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Should you really be honest when firing freelance clients? Does it make sense to tell someone up front that their management style is terrible or that you’ve really hated working on the project?   You’re going to learn more in this episode of the Advanced Freelancing podcast.  And you’re going to learn all about when it makes sense to be upfront and honest with someone and when it’s really better to just cut ties professionally.

Anytime you butt up against a problem with a potential or current freelance client, it’s always good to make at least one effort to try to fix the issue before you elevate things to the level of firing them.

Occasionally, you can correct a client who has terrible habits or just doesn’t know any better. I always assume at the outset of working with a new freelance client that they might not have a lot of experience working with freelancers, or with working with somebody like me. So I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and try to train them the correct way to interact with me.

A great example would be the client who emails you way too much. Before simply outright firing them because they’re sending you so many emails, I’m going to bring up the fact that receiving so many emails in a day is really challenging for me. And it’s hard for me to stay on top of that and keep everything in one place. I might even wait several hours or over a day to answer all of their emails and respond and only one message.  I will simply copy and paste each question that they asked or concern that they shared into one email.

The purpose of that is to show them that it’s really inefficient to send me so many messages. And that since I often check my email a few times a day, it becomes very overwhelming. I might miss a message that was sent an hour before. I’ve also done this with clients by replying to them the following day and saying I didn’t see your message because I was already out of office, if they sent it at eight o’clock at night. My purpose here is to clarify what my boundaries are and to let them know this is something they probably shouldn’t do in the future unless they want a similar result.

Same thing with team members of my own freelance subcontractors. Maybe send me multiple emails about the same thing. I’ll try to explain to them, “Hey, this actually confuses me. If you send an invoice and then an invoice reminder two days later, when you know that the payment only comes every other Friday, that just creates confusion for me and for the bookkeeper. So please don’t do that because it could actually lead to your invoice not being paid, because we think that we’ve received multiple duplicates.” So always make the effort to try to fix things first before firing a client.

But knowing when it’s really time to fire your freelance clients, you know it in your gut.

You feel it. You’ve already imagined life without having to be on the phone with them, working on their projects, and talking to them over email. And you’ve already imagined how blissful life would be without it. You found yourself procrastinating on their projects or taking it really personally when you get feedback. This is a clear sign that if you’ve made the effort to try to fix things, or if there’s a rigid personality here that isn’t going to change that it’s time to let them go.

I started working with a client early in 2019 that had a lot of projects for me. But the personality of the person that I was interacting with on their team was really abrasive. Now the first piece of advice that I got actually from my husband was to consider where this person was from. He said, “You know, this is someone who’s working as a corporate executive in New York. They talk quickly and they’re more aggressive. It’s part of the New York personality. So let’s give this person a chance and see if they’re going to change.”

And so we had a couple of difficult conversations with the way that they were providing feedback and trying to get me to do things at all hours of the day. And eventually, I called this person out on the phone and said, “I’m very uncomfortable with the way you’re speaking to me.  I’ve never had a client talk to me like this. I’d really prefer if we never have a conversation like this again. These are  my boundaries and my expectations.” That was my effort to try to fix things and make sure that I wasn’t misinterpreted. And when the behavior continued after that, it was a great opportunity to cut ties. So sometimes it really is better to fire freelance clients.

You heard in the past episode, if you’ve listened to that, that it’s one of the two things that I think is very important when you’re scaling your freelance business.

Knowing who to fire and who not to take on to begin with, in addition with some other components of running your freelance business is so important.  So that idea of knowing who not to work with is key. It’s very important for scaling your freelance business. I’m always an advocate of trying to fix things before they escalate.

But a lot of times, people who are stuck in their patterns, they won’t change. I had a coaching client who was working with a toxic client about a year to a year and a half ago. And it was very clear that this person’s personality and approach to doing business and their management and leadership style was not going to change.

So the conversations between us quickly shifted from how do we fix this to how do we get you out of this contract with as minimal drama as possible.

How do we get you out of this contract as quickly as possible? When you’ve dealt with someone who’s difficult, who’s violated the terms of your contract, who speaks to you disrespectfully, you are totally in the right to feel the emotions that you do. However, in parting ways, this doesn’t always mean there is a purpose for telling the client that it could inflame things. It could make it more of a challenge for you to get your final invoice paid. So unless you are directly asked, and sometimes even when you are directly asked, I prefer not to go into the details of why we’re not going to work together.

