By Andrew Neitlich

How to fire a client

By Andrew Neitlich

Last blog, a reader asked how to fire a client.

First off, firing clients is a good and natural thing. You should periodically review your list of clients and figure out which ones to de-emphasize. You do this as your own work and company progresses, as you get better clients, and as you learn which clients aren’t worth the effort.

If they want you to work with them after you have decided to no longer serve them, there are two primary to handle this:


1. Raise your rates with this client to be worth your effort. Explain to them that you are getting busy, have raised your rates to be more competitive and in line with your value. Then see what they do. In general, it is always very smart to put an offer on the table that a client has the choice to refuse. That way, you are not the one pulling the plug.

2. Have a conversation with your client that goes like this:

– I appreciate your business.

– My firm is evolving in ways that won’t be able to serve you going forward.

– Here are three firms that can handle your needs (ideally competitors that will suffer by having this client, but who can still help the client succeed).

  • I recently had to fire a client and also feel that I did it in a satisfactory way. I essentially just honestly put it across that I would complete all my obligations to him but would unfortunately not be able to take on any further work as my plate was just too full. I gave him some choices and advice as who to go to to replace us and basically left in good terms.

    In my opinion, it was one of my better business decisions as he was constantly emailing me requesting [strong]me to call him[/strong] for him to ask me pointless tyre kicker questions. On top of that, he always paid late and just destroyed my cash flow and subsequent patience levels. Good riddance, and from here on we move forward.

  • I must say that the way #2 of firing a client works very well. It’s not that I’ve fired a bad client this way, but I’ve moved several clients to my friends this way – my schedule is just too full to handle them all and I pass them to my friends :). The client is happy, as he gets immediate attention, my friends are happy because they get a client and I’m happy, because my schedule is freed :)

  • patrikG

    I’ve fired a client of mine as well using #2, I gave him a very competitive price (and he knew it), then he turns around and comes up with features way beyond what we had agreed and wants it for the same money. I told him I would get back to him, made a new, non-discounted offer (costing him four times as much) and, pronto, I fortunately didn’t have to deal with him anymore.

    I didn’t recommend anyone to him as he would be a punishment to any company that would take him on.

  • I’ve been trying to get my business partner to fire one of our clients for some time. I’m going to forward this link to him, hopefully he’ll get the point this time. ;)

  • Fenrir2

    I am on a PHP project now. My problem is that my client wants to change the way the website is going to work. Not only one time, but now for the fifth time or so. He also wants more pages, for the same price. The problem is I don’t have a contract, and he hasn’t payed yet. I totally trust him though, and I don’t mind to implement a few changes, but this is going on and on. I’m 15 years old, and he pays 200 euros for this project, and I thought it would take 10 – 20 hours. But now it’s heading to 30 – 40 hours. What can I do to stop the changes?

  • Fenrir2,
    Get a contract! Be careful with who you trust. You have two choices. Being young, I am assuming you want to build your portfolio and client base. You can stick the project out and HOPE to get paid in the end. However, the project scope could continue to increase and change and never be finished in your clients eyes. Therefore, you will never get paid. Your other option is to walk away from the job. As you said there is no contract so you are not required to do anything else. Think about it and be sure to GET A CONTRACT next time.

  • “In general, it is always very smart to put an offer on the table that a client has the choice to refuse. That way, you are not the one pulling the plug.”

    Now is this technique simply done so that the client feels like they got rid of you? This first technique really just seems like a mean and lazy way of doing technique #2.

  • TiffyB815

    Hallelujah!! Thanks for this article – it will help me convince my partner that sometimes… it’s just time!

    Thanks again!

  • Afro Boy

    Fenrir2, you could issue a “variation” document. Just a brief one-pager outlining the change he’s asking for, what impact it will have (e.g. additional 3 days to develop & test), and then the cost of that variation.

    Provide a space for them to approve/decline the change & cost and then you’re fine.

    If you have an initial agreement, even non-contractual/formal, then you can still use this approach.

    It puts the decision back in their hands, and you’re in a much better position to be paid for the work you do.

