How to Fire a Client

How to Fire a Horrible Client (with Sample Scripts)

Felicia Sullivan

When you first started your small business, you were probably overjoyed when you landed your first customer. You were grateful for the work, and their belief in you validated the reason you became your own boss.
Then you got your first bad client — you know, the one that makes you cringe when they call. The Mr. Nothing’s Ever Good Enough or the one who believes shouting into the phone is a perfectly normal way of conducting business.

Soon, you realize that the customers who are causing you grief are also costing you money. For all the time you’re spending trying to fix the unfixable, you could be pursuing your dream clients. Everyone has the occasional bad customer, yet it’s important to recognize when they’re costing your small business big.

Before you decide that firing a client is the right step to take, do your due diligence and plan for the event in advance.

1. Determine whether your client is actually terrible or just challenging.

Although both may drive you to tear your hair out, the difference between terrible and challenging clients comes down to communication and collaboration. Bad clients don’t respect your expertise, time, or work ethic, while challenging customers might simply have a work style that clashes with your own, or they’re dealing with unnatural levels of bureaucracy, or they’re likely raising the bar for the work you’re able to produce. For example:

  • Terrible clients communicate on polar ends of a spectrum. You’re either dealing with the nonresponsive, disappearing artist or the clingy, nitpicking client who fires off 30 emails in an hour and phones, texts, and issues an APB wondering why you haven’t responded to their request to adjust a pixel on an image. Whereas challenging clients will respect your boundaries and give clear direction in terms of tasks and expectations, but perhaps their communication style might be lacking.
  • Problem clients believe that every project is “easy and quick” because they don’t understand the complexity of what you do. The know-it-all client requires constant education and a constant defense of your fee and the time needed to complete the project. Challenging clients, on the other hand, understand and respect that they’ve hired an expert, and they’ll push you outside of your comfort zone to get the best-ever work of which they know you’re capable.

You can adjust your style and process to the challenging client, but the horrible one will never be a true partner.

How to fire a client checklist

2. Evaluate whether this is the right time to fire.

It may be hard to fire a client if your income depends on them, or if firing your client would be either unethical (that is, you’d be leaving them in a bind without a replacement) or a breach of contract. As a small business owner, if you’re just starting out, or if your pipeline is not full, it may be difficult to decide if firing a client is the right decision.

If firing the client is not the goal, then, as a first step to address the situation, you can raise your rates to pay for the pain (and throw in some small extras to counter the sticker shock). Or, you can offer a transition period where you volunteer to find and train your replacement. However, if neither of these tactics works, realize that the situation is only temporarily sustainable and map out your exit strategy. Think about how you felt when you gave notice at your 9 to 5. Create and commit to an end date and then the day-to-day won’t feel as terrible.

After studying all your alternatives, if you determine that firing the client is your best solution, we’ll show you how to cut the cord with the right plan and three stress-free scripts.

3. Observe the client-firing ground rules.

  • Schedule a time to meet in person or chat via a video conference call. You met the client face-to-face, so it’s important that you give them the respect of ending the relationship face-to-face.
  • Don’t make it personal. This is a business decision. Show how ending the arrangement is beneficial to them.
  • Be calm and professional. Don’t engage their anger or play the blame game. No matter how heated the conversation gets, be polite and professional. Your industry is small and people talk. Let them remember you were the graceful one in the situation.
  • Set expectations for what comes next. Don’t leave them frantic and stranded, no matter how terrible they are. Remember, this is your reputation. Deliver all remaining work as defined by the terms in your contract and allow for a reasonable transition period.

4. Create the three scripts.

There are three routes you can take when firing a problem client. Customize the scripts when you speak with them, and always close with a solution and defined next steps.