You might find as I have that some difficult clients don’t want to let you go.

They will try to bring you back in. And that is a very interesting position to be in and it’s almost tempting. It’s especially tempting if they hint that, “Hey, things have been difficult, but I’m going to work on trying to make it better. Are you willing to stick around? And are you willing to give it another chance?”  Now, if you’ve already mentally disconnected from this client and started to imagine how much better it would be without them, there are very few situations where it makes sense to take the client up on that offer.

So there’s been several times with a few clients over the years where I really wanted to tell them what it was that was such a problem, why I was firing them.

I had one client who consistently paid his invoices up to three months late. It was just such an administrative nightmare that I was tired of chasing it down. He was a nice client other than that. It was an easy project to do. But administratively, behind the scenes, it involved my bookkeeper spending time telling me, “Hey, this invoice still isn’t paid. Can you tell me if it’s cleared yet and I’m not seeing it?” It was just too much hoopla. But there wasn’t really a point in telling him that because I’d already brought it up before. And it wasn’t really a priority for him to fix that or address it. So it was just time for me to move on.

I also had a very abrasive client that I did a test project with a little bit earlier this year. And one of the challenges with it is that they were paying per piece. I’ve talked about this in another episode. When your per piece freelance rate is not really a per piece rate. But they kept adding on additional things. Then they would email me and if I didn’t respond within two hours, they would email me again. It was just driving me crazy.

And I could just tell this was the way that they operated on their team. That was fine if it worked for them, but it wasn’t working for me. So there was no reason for me to say, “Hey, your management style is terrible. It is super annoying to have to deal with this. And this is probably why you’re having a hard time keeping freelancers or employees.”  But there’s really no clear benefit to doing that.

Very rarely is a client going to hear that from you on your way out and decide to change. Now you can gently suggest some of the things that would have made it better.

I did tell the client that consistently paid me late, “Hey, this is just creating a lot of work for me behind the scenes. So it’s not going to be the best fit, but I wish you luck.” That was a nice way of saying, “Hey, this could be an issue with other freelancers as well. You might want to have some more clear payment policies so that people who come on to the team know what to expect.” But I definitely wasn’t going to call it out worse than that.

There was a difficult conversation that I had with my abrasive New York client.   It’s funny because I’ve worked with a lot of clients in New York and New Jersey. And a lot of them are attorneys. So a lot of them are fast talkers and fast movers. I’ve never had a problem with that personality before. And this was actually somebody outside of the legal space. It was just a bad experience interfacing with that type of personality and having that difficult conversation that I was not comfortable with the way they’re speaking to me on the phone. Since I’d already addressed that there was really nothing to be gained and having a follow up conversation with that person over it.

I was still upset with the way that they dealt with me saying, “Hey, I don’t appreciate you talking to me this way. You’re treating me this way.” They never really apologized or anything.  And I was still mad about it. So you’re in the right emotionally, but there’s so little to be gained. You might end up burning bridges that you didn’t anticipate. So unless you really need to burn a bridge, or this person has broken the law or has been so aggressive and awful that you need to call it out, it’s a good idea to minimize your emotional response to it.

So what’s important here is, you need to be honest about how you’re ending the contract.

Don’t just say that we’re not going to be able to work together anymore.  You need to provide an absolutely firm end date, or you will be likely to have them push back.  I had a client that I fired because it was one piece at $200 a month.  It was just too small and too much email back and forth with that client over that one piece. It wasn’t worth it. And in his mind, he’s like, “Well, I’ve paid you on time all the time. And we’ve been clients for two years.” But the volume wasn’t enough for me. So that was even when I did provide a firm end date. So you want to give them a very firm date that you’re no longer available to work on the project.

This is different than I need more money. You’re not giving me enough time to create or edit things. We’re having too many phone calls and that needs to be cut back on. You need this to be very clear that you’re leaving. So if you were in a traditional job, and you went in and talk to your boss about an annoying coworker, that’s not necessarily a conversation where you’re quitting or you’re being fired. That could be venting or trying to address the issue with management.

You want to be clear. If you’re going into quit with your boss, you better be clear. You’ll say, “I’m leaving. This is my two week notice I will be out on x day. Please let me know what you need me to do before I leave.” So give your client something of what to expect.

If they’re a decent client, but just not for you, consider referring them to another freelancer.