    Also, I would suggest not making the site public until after you have been paid. Perhaps even just issue a “half-way” invoice to get part of the money sooner.

    Always best with a contract, but you can still maintain some control without one. It’s just a little harder.


  • I often got clients who are most concern with the money factor than the importance of the work . I best way I find to refuse them is to not answer them .. or just raising the cost high .

    In my openion a confused client always irretate business of SEO’s and web developers so its better to understand client’s psychology prior to avoid further excuses !!

  • pixelguru

    Then you have the client who refuses to be fired…

    I had a client who was very difficult to work with and a slow pay. I got sick of trying to wrestle the money out of her and fired her. Two days later, the check arrived, but it was for twice the amount she owed me. A note said that she was sorry about the “miscommunications” and was “paying in advance for the next project”.

    I should have simply returned the balance, but I needed the money and I foolishly gave her another chance. Of course, she was right back to her previous ways, and I later had to fire her again once I had done enough work for her to cover the pre-payment.

  • LOL pixelguru… I had one client that would send me a check for a certain amount of money (I have no idea where she got the amount from) and then call me to ask for changes. The conversation would go something like this…

    “Hey, I need these changes done to my website… changes … I just sent you a check for [peanuts], I hope that will be enough.”

    The client is very capable of paying my normal hourly rates and never argues with the costs of anything, so I don’t really know the reasoning behind sending a check for a service that you don’t know the price of. I just tell her if it will not cover it (it never will) and send an invoice for the remainder.

    It’s kind of nice to have the $ come in before the changes though, even if it’s not quite enough.

  • codeninja

    I ran across this just the other day with one of my clients… I had agreed to maintain a very inefficiently designed and ultimately unmaintainable shopping cart system with the agreement that we would work towards a full re-design of the system… This never materialized and even minor textual changes to the existing system took 2-3 days because changing displayed text would break functionality site wide. Major changes took upwards of 2 weeks and broke most of the functionality.

    The compensation for these projects was low because the client saw these as “Simple fixes” that should not take much time.

    This distracted my attention from ALL my other projects and was costing me money.

    I had a conversation with the client and simply informed him that I was far too busy to maintain a system that cant be maintained and one that I did not create.

    The client was quite receptive to this and admitted that he had expected this and was surprised that it hadn’t come earlier… so all in all we parted on good terms.

    Had the developer who built this site in the first place designed it right Im sure that I would not have had to take this action… so for god’s sake people… separate your core logic from your display logic, code with objects, and normalize your databases!

    It will make everyone’s life easier and you will appreciate getting a system designed this way.

  • ideally competitors that will suffer by having this client

    Do I read this right – you would intentionally pass a difficult client to another freelancer in order to harm that freelancer’s business?

  • Clenard

    “Do I read this right–you would intentionally pass a difficult client to another freelancer in order to harm that freelancer’s business?”

    I don’t think he meant doing it purposely – I believe he meant “Why *ME* deal with this?” and send them off to another (which is obviously going to be a Competitor) Deseigner/Developer to deal with.

    It’s the art of Business… nothing personal.

  • llarensj (I don’t sure I suscribed…)

    In my particular case, ALL jobs are whitout contract, even bigger ones (involving all pharmacies from a state, for example). I’m just the analyst/designer/coder/maintainer/shoulder to cry on etc… and I don’t negotiated the job fees (Im TOO BAD negociating, so allegedly, anything that my partner negotiated in behalf of my is fine… well most of time). And I just cannot refuse to do insane things to get the work done (for the same money) because Im stick with people acustomed to pay ‘small’ and require ‘big’ and the things just go crazy if the system don’t support in some way the administrative mess that have nothing to be with technical reasons.
    OH, I forgot to mention that this happen in Argentina, where SIXTY (60) percent of the employees/ contractors have NOT any kind of social care nor laboral assurement nor even being acknowledged by the state authorities.
    SO if you refuses to do something, someone else just take the number to do the same job for less money, no matter if the job is done WORST but is done.