  • Script #1: You’re Shifting Focus. In this scenario, you’re letting them know that you’ll no longer be working in your field. “Cathy, it’s been an honor to work with you. I’ve been evaluating my business over the past year and I’ve decided to pursue [new focus] rather than [current work]. As a result, I need to reshape my client base to have more of a work-life balance while I focus on my new business direction. Unfortunately, I’ll no longer be able to work with you as of Y date. Please know that it’s been amazing working with you and I appreciate your understanding as I enter this new phase of my life. I know you have a lot of work in the pipeline, so I’d be happy to help you find another partner who can give your business the attention it deserves.”
  • Script #2: You’re Raising Rates. In this scenario, you want to double (or more) your rate to guarantee you’ll price out your bad client. “Mike, it’s been a privilege to work with you and your team. I know you had other options on the table and when we learned you had chosen us as your partner, we were thrilled. Over the past [five years], we’ve achieved X and Y goals together. Recently, I’ve evaluated my pricing and have decided to change my rate structure. My business has grown astronomically over the past year and, to meet this demand, I’ll be changing my rates to X as of Y date. Let me know if this will work for you. If not, I’d be happy to refer someone who would be more in line with your budget. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make this transition period easier for you.”
  • Script #3: You’ve Had Enough. “Jim, I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you. I’ve given this a lot of thought, given our partnership and how long we’ve worked together. Over the past few [insert time], I’ve noticed issues in our working relationship, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not the best fit. This isn’t an easy thing to say, but it’s important that you have the best partner who will be able to be on the same page with your vision and expectations. I’d be happy to connect you with someone in my network.”

Regardless of the scenario, your close should be concrete and clear about what happens next. Present a list of next steps, including a hard end date, expectations re: deliverables, and the associated timing for completion. Communicate that you’ll outline your discussion in a follow-up email.

Firing a client should be your absolute last resort, and you should only do it when you know that the relationship is beyond repair, or if it’s hurting your team or other customers. If managed well, your professional reputation will remain intact. Being clear, direct, and honest about the arrangement and why it needs to come to an end may be less painful than you think. However, don’t waver on your decision, and don’t leave the door open for negotiation or discussion.

How have you handled a terrible or challenging client relationship? Tell us about your experience and how you handled it. Share your comments below.

50 Responses to "How to Fire a Horrible Client (with Sample Scripts)"

    • Suraj Tschand | June 5, 2018 at 6:47 pm

      We have been a customer of the Hartford for more than 20 years. We have been extremely happy on how they have handled our claims.
      Based on our experience with the Hartford, we read all the business posts. The “How to fire your horrible clients” article is excellent. Everyone should follow the information.

    • Lisa Lewis | June 5, 2018 at 8:28 pm

      This was good and helpful. like that it is a short, 1-2 min read. thanks. lisa

    • Carolyn Wispe Burns | June 5, 2018 at 9:23 pm

      This sentence is not worded correctly: “Or, you can offer a transition period where you volunteer to find and train your replacement.” My time is money and I would never volunteer to train a replacement. I would not charge for making a few phone calls or sending out quick e-mails.

      Otherwise I thought the article had very good approaches to dealing with problematic clients. Thanks

    • Wesley Castellanos AIA | June 5, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      This a very good article. I would have liked to see how I can add this to my terms and conditions or agreement to severe the relationship without major repercussions.
      Thanks!!
      W

    • Yvonne May | June 5, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      My client knows how to make money but not how to run a business. He never follows tax rules and always wants free advise. He calls all hours of the day and night and wants instant work and results. He wants the “hookup”, argues about cost, goes online to find cheaper prices to compare without looking at content, and doesn’t want to pay the fees assessed. It’s like pulling teeth. He is an undesirable client and I told him I didn’t need his business because it costs me money and time. This had no room for fluffing.

    • Mitchell F Barnes | June 5, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      After 30 years in the public sector (law enforcement) we couldn’t always fire our clients. We still documented every encounter. Then went into business for myself in 1994 and learned fairly quickly that most of our clients knew what they wanted and a very small percentage raised the bar for consuming more time than was merited. We slowly raised our price and they went away. I’m happy to say we’ve had very few bad clients over the years as the majority are corporate clients. Never had to have that scripted conversation with anyone and I’m thankful for that.