I usually tell my clients, “I wish you the best of luck in finding someone who’s a better fit.” That takes the pressure off of me in case they were to answer and say, “Oh, can you find me another Freelancer since you’re leaving?” So I like to give a very firm end date. I am no longer available as of September 1. You will receive everything that is due up to September 1, and the final invoice will be sent on that date.

I’m always trying to give them some heads up if I can.

If it is a really, really toxic client, and you’ve got to get out and you have the opportunity to do that in your contract immediately, go ahead and exercise it. But in general, even with your difficult clients, exercise professional courtesy. The overbearing client that I fired a couple of months ago after a test project, I simply said, “I’m available for edits on the pieces I’ve submitted for the next five business days through the close of business on day number five. After that, I will not be able to answer emails.”

So very clear end date you if you have questions about what I’ve submitted, you can ask them. You have five days to ask them and then I’m no longer going to be available. I’m essentially saying I’m not going to answer your emails at all.  So give them a very clear end date. Ideally, that’s going to be a little bit of time for them to find a replacement.

So you want to bring clarity as far as what What this means for them. If you are referring another freelancer to them, you want to give them a timeline around that too. You might say, “Hey, I’m going to share this with my freelance network. I’ll let you know next week if anyone jumps at the opportunity.”  You do not really need to be honest about their dysfunction unless there’s a specific reason that it’s helpful to provide this information.

Now, everything I’ve said up to this point is let’s not get into the drama. Let’s not discuss major serious issues with the client. Unless it’s very egregious.

Now, an exception to this. Let’s imagine that you’re working on a team and the person who hired you is awesome and amazing, super easy to work with, processes things on time, and then they hire somebody under them who’s really difficult to deal with. And they might not realize how this new hire is treating you.

So as a courtesy to the person that you liked and don’t want to burn a bridge with on your way out, they might ask you, “Can you tell me why you’re leaving? I thought things were going great. I really enjoyed working with you.” You might tell them the personality of so and so really wasn’t a fit for me. I really found that this person was just a little too critical for what I was expecting in the feedback process. You can still be diplomatic in giving that feedback, when it makes sense.

So I do like to alert people if I feel that it’s affecting them or their business and they don’t realize it. So if they’ve got somebody who’s really awful on the team, there’s a good chance you’re not the only person who has recognized it.

Going back to one of the jobs I had in the past when I stepped into the position. Everyone had a problem with this one other employee. And of course, I had a problem with that employee too when I started.  And it was clear it wasn’t just me. But I wanted to make sure like, “Hey, it’s weird that everybody has an issue with this person and other people had brought it to management’s attention.”

And when I quit, I went out with a letter that explained all of the things that have happened to me personally.   I can’t speak to anyone else. But the main reason why I’m leaving is this person. They’re too difficult to deal with. They’re openly rude and borderline hateful. So that was an instance where and it actually ended up changing things at the company. That person was was let go.

And all my former co workers were  like, “Oh, my gosh, you saved us on your way out.” They finally had heard enough complaints and management decided that this person needed to go. So it can be beneficial in those circumstances. But even so, you want to be very tactful about how you approach it. You don’t want to say that person is absolutely terrible. They’re the worst ever, and then have your contact go, “Oh, that’s my cousin.” or “Oh, I love them. I’m the one who hired them.” You just want to leave that as a diplomatic statement.

And only if it absolutely has to be said, more often than not, the client is not going to change things.

Unless there’s a significant reason to do so, they may be locked into something that’s even a broken system. So don’t feel like you have to throw somebody under the bus even if they are terrible. I like doing it if the circumstances are extreme, or if my client honestly asks me, “Hey, what’s the problem? I thought everything was great. I wish I’d known this in advance.” I might say that a certain person and I just don’t get along. We’re not meshing as far as personality, and work style. So I don’t feel that it’s the best fit going forward. And you can look for somebody else.

I’d love to know situations where you struggled with letting a client go and whether you made this decision about honesty being the best policy when firing freelance clients.

As with so many things and running your own business, it’s a really delicate balance. And it’s something that depends on the situation. But 90% of the time, there’s no real benefit to telling a client how awful your experience has been unless they’ve broken the law. Unless the treatment is so absolutely terrible or you might be able to help other people like freelancers or other employees on the team who are probably suffering at the hands of the same person or because of the same broken policies and procedures, honesty may not be the best policy.

Thanks for tuning in for another episode of the advanced freelancing podcast. For more freelance advice, get a copy of my book Start Your Own Freelance Writing Business—available now! Buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and more.