Before You Fire a Client

While highly satisfying, this action can be dangerous

Okay. I know. You haven’t actually hired them; they hired you. However, you are an independent contractor, which means you don’t have to do work for someone who is a pain to work with.

Let’s face it. It was bad enough that you had to put up with bad behavior when you had a job. Now, you’re free to move on.

Think hard before you take that step, however, and consider all your options before saying adieu to a client.

Not all client problems are worth firing the client over. Your client can be acting out because of something that has nothing to do with you. Maybe they’re having a bad day or personal problems or personnel challenges. If this is an isolated or infrequent incident, power past it and keep the client.

What if the client is a constant pain? If you experience the following behaviors consistently, it’s time to act.

Scope Creepers

Scope Creepers keep adding “just one thing more” to the project. If it is just one thing more, it’s usually not a problem, but they never stop at “just one.”

A single penny doesn’t weigh much. A thousand pennies are heavy. If you aren’t firm, the Scope Creeper will weigh down the project until it bears no resemblance to what you started with.

In the absence of a formal contract, always, always create a scope statement that details all pertinent aspects of the project. Make sure it includes:

  • metrics
  • a description of all deliverables
  • the time frame
  • roles and responsibilities
  • fees and deadlines for processing payment
  • any ancillary expenses (phone calls, travel, research costs, and so on) and how they will be reimbursed
  • when and how the agreement can be terminated and the effect on payment
  • anything else you believe you need to codify

Sign and date it and have the client review, sign, and date it.

The more detailed and formal the established scope, the easier it will be to insist the client abide by it.

Despite having a strong scope statement, there may be times when you want to allow some creep. For example, you might give more leeway to a long-standing client with a good track record, or a new client with the potential for a long, lucrative relationship.

If creep becomes an issue, it’s time to address it with the client. I recommend starting with a phone call to explain the situation and remind the client of the agreed-upon scope. Explain how the creep affects the original fee and give the client the option of agreeing to a modified scope with a higher cost or keep the scope as is. Always document the conversation in an email for both the client and your files.

If the client continues to push, you may need to negotiate a termination agreement. This is a last-resort step since it can backfire. The client will most likely complain to everyone and on social media how awful you are. It’s a hit you may not want to take. Sometimes it’s easier in the long run to complete the project and refuse any additional work from that client.

Non-Payers/Slow Payers

If you have been in business a few years, you’ve had at least one client who vanished right after you turned in your invoice.

If you have a contract or scope statement, it usually describes when and how invoices are to be sent and processed.

No scope statement? That’s a potential problem. There’s no agreement about payment.

Never, never leave payment options up in the air.

Now you know, but you may have clients where you haven’t created a scope statement. In this case, add your payment terms to the invoice.

“Net [number]” is the commonly used descriptor, i.e., Net 45, Net 30, Net 15. The number refers to the number of days you are giving the client to pay you. Seems simple, but it isn’t. It depends on how the client interprets “Net [number].”

For example, Net 30 could mean 30 days after your client is paid for their services by their client. A common occurrence if you are a subcontractor. If the contract with their client provides for Net 45, you could be waiting more than two months for payment.

Net [number] could mean x days from date on the invoice, or the date received by the client, or the date entered into the client’s automatic payment system, or sometime at an unspecified date.

To avoid this, you can give your clients a discount for paying earlier. In this case, you use “x/y Net z.” Stay with me. Even if you hate algebra, this is easy.

Here’s an example: “2/10 Net 30.”

You are giving the client a 2 percent discount if they pay within 10 days; otherwise, the client pays the full amount at the 30-day mark. I give my workforce development clients a term of “5/10 Net 45 (or 30)” depending on my contract with them. Ninety percent of them take advantage of it.

With new clients, I always request a partial payment upfront unless they have a solid contract to offer me.


You’ve done all you can, now you need them.

You have questions or they need to review or approve something before you can move on.

They don’t respond to your email or the next one.

You call, get voicemail, leave an “urgent” message. Twice.


When you are up against the deadline, they finally get back to you and throw the entire schedule off.

After you cool down, you try to speak with them about the new schedule.

More silence.

Finally, you send the revised schedule in a registered letter.

They definitely contact you then and not in a good way.

When this happens, I finish the job and walk away. Generally, the client walks away, too, which means I don’t have the satisfaction of refusing their next offer of work.

Prima Donnas

SookyungAn @pixabay

I once had a client for editing services who wanted me to also be her therapist. At our meetings to go over her dissertation, she would share the story of her life with me. It became a soap opera. No matter how hard I tried to get her to focus on the edits for her work, she would veer off into her parents and childhood and ex-husband. Reminding her that she was eating up her retainer by doing this, made no difference. I got paid to edit and listen.

We eventually finished her dissertation, which was accepted, and she’s off treating patients.

This situation was pretty benign, and I liked her. She also had a great dog.

What about the client who expects you to figure out what they want by dropping cryptic tidbits as they flit in and out of meetings? They want you to accompany them to the airport to discuss their comments and, by the way, get yourself home. Then there’s the client who sends you to remote locations (paid) and expects you to work around the clock to “get their money’s worth sending you to North Dakota for a week.”

Generally, I’m one and done. They can’t pay me enough to do it again. If you decide they’re worth the effort, your only option is to suck it up.

If you think the fee is worth it, you might enjoy being a concierge.


Ashish_Choudhary @pixabay

They say, to your face, “I hate working with consultants. They’re know-it-all [variety of expletives].”

They don’t want you in their stuff and are stuck with you because someone higher up — who actually hired you — wants you in their stuff.

They treat you like an employee, want you onsite at 8 a.m. and not leave until the clubs close at 2 a.m. (BTW, this is a violation of United States IRS rules. If you’re in the U.S., always fall back on the IRS when this happens. Everyone bows to the IRS.)

They bark orders and make unreasonable demands in an aggressive or passive/aggressive way.

They hate everything you do and say.

They make you redo and rethink until you revolt.

I exercise the termination clause, knowing there will be backlash. I can live with that. I did live with it. I had a client just like this.

Fire Away

If someone else higher up hired you, meet with them and explain what you’re about to do and why. Refuse to let their wheedling or bribery change your mind because things will get worse. Trust me. If you were hated before, you will be roasted alive after ratting them out.

Here’s how to fire a client:

  • Be polite and professional.
  • Put it in writing, usually an email.
  • Use formal formatting so that the email looks like a letter.
  • Use this subject line: Exercising our termination agreement effective [date]. This gets their attention.
  • Avoid ranting or complaining about their bad behavior.
  • Use a neutral statement, such as, “It is clear to me that I am not the right consultant/coach for your business. I believe that you will be better served by someone else, so I am exercising the termination agreement.”
  • Copy and past the termination agreement into your document. Include a final invoice.
  • If your contract or scope statement doesn’t have termination terms, giive them a 10-day notice, so they can find a replacement. If you’re lucky, they tell you to get lost now and not come back.

Have you fired a client? How did you do it? Share your story in Responses.

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