    • Joel berman | June 5, 2018 at 10:54 pm

      Referring a terrible client to someone in your network is a terrible idea; it generates bad karma. My father-in-law gave me a great phrase that I use often: “I am very sorry, but I am not able to meet your expectations.”

    • michelle | June 6, 2018 at 1:32 am

      Always #3. It is more honest. If #1 is really true, you might be firing more than one client that doesn’t fit the new focus, and if you do not do that, you run the risk that the client you do fire will find out you really did not change focus. Number two just might not work. Alternatively, if you didn’t raise prices for everyone, the client you are firing might find out. Not good.

    • Marie Barger | June 6, 2018 at 2:20 am

      Thank you! This article was so well written and applies to many dynamics for human work / life balance. I agree with your positive outlook and teaching a graceful way / technique to build stronger community around us. Respecting all walks of life, yet setting your boundaries is fundamental to your unique personality and integrity. Law of attraction, birds of a feather – flock together… Do not let what you cannot control lurk for long on your path in life. God Bless every person ✌💚

    • Sanjeev Siwach | June 6, 2018 at 5:02 am

      Thanks for the article and appreciate.

    • Thann Massaro | June 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

      As an IT consultant I have run into this situation a few times. Raising our rate to a level that makes me feel like the extra hassle is worth it has worked for us in the past. Great article!

    • Marvin Waldman | June 6, 2018 at 10:20 am

      I agree with Mr. Berman. Excellent article, but my experience has been that if I don’t want to take on a new client or deal with a difficult client or situation, I do not want to foist that on someone else. I have always felt bad when a client leaves. That bad feeling disappears in a day or so, and I am much happier without the life shortener.

    • Bruce Meyer | June 6, 2018 at 10:55 am

      The Firing a horrible client article was good. Over last few years we have shifted to looking much harder at evaluating prospective clients in advance to try to determine if they will be poor clients when they come on. There are a surprising number of “tells” that you can find in common with your current or past horrible clients, as well as other sources, that will let you know what prospects might be like in the future. Quite a few bad ones will let you know in advance, look at them during the meet, greet, setup stages and avoid them before you have to fire them.

    • Jason Grubbs | June 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      This was an interesting article, particularly as I recently had the experience of turning away a prospective client who wanted to do business with our insurance agency, but had quickly demonstrated a lack of respect for our time with numerous phone calls, texts, and emails for what should have been a simple and quick transaction. I went with option 3 and hopefully did so in a courteous and respectful manner.
      One difficulty as an insurance agent is we don’t have the option of changing rates, although I agree with some of the earlier comments indicating if the problem is really a particular client it’s best to be straightforward in indicating the relationship isn’t a good fit, rather than simply trying to price out or foist a problem client off on someone else.
      It’s also prudent to reflect whether you are someone else’s problem client: Having been on the receiving end of a few clients who have been impatient, discourteous, or lack respect for my time I carry that with me and try to think of that when I’m in the role of the client to make sure professionals who work with me view the relationship positively and are motivated to provide good service, rather than dreading hearing from me.

    • Jane MIlardo | June 6, 2018 at 5:34 pm

      Excellent advice, but I would add one thing. If the client is prone to threatening to “report” people to whatever agency that may be, be sure to make them believe that you are not the expert in their particular problem, and that you must refer them to someone with more expertise. That way they leave, thinking you’re helping them. Then refer them to a bigger company, with more people to handle their problematic behavior. Such a client can be litigious, and you don’t need the headaches.

    • Linda Byrne | June 6, 2018 at 10:36 pm

      In my business I have had difficult clients, to say the least. I have learned to fire early and save myself grief. If the client kills a deal due to their bad behavior, then it is time to cancel the contract an move on. Waiting, or trying to bring in another deal, only prolongs the problem and makes matters worse. Exiting early will let them think about their actions and be more accountable. By waiting and hoping they only start to blame you.

