
urgent tasks from the client.
When to Fire a Client
After a while it dawned on me that if I continued to work with this client I was actually losing the benefits of being a freelancer. Being a freelancer is supposed to result in freedom and making my own schedule, right?
Once I realized that this client was making my life worse instead of better I put a plan in place and told him that I would no longer be working with him.
Through that experience I developed a system for deciding when to fire a client. There are three criteria that have to be met, and I’ve listed them below.
Being Treated Like an Employee
First on the list for deciding when to fire a client is when you are treated like an employee. Being treated like an employee typically means that you’re expected to be on the company’s schedule and thus limits your own freedom/flexibility. I have had multiple times where a client appeared to forget that I was a freelancer. Some telltale signs of this happening are:
- When a client is frustrated that they can’t communicate with you 24/7. I once had a client that I had to fire because their employees would send me Skype messages all day and night for trivial issues. And then they would be frustrated when if I didn’t respond immediately.
- No organized communication. Through the years I’ve had clients who would let multiple employees message or call me anytime they needed a task completed. It’s important to have a set number of project stakeholders. If a client lets any/all employees send you requests it’s pretty much guaranteed that communication conflicts will occur.
When I realize that a client is treating me like an employee I’ll approach the CEO or whoever my direct report is, and I’ll convey my concerns. Many times this will fix the issue. However there have been times where the problem persists and I have been forced to fire the client.
Tyranny of the Urgent
Returning back to my story from the beginning of this guide, a top reason for knowing when to fire a client is when they can’t separate urgent from normal tasks.
I remember a time where this specific client setup a project management job board. I kid you not, 90% of the tasks were marked with the tag: urgent.
Not only is this a stressful situation, it is also a recipe for failure. When all tasks are marked as ‘urgent’ it essentially means that none of them are urgent because there’s no designation between the projects.
In the book ReWork, Fried and Hansson recommend that companies remove the word urgent from their dictionaries. I highly recommend this approach. Typically when a client marks tasks as urgent or ASAP it means that they don’t know how to properly manage a project. And poor project management skills is not an attribute you want in a client. Because the client who doesn’t know how to manage a project will eventually blame you for not implementing their plan properly.
Last on the list for knowing when to fire a client is when it’s a toxic environment. I’ve been fortunate to not run into this situation very often. However through the years I have a had a few toxic clients.
Being toxic can take a number of forms, including:
- Constant negativity
- Poor communication
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Moral/integrity issues
I can think of one client that embodied each of these traits. He hired me to build an application and gave an incredibly vague list of requirements. Throughout the build of the project I would send daily project updates and he would go weeks without giving feedback at all.
When I would hear from him all of his comments were negative. In many of the cases he would be upset for not implementing features that he had never even mentioned in his vague list of features.
Needless to say I fired the client on the spot and moved on to greener pastures.
The Joy of Firing a Client
When I started out as a freelancer the thought of firing a client seemed crazy. However as I built up my business I came to the realization that firing a client that constantly brought stress into my life actually resulted in making me a better freelancer.
Toxic clients are not fun to work with. They cause anxiety and kill the joy that freelancing should bring. So I’m constantly pruning my client list. And the more experienced I get as a freelancer, the better my client list has become. This has resulted in more joy for me and better performance in regard to what I produce for clients.