Did you know that you have the freedom to fire a client? Sometimes, no matter how long we’ve been Freelancers or Virtual Assistants, it’s hard to shake an employee mindset. We think that if anyone’s going to be fired, it’s us.
But remember that as an online business owner, you have the freedom to choose who you want to work with. If a client relationship becomes unbearable, you aren’t stuck with it. You can choose to fire that client and find another one.
In a recent VAClassroom University Virtual Office Hours session, co-founder Craig Cannings discussed ways to manage client expectations and tactfully address concerns. In every client relationship, the hope is that we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement that respects both parties and upholds the terms of our contract.
But sometimes difficult clients ignore our concerns and continue the way they are. That’s when you need to consider finishing off your project and leaving them. Craig calls these types of clients “Demanding Dan.” Their behavior is degrading and disrespectful, akin to workplace bullying. As Craig says, “There’s no place for clients like that in your business.”
Important note: If you are being sexually harassed or feel unsafe as a result of your client’s behavior, please contact your local authorities and seek professional help. In other circumstances, the below strategies may apply.
Warning Signs for When You Need to Consider Firing a Client
In an article titled “How to Fire a Horrible Client,” Felicia Sullivan explains the difference between a terrible client and a challenging one:
“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.”
This difference is important because, as Sullivan says, “You can adjust your style and process to the challenging client, but the horrible one will never be a true partner.”
With that in mind, let’s take another look at our Demanding Dan character to see what prevents him from ever being a true partner:
1. Communication Issues
• You send him an email, and he takes forever to respond. Sometimes you ask him a question in advance of a project due date, and he leaves you hanging until the very last minute.
• He texts or phones you outside of your defined office hours, expecting you to take business calls late at night and on weekends or holidays.
• He refuses to answer your questions clearly. Sometimes it seems like he’s being purposely vague so he doesn’t have to commit to something.
2. Unreasonable Expectations
• He expects you to be at his beck and call for everything from “What’s the URL for such and such,” to “Send me this document right now.” When people ask your work schedule, you start telling them that you work “on call.”
• He expects you to finish projects in an unreasonably short period of time. When you explain why it will take longer, he refuses to accept your timeline.
• He expects you to learn complicated, specialized tasks outside of your training and niche. When you refer him to another Freelancer or Virtual Assistant who specializes in that skill, he complains that it should be easy for anyone to do.
3. Unacceptable Scope Creep
• Demanding Dan loves scope creep. Unexpected tasks are not added to the contract as an amendment. You’re still being paid the same as you were before, with the same timelines.
• Your tasks change drastically from what you were originally hired for. He tells you that it’s part of your role, and if you don’t like it, too bad.
• Your skills are not valued. He prefers to think of you as unskilled labor he can train and shape for a desired role rather than benefit from your specialized skills and training.
4. Disrespectful Behavior
• He micromanages and continually second-guesses your competence. No matter how long you work for Demanding Dan, you get the feeling that he still doesn’t trust you, and you have to prove yourself.
• He’s domineering and demanding. His manner towards you is patronizing, and he gives you the sense that you should feel lucky to work for him.
• He attacks your self-esteem, either through overt insults or more subtle backhanded compliments like “You did a great job on that project… I’m surprised.”
• He pays late or doesn’t pay you at all. We explore this topic more thoroughly in our previous blog post “Help! My Client Won’t Pay Me!”
These are just a few examples of warning signs that you need to fire a Demanding Dan. You may have some examples of your own. If clients like this are unbending when you tactfully express your concerns and propose mutually beneficial changes, it’s time to let them go with grace and dignity.
Strategies for Letting a Client Go without Burning Bridges
There’s something oddly satisfying about those scenes in movies or TV shows where an employee shouts, “I quit,” and storms out of the office. With clients like Demanding Dan, many of us would be tempted to do the same.
But first of all, we work remotely, so we can’t storm out of their office. And secondly, it’s best to keep our reputation intact.
Here are some tips to help you fire a client the right way:
1. Maintain your professionalism.
In her article “5 Signs That It’s Time to Fire a Client,” Jen Hubley Luckwaldt advises resigning with professionalism the same way you would resign from any other freelance or full-time job. She recommends giving your client plenty of written notice and abiding by the terms of your contract.
She also shares this wise advice:
“Don’t get into the weeds with all the reasons why you’ve decided to quit. If you’ve really decided to go, now is not the time to talk about the poor pay rate or the unreasonable hours. All you need to do is to let them know that you’re not going to be working for them anymore.”
By this point, you’ll have already attempted to address those concerns, so there’s no need to bring them up again.
2. Speak to them in person.
Out of respect for your client, you may want to book a video meeting or phone call with them to follow up on your written notice and give them a chance to share their thoughts. Or you may want to speak with them in person first before submitting your written notice.
In either case, we recommend recording the conversation. Zoom video conferencing is a great option that allows you to record both video and audio from a meeting. Just be sure to let your client know you’re recording this conversation for your own records, not to share with others.
3. Don’t leave them in the lurch.
Treat your client as you would like to be treated. Although you might prefer to drop everything and run, it’s often best to finish a project or negotiate an appropriate endpoint.
Nicole Fallon Taylor gives the following advice in her article “4 Clear Signs You Need to Dump a Freelance Writing Client”:
“Once you’ve given the client your reason, you can offer to stay on for a little longer (through the end of the next project or a specific time frame, depending on the work you had been doing) until they find another freelancer to replace you. Your willingness to ease the transition will assuage any hard feelings, and may even earn you a good recommendation or future referral.”
If your work involves systemic tasks that other members of their team can easily take over, try to time your resignation with downtimes in their business. For example, don’t leave right in the middle of a product launch or major event planning.
4. Don’t air your dirty laundry.
When I was a kid, I was often told to “mind my Ps and Qs”; in other words, mind my manners and be careful what I say. When it comes to a difficult client, be careful who you talk to and where you talk about them.
A good rule of thumb is to never post complaints about them on social media or in email exchanges that could be forwarded. If you belong to a group like our VAClassroom University Facebook Group, you may want to ask for advice on how to handle certain issues. But it’s best to write about them respectfully and never mention clients by name.
The same goes for how you speak about them in person. Be careful who you confide in. Don’t vent about them to mutual acquaintances, and avoid complaining about them in a public place where you may be overheard by their customers or colleagues.
And above all, encourage yourself to frame the experience in a positive manner. Think about what challenges you faced and what you learned. Remember that by walking away from this client, you’ve empowered yourself to seek work that’s fulfilling and enjoyable, with clients who respect and honor your relationship.
Now we’d love to hear from you. As a Freelancer or Virtual Assistant, what strategies do you recommend for letting a client go gracefully? How would these strategies impact your online business?