    • Martina | March 13, 2019 at 12:34 am

      As a small business owner, I have been so lucky. I rarely have to deal with a terrible client – over the years, our vetting process has been carefully developed to catch clients that may not be ideal to work with.

      But every now and then, it happens and we are often at a loss.

      Thank you so much for this brilliant article. I am copying it for future reference.

      Sadly, I wish I never needed it again but I might!

    • Michelle H Rand | June 11, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      I have learned that when warning bells go off before a new client is signed, it is best to never take that client. Also, in our business, we can only use option #3. Too many of our clients know each other and would hear about false focus or inconsistent pricing changes through the grapevine; #3 is also just more honest. I have gone so far as to develop a small network of folks I can refer difficult clients to, meeting those practitioners before I make the referrals, and being completely up front about how difficult the client is. I haven’t had much luck getting ousted clients to take up those offers of other practitioners, but at least I have made the effort.

    • David Lyons | June 11, 2019 at 9:13 pm

      I liked the article very much. I’ve owned my business for 21 years and have had to fire 2 clients and 1 designer. It’s a demanding industry but not life threatening. Only window treatments. Having said that, when you loose sleep or so upset before, during and after a contact with the client, it’s time to say good bye. I used the, “maybe I’m just not the right guy to handle your needs and and satisfy your wants. I want you to be happy with your project and so I recommend that you find someone better suited to help you. I thank you for the opportunity. Gotta tell you, It feels and felt great! Sometimes just knowing that you can do this, makes you feel better and gets you through the job! Thanks for the article.

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 12, 2019 at 9:16 am

        Thanks for reading David!

    • Brian | June 11, 2019 at 10:13 pm

      I agree with your approach and the emphasis on “keeping the client” I want to point out that Our job is to make this world a better place. Clients with issues have issues themselves and often times makes the road to work with them very tough. We all know that but they are hurting themselves and a gentile way to make them aware of this is the true purpose of our job as Financial advisors.

    • Dimitris Miaoulis | June 11, 2019 at 10:20 pm

      Thank you for the great advice. For those that are still skeptical I recommend reading the book The 80-20 Manager. It will help provide the courage to “rip the band aid off.” Sometimes we are afraid to let go of customers, but in the end you will be more profitable and gain the intangible of happier employees.

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 12, 2019 at 9:17 am

        Thanks for providing this resource Dimitris.

    • Randy Watts | June 11, 2019 at 10:35 pm

      In the 30+ years in business I’ve had to fire a few clients. I have never regretted doing so. When one door closes five will open. I’ve had to fire problem clients in order to invest more time and energy with the clients who were profitable and pleasant to work with. There have been three clients within the past 10 years who caused me to cringe each time I had to meet with them. They had to go.

      In my field I work closely with my clients and mutual respect and trust is absolutely imperative. If I lose respect for my client or if they show a lack of respect for me and my employees there is no way we can work together. NEXT!!

    • Vicki France | June 11, 2019 at 10:55 pm

      Great article! I agree with most points, but I would NEVER connect a bad client to anyone in “my personal network”…for the simple reason I “love” my network.

    • nancy ori | June 11, 2019 at 10:56 pm

      Good thoughts. In 30 years of business, I have had difficult clients but I have a lot of patience since I know they do not understand what I do, how much technology I deal with, or how much experience I have so I need to be constantly educating them. I have fortunately never had to fire a client but right now I have one that is not paying. I shot their products, they were happy with the images and are using them all over their new website. But they did not understand the cost. My price was more than fair and they knew in advance what it would be since this was the second shoot with them. They paid right away for the first shoot. I hate to threaten contacting the BBB or sending a collector but I do not know what else to do. I deserve to be paid. Any ideas?

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 12, 2019 at 9:21 am

        Hi Nancy, we recommend you listening to our podcast with small business expert, Gene Marks. This podcast focuses on dealing with clients that aren’t paying you on time. Listen here!

