Firing a client

In the client-designer relationship it is usually the client who does the hiring and firing. Occasionally however the roles are reversed, and the designer finds themselves forced to give a client the heave-ho. It may seem to contradict the wisdom that “the customer is always right”, but sometimes the relationship you have with a client does more harm than good, and severing ties can help to restore balance to your business.

When to give them the boot

The obvious reason to fire a client is because they fail to pay your invoices. When a client doesn’t pay you, clearly you should stop working for them, but there are a number of other scenarios in which you may consider giving your client the flick.

Your client insists you work for less than your normal rate

Unless you are hard up for cash, you should insist that a client pays your standard hourly rate. A client who is unwilling to do so probably doesn’t appreciate the value of the service you offer, and is likely to treat you like a monkey for hire rather than a skilled professional.

Your client is threatening or aggressive

Early in my freelance career one of my clients had a falling out with his company’s in-house designer. The company’s website became a bargaining chip in their power struggle, and as the web developer I found myself caught in the middle. At one point there was even the threat of legal action. We were able to resolve the situation without having to resort to such extremes, but it spelled the end of our working relationship. A client who uses aggressive tactics against you to get their way is a real liability, and you should extricate yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

Your client is consistently late delivering assets or making approvals

If you have laid out clear milestones for a project but fail to achieve them because your client is dragging their feet, it can throw your entire calendar off the rails. Missed deadlines tend to have a knock-on effect and jeopardize the timelines of all the projects you are working on, which makes you appear incompetent to other clients.

Your client ignores your professional advise

If your client consistently overrules your professional opinion it can compromise the quality of the work you produce. Client feedback is usually a positive force, but when a client refuses to trust the advise you give them it becomes extremely difficult to perform your job effectively.

Your client expects you to compromise your ethics

It is not uncommon for a client to insist that their designer compromises their ethics in order help market a product. This might involve a breach of professional ethics such as plagiarizing a competitors design, or a breach of the designer’s political, environmental or religious convictions. The relationship a designer has with their client should be based on trust and respect, and if your client expects you to compromise your morals then it demonstrates a lack of respect for you as an individual.

You just don’t ‘click’ with your client

The pairing of a designer and their client if often referred to as a “relationship”. Like any successful relationship, trust, honesty and openness are all required for a client-designer partnership to work. Differences of opinion are to be expected, but if you find yourself constantly butting heads with a client then it might be the case that they are simply not a good fit for your business.

Your level of tolerance for the scenarios outlined above is a matter of personal judgment. If your business is just starting out you may be willing to put up with a difficult client in order to put food on the table. If you are in a more secure financial position perhaps you can pick and choose the projects you take on, and one less client isn’t going to cost you any sleep. The question to ask yourself is whether the financial and emotional costs the client causes you are outweighed by the benefits they bring to your business.

Don’t let your emotions get the better of you

If you find yourself contemplating firing a client, chances are your emotions are running high. Before you make your final decision make sure you step back and look at the situation objectively. I have a one client who can be stubborn at times, and early in our working relationship we would frequently butt heads over issues of design. I was sorely tempted to drop the account, but after a while my client learned to trust my design expertise, and in turn I learned to be more accommodating of his feedback. We have been working together for three years now, and I count this client among my most loyal and valued. My point is, you should have exhausted all other avenues of dispute resolution before deciding to give your client their marching orders.

How to fire a client

Once you’ve made a decision to fire a client, it is important to deliver the news in a calm and polite manner. Even if the relationship with your client has already deteriorated, getting aggressive or vindictive will only make things worse. Deliver the news in writing (email is fine) rather than by phone, to avoid misunderstandings, and so that you have a paper trail to refer back to if a dispute arises.

If your client owes you money, make sure they pay you before you fire them. Once your professional ties have been severed they will see little reason to settle your outstanding invoices. They may also be feeling sore at you, and be tempted to withhold payment as a way of exacting revenge.

If you have a contract with your client, make sure you fulfill your contractual obligations first, or are aware of the consequences of terminating the contract. If you have a lawyer it would be wise to consult them beforehand.

You will need to give your client an explanation for why you are no longer able to work for them. If you think an honest explanation will be construed by your client as a personal attack, I would suggest giving a reason to the effect of: “Your project is no longer a good fit for my current business direction.” This excuse is vague, but also difficult to refute.

