One of the really great benefits of freelancing is the option to be picky about who you work with.
We’ve all heard horror stories about toxic work cultures – or have our own! – that drive home how much of a privilege it is to be able to walk away from client relationships that aren’t working.
But freelancers often second guess the decision to end a bad client relationship. Whether we worry about how we’ll find new client work, or we find it awkward and difficult to tell a client it’s over, many freelance professionals stick with bad work relationships for far too long and have to talk themselves into finally saying goodbye.
5 Good Reasons to Walk Away from a Client
If you’re spending a lot of time thinking about ending a relationship with a client, you probably should. Seriously! Unless your contract states otherwise, you don’t owe it to a client to continue working if you’re not happy. If your contract does put up a roadblock here, consider consulting a legal professional to discuss your options for walking away.
That said, if you need to hear someone tell you your reasons really are good enough, here are five good reasons to walk away from a bad client relationship.
- They don’t pay enough.
Maybe you started working with them when you were just starting and your rates have doubled since. Or maybe you accepted a lower rate than you really wanted to because you thought the work would pay off in some other way.
Whatever the reason, if they aren’t paying you your going rate anymore and aren’t willing to negotiate a pay raise, it may be time to walk away. While it means leaving money behind, it also means opening up time in your schedule to more actively market your business and find higher paying clients. Taking a small hit in income for the right reasons can often lead to higher earnings over time.
- They consistently pay late.
29% of freelance invoices are paid late. And those late payments have consequences:
- They make it harder to pay your own bills on time.
- They can cost you late fees and higher interest payments.
- Even if you can cover all your bills, you can’t make interest or investment earnings on money you don’t have yet.
- And you have to commit time and energy to chasing payments and sending follow-ups to your late clients.
If a client’s inability to pay in a timely manner is costing you, how long can you afford to put up with it?
- They’re guilty of scope creep.
Scope creep is when a freelance project keeps growing—often little by little—so that you end up doing more work than you originally agreed to. For freelancers that price by the project, it’s a big concern. In the worst case scenario, it leads to doing a lot more work for less money. Best case, it puts you in the awkward position of constantly drawing boundaries with the client to either demand more money for the extra work or refuse to do it.
Either way, it’s bad news. You end up having to do more work (even if that work is around communicating limits and updated rates). There are cases where a client guilty of scope creep may be worth keeping on. Most notably, if they respond well when you point it out and don’t balk at paying more. But for the many cases where it’s not worth the trouble, you’re better off walking away.
- Their working style isn’t a fit.
This is sometimes the most difficult reason for freelancers to accept. A client can be someone you like a lot as a person and think is perfectly reasonable in their expectations—yet in some way they make your life harder.
Maybe they always insist on calling you on the phone when you prefer email, or they always send you rush jobs when you’re a planner. Maybe they live in a different time zone and only schedule calls when you’re ready to curl up in bed.
You may think since they’ve technically done nothing wrong, this is a silly reason to end the relationship. I’m here to tell you, it’s ok to do so anyways! Incompatible working styles can add stress to your life that eats up your energy and makes it harder for you to attend to your other clients, your business, and your personal life.
As a freelancer, you get to decide whether the inconvenience caused by incompatibility is worth the pay, or if you’d rather leave the client behind to find someone who meshes better with your work style.
- They’re a PITA client.
No, I don’t mean the delicious bread you eat with hummus. I mean the other use of the term.
A client that’s difficult to deal with because of poor communication, wishy-washy ways, or a downright bad attitude is rarely worth your time—especially if they’re not paying you enough to compensate for their PITA-ways. Difficult clients cost you dearly in mental health and emotional energy. You have to take care of yourself, and sometimes dumping a PITA client is the best way to do that.
5 Ways to (Finally) Dump a Client
If you’re ready to give yourself permission to end things with a client, you’ve got a few strategies to consider.
1. Increase your rates…a lot.
This isn’t the best option for all cases – sometimes it’s better to walk away clean. But if you’d be fine working with the client if they paid you more, figure out how much more would make it worth it and adjust your contract accordingly.