    • Kelly Macaluso | June 12, 2019 at 7:51 am

      Great article. With several decades as business owner, we have had to address this situation several times. Wish I’d seen this article sooner, as the first time you have to cut the ties with a problem client, it can be super stressful as you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. Thanks for this!

      • Elizabeth Larkin | June 12, 2019 at 9:00 am

        Thank you reading, Kelly. – Elizabeth

    • Arthur LeBrasseur | June 12, 2019 at 8:32 am

      Overall good article however, why in the world would I ever want to refer a bad client to someone else? That could create a bad relationship between me and the other party!

    • Susan Moore | June 12, 2019 at 9:25 am

      One fact was not addressed in the great article: When you fire a client, you open up time and emotional health to take on another that will be great to work with. I terminated a client this year (one of several in 29 years), and they begged me to take them back. I set out terms, along with a 30 day exit clause if they did not meet the terms. Surprisingly, they lived up to the terms and became a great client to work with! That was a first. Many entrepreneurs do not like the practice of firing a client. However, it’s very powerful in your life, even when you don’t see how you’re going to make ends meet. Suddenly you have more emotional energy to go after great clients, and it is rewarding. I concur with all the other posts. Don’t let fear keep you from doing what you need to do. But do it correctly. The world is very small now.

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 12, 2019 at 10:37 am

        Great advice Susan- we appreciate you sharing your own experience.

    • Manuela Connatser | June 12, 2019 at 9:34 am

      I appreciate the article but the best way for me to fire a bad client is honesty, but I have done price changes independently from having bad clients to incorporate the challenging client that makes me grow.

    • Cheryl | June 12, 2019 at 11:50 am

      What a great article. I have had a couple of clients like that this month. One was a prior insured that wanted to come back to our agency. Before we considered taking her back, she was already being rude and started to demand all kinds of unreasonable requests. We did not take this client back and explained after careful consideration, that her business was something that wasn’t a fit for our agency. All she said was, YOUR LOSS. I feel sorry for whoever her agent is right now..

    • Greg mayes | June 12, 2019 at 12:03 pm

      Awesome. Totally correct. Thank you Hartford.

    • Paul Sabatino | June 12, 2019 at 12:22 pm

      I suggest another option that may work well in at least some cases: “I’m sorry, we’re just booked up solid right now. We’re not taking on any new projects, probably for the next three to six months.” This places no blame on the client; in all probability, he or she will just find someone else.

    • Ray Stone | June 12, 2019 at 12:30 pm

      How can I obtain commercial insurance both liability and workmans for my business?

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 18, 2019 at 7:55 am

        Hi Ray- you can learn more about general liability here and worker’s compensation here.

    • Rosael Carreras-Morris | June 12, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Excellent article. Most people (myself included) struggle with this issue. Thanks for the advice.

      • Elizabeth Larkin | June 13, 2019 at 10:22 am

        Thanks for reading and for your feedback! – Elizabeth

    • Zach | June 12, 2019 at 1:41 pm

      Of the 3 scripts offered, number 3 is the only one that isn’t completely unethical. You don’t lie to a client you want to fire by telling them you’re moving to a different line of business. How’d that be for your reputation? And you don’t act as if the only problem is that your rates are too low when in fact the problem is the client’s conduct.

    • Clarise Lyon | June 12, 2019 at 1:46 pm

      Thank you Hartford. I liked the articulate–I could really relate. It was right to the point and reminded me of one of my nightmare clients that I had to get rid of. I hate to put it that way, but this person crossed the line in so many ways–at which point, I had my office manager call to tell her that our prices were increasing and that one of my clinicians will be working with her child. She always insisted on having me work with her child at which point, I knew the price increase and working with another clinician would send her on her way. She tried to engage with me though email in a very defensive way. However, I ignored her emails because you can’t fight crazy. Needless to say, this will never happen to me again. I simply will not tolerate this waste of my time and energy. No amount of money is worth that!

    • Linda | June 12, 2019 at 1:55 pm

      I rarely read these types of emails. The email subject line for this article caught my eye. I made the decision to not pursue a contract renewal with a client, subconsciously, about a month ago. The contract PM constantly complains and expects uncontracted expenses for free. So I have not inquired about the renewal and have already taken the necessary steps to finish scheduled tasks by the end of the contract.

      It was nice to read this article because it helped me realize that I made the right decision the right way.

    • EJ Tobin | June 12, 2019 at 3:19 pm

      A healthy percentage of our sales came from smaller multi-store retail chains and national mail order catalogs. That being said, we didn’t hesitate to walk away from companies that took unauthorized charge backs or dragged their feet paying invoices, both warning signs in our book. Also walked away from a very large, long term account that changed their terms to require we “guarantee sales” for a custom item they wanted in their Christmas catalog. ( Having a vendor guarantee sales is another huge red flag in our book that a customer is in financial trouble and/or has cash flow problems.) Our independent sales rep went ballistic over our decision to not accept what would have been a six figure purchase order but he later apologized after that company abruptly closed their doors right after the first of the year, declared bankruptcy, and left many of the small vendors he represented in a terrible financial lurch.

    • Daniel Cerqueira | June 12, 2019 at 3:37 pm

      Excellent article and very useful in private healthcare practices. Some patients just can not be satisfied no matter how hard you try. We have learned over the years to set expectations way ahead of time during the onboarding phone call, by explaining office policies and what it is that we do and focus on. Even then, some patients with unreasonable expectations still slip through the cracks, which is when we use some of the techniques described in this article. Like hiring employees, the best solution is prevention by setting a clear message about what is it that your business does.

      • Elizabeth Larkin | June 13, 2019 at 10:24 am

        Great advice. Thank you for reading and sharing your feedback with us. – Elizabeth

    • Denise Kampfhenkel | June 12, 2019 at 5:14 pm

      This article is very timely. We have a few customers that really try our patience when trying to really stretch the boundaries with us repeatedly. Nothing is good enough, or is too expensive, etc. We have not yet cut the proverbial umbilical cord with them. I am hoping this will provide a way to do it less traumatically than we picture in our mind. We are not looking forward to it.

      • Elizabeth Larkin | June 13, 2019 at 10:16 am

        Thank you for reading, Denise! – Elizabeth

    • steven | June 14, 2019 at 2:36 pm

      I am a people pleaser. I would fire that client the passive aggressive way. Raise my prices to the point that it would be worth my frustration dealing with them. I decorate and when clients order flowers, 95% of them complain about them. They almost always complain about something. The shape of the arrangement, the size, the color choices, the vase etc etc etc. Unfortunately I have to deal with the flowers because it’s part of my trade and I don’t want to bring competitors into my contracts. Whenever I get a client who asks for something really specific, I try to refer them to somebody else, but they seem to never accept a referral. Some clients act like the flowers are a total waste of time and money but when I offer to replace or substitute them, they act like there is no point. I feel that 90% of these customers just want me to say I am sorry and here is a refund and by the way since it’s too late now to order from somebody else, go ahead and keep the flowers. I have had customers order flowers and then say they are allergic to them, I show up with White flowers and their booth color is white and they complain there is too much white now. When I think I make perfect choices, they still almost always complain. I think honestly everyone just wants to get free flowers. My suppliers are just as bad. They like to try to sell me bad flowers, charge me double because a shop that is 80% roses says that when I want roses it’s a “Special Order”??? They offer me a 10% discount to bring all my business to them and then “Forget” they made that agreement the next time I come in? I have learned that when dealing with flowers I have to just say “it is what it is, if you don’t like it too bad”. Actually I think that. What I say is nothing, or sorry and walk away. If I believe there is legitimate a legitimate complaint, I will do anything, even at my expense to fix it.

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