So that you don’t leave your client hanging out to dry, you should refer them to another designer. Some people advocate sending bad clients to a competitor, and if you lack scruples then that’s always an option! Certainly you should avoid passing a bad client on to a friend. A good way to sidestep the problem is to direct the client to your local industry association, through which they can find a new designer for themselves. I had to fire a client recently, and I directed them to a well known Australian web design forum where there is a job board pairing up freelance web designers and clients. I am sure my client will be able to find a new web designer in this manner, and I won’t have it on my conscience that I dumped a dead weight client in a colleague’s lap.

Firing a client is always a nerve wracking experience, but there is no reason that you can’t end your professional relationship on amicable terms. If you treat the situation with delicacy and professionalism then you are likely to avoid an escalation of animosity on your client’s part.


Firing a client is an eventuality every freelance designer is bound to face sooner or later. In a perfect world we would avoid taking on ‘bad’ clients to begin with, but without a crystal ball it isn’t always possible to see trouble coming. Since I started freelancing in 2004 I have had to fire a client on two occasions. Both times it was a positive step to have taken, and helped to move my business forwards.

9 thoughts on “Firing a client

  1. Not had to do that yet and hopefully I will not either. BUT at the moment most of my clients have been directed towards me via word of mouth…

    Thanks for the article and heads up incase it happens

  2. Jonathan says:

    @Jermayn – Word of mouth is how I get most of my work too. The ratio of good clients to duds seems much higher when the prospective client has been referred by another client, but I’ve still had a few duds sneak through!

  3. Andrew says:

    Great tips, I have only been in this position once and was absolutely essential as the client was rude and sometimes aggressive in his emails and phone calls but even so it was a hard decision to make.

  4. Josh says:

    I’ve only had to really do that once, and they were getting ready to move on in another direction as well so it worked out fine. We worked together for a little over 2 years but gradually over time they started to annoy me.

    Those ones that are sort of a pain, just quote a little higher then clients you like to make up for the extra stress they cause. But at the end of the day it’s a good position to be able to pick and choose your clients.

    Thanks for another great article!

  5. Well I just had my first client that ended badly and unfortunately for the hosters I go through, they are still dealing with _____.

    It has definately made me re-think a few things like disclosures and the what not.

  6. Morgan says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’m in the process of likely having to fire a client in the next few days – not fun. I’m also based in Australia and was wondering if you could link me to the Australian web design forum you mentioned in the article. Thanks in advance.

  7. Jonathan says:

    @Morgan – Not fun is right! Hope it works out OK for you. I’m sure if you do end up having to fire your client that you will feel better for it afterwards. The forum I was referring to is Australian InFront.

  8. Frankie says:

    This and your other two articles on time management & educating your clients are really terrific. I’ve been running my own firm a little over two years now and have gone through my share of growing pains. The first year problems were more of acquiring clients, learning to write proposals and quotes, establishing pricing and my own best practices (ie, always do this, never do that, make sure that is in the contract…) The second year has been more of fine tuning the management of clients, my time, my work load and further tweaking my billing & contracts (ie, profit margins). It seems the growing never stops.

    I was desperately searching the web tonight looking for some expert advice on dealing with bad clients when I came across your articles. Thank you for helping to reassure me that yes, I am sane, clients do actually behave this way.

    In two short years I think i have encountered every type of client you mentioned above but struggled with justifying my irritation. So again, thanks for putting it in writing. I think I might just print this and make them part of my private operating policy.

    I agree that cutting these types of clients out make for far better productivity. I wonder though, how do you deal with clients that give you the red flag during the consultation. I recently had a client that asked me “how well prepared are you to deal with emergencies” this was a big red flag in my book but I took the client anyway because of the large size of the job. Now I am kicking my self because this clients emergencies are my big, exhausting problems. Do you look for red flags and do you act on them, or do you take a wait in see attitude, or do you build precautions into the contract?

    -Sleeping better tonight in NY…Thanks!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Frankie – I’m pleased you found the article helpful! To answer your question about warning bells before taking on a project, that’s actually a topic I’ve been giving thought to recently myself. I have a post in draft which will be going up on the site in a few days titled “choosing clients who help your business”, which touches on the theme.

    A graphic designer friend recently shared with me a nugget from Milton Glaser, who said something to the effect of: choose clients who nourish your creative spirit, not those who sap it. I think that’s a very worthwhile piece of advice.

Comments are closed.