  • In response to Fenrir2
    Always have a written project scope before you start work, outline the work to be done and the agreed price. For my ongoing clients I accept a emailed OK but I will not start before I receive this.

    When the project changes, as it seems it always does, write out the change and how much the change will cost and once again do not do any work on that section until you have an OK.

    This works well with ongoing clients you trust. Otherwise have a written contract for each job and change orders for each change, also include payment schedules, part at the beginning and payments through out the project if it is large.

    On the client firing, I like the referral method, Often you are really the one to blame. You may have needed the work or you were careless, and allowed the client to start running how the job goes. They get used to that and it continues to get worse. Yes I’ve done this too. Sometimes it just goes better for them to start fresh with a new developer, there’s no reason to have hard feelings, it just doesn’t always work out.

  • Kris

    Best Way to fire a client,

    Everytime you talk to them send them a bill.

    I had a crazy client that wanted a simple website with paypal and it turned out he wanted Bluenile.com. The jerk expected me to come to his office everyday with no rembursment for gas or pricy parking.

    He claimed he did not read the contract after he almost bankrupted me.


  • dcb77

    How about when you are planning to fire the client and they beat you to the punch, using a really lame excuse like, “It’s better for everyone on the team if you aren’t a part of it!” Not to mention the after hours phone calls, weekend communication, etc. All the while they play it up like you are really doing a great job and they just need to tweak things ONE more time…

    I just spent 18 hours (count ’em, 18) putting together a SINGLE landing page for a client who refused to use html and the entire doggone thing had to be graphical. Fussing over color hues, fussing over type sizes, fussing over hyphenation.

    I sent them my invoice and was going to politely excuse myself from the project upon receipt of payment. Well, they beat me to the punch, and still have not paid my invoice.

    What recourse do I have?

    Call me a dummy now :-(

  • Phil

    Always, repeat always have a scope of project and cost associated with the project. Furthermore, do not spend time on any change or variation until the client agree to the cost implication. Trust me you will be more professional and save yourself unpaid bills and disappointments. A client not agreeing to this is not worth having anything to do with. So it is better to fire him even before the job begins.
    I have used the second option several times especially to close friends and relations as they are the most difficult client to work with. Whatever you do is just not good enough for them as they know your potentials but you are timid in billing them. Most of the time I just send them to someone else capable of handling the scope of work and everyone is happy at the end of the day.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your comments. I came across your blog in need of advice on this very topic. I am currently struggling with firing a client that has been with me for 10 years. He is just mean and unappreciative (once he actually instructed that I should lecture one of my designers for a typo on a proof – typo ended up being in his client supplied copy – of course, no apology for his rant). He has caused a lot of anxious moments in the studio and one designer to quit mid project. The work is basic and not very creative… nothing that would make the portfolio. He pays slow and demands his work be started as soon as he requests it, we have to pull information from 4 different odd past projects and hope it is what he wants, and expects it finished at unreasonable rates. He insists on using his own printers and expects the studio to review and communicate with these printers at no charge… I have tried raising his rates and he is still around. I can’t refer him to another designer – I would be hated for life. I have decided to tell him that we are restructuring and in doing so we are unable to continue to serve his graphic needs. Wish me luck!

  • Hi all,

    I currently have a client that is my worst nightmare. I have a contract, did a time line, to which he agreed and then blew out of the water 2 months later, stating that there was no rush on the project (maybe not for him). He has paid on time but now after not hearing from him for 1 month he calls out of the blue and expects me to just drop whatever I am doing (and now I have more clients and a full schedule) and do his job.

    I want to fire this guy so bad but I am halfway through the project which by now has gone over the hours initially bid on it and is going into the red.

    He has not responded to my emails – has not given me the product info which he hass ben working on (supposedly) for 4 months – oh yeah this was suppose to be a 2 months project and has turned into 6.

    Now some other developer calls me because they are hiring him to do the 1000,s of products (great if he would call me back now)

    I a at my wits end – I don’t know what to do – this is a simple shopping cart selling knives – they can’t agree on the design – I don’t know.

    I have been designing sites for over