PITA clients may suddenly seem not so bad if they’re paying twice as much as your other clients for their demanding, PITA-ways. And those phone calls you wish were emails might not seem like a problem anymore if you start invoicing $150 an hour for them.
If you’d be willing to stick with a client for the right price, then contact them with your updated rates. If they say no, you’re not losing anything since you wanted to end it anyways. If they say yes, you bump up your profits for the year. Win-win.
P.S. You don’t have to give them the real reason for the increase here. You can simply announce a rate increase, or say the work is more time consuming or difficult than anticipated. If you find yourself in this position, here’s a template to get you started:
Thanks for the opportunity to work with you this past year! Starting next month, I’ll be increasing my rates for <type of work you do> to <double the amount you’d normally ask for or more>. Please confirm you’ve received this email and let me know if you’d like me to get some assignments on the calendar at the new rate. Thanks!
I’ve enjoyed our time working together on these past projects! Due to the increased time commitment involved in <the frequent calls/endless edits/other task you hate, but worded nicely>, moving forward I’ll be billing <a very large number> for this work. Thanks and have a great weekend!
If they come back and say “but that’s so much higher than before!” just say, “yep, those are my new rates. If that doesn’t work with your budget, I understand. Best of luck to you!”
Be polite. But stand your ground.
2. Be professional.
Sometimes a client makes you angry or annoyed, and you just need to let it out. That’s fine—as long as you do your venting to friends or other freelancers. Even if you’re outright ending things and don’t intend to ever work with the client again, don’t burn bridges.
Keep your language polite and professional. You don’t necessarily need to explain your reasons here—keeping it vague is generally good enough. “Not a good fit” and “too busy” (or “overloaded”) are perfectly acceptable reasons to cite. Here are a couple of templates you can use:
I’m glad you liked the final version of <the last project you did>! In the past few weeks, my workload has increased and unfortunately, I won’t have the time to take on any new projects for you. Best of luck to you!
Thanks for thinking of me for this new project! Unfortunately, I’ve found that our working styles just aren’t a great fit <note: you can leave it at that, or add a short explanation, such as “due to the inconsistency in scheduling”>. I wish you the best and if you want me to send the opportunity to my network to find a replacement, I’d be happy to.
Frame it as being more about your choice than something they did wrong (even if you think they did something really wrong). You can save your long explanations of just how wrong they were for the next time you’re having drinks with friends.
3. Provide advance notice.
With many freelance contracts, this isn’t required. But it’s a nice courtesy to offer. Finish everything currently on the calendar, or offer to stick around for a couple extra weeks to give them time to find someone else.
Note: there are definitely cases where this isn’t worth it. If you have a PITA client who is disparaging, yells at you, or consistently pays late, you don’t owe them the courtesy of advance notice. But for clients that are generally ok, but just not a good fit, that extra time can make it easier for them to transition to someone new while casting you in a good light.
4. Provide a referral.
Do you know another freelancer that’s a better fit for the client? Offer to send an introduction. It’s an opportunity to help another freelancer get work while helping the client out at the same time, building goodwill with both.
Remember – only do this if you feel comfortable doing so. Don’t provide another freelancer’s info for a client that doesn’t pay or treats you terribly. And do give the freelancer you recommend a head’s up about whatever issues you had with the client, so they can make an informed decision.
5. Celebrate doing the hard thing.
Drawing boundaries and cutting ties with people who aren’t good for you or your business is HARD. Even if you 100% know it’s the right decision (and even more so if you’re second guessing yourself the whole time), it’s difficult to say the words and get it done.
So find a way to reward yourself for doing something difficult. It can be as simple as taking a short break from work to go for a walk once the email is sent—or you can indulge yourself and share a bottle of bubbly with a close friend.
Every little win in freelancing is worth celebrating. And sometimes our wins are less about earnings and more about patting ourselves on the back for making the difficult choices that are good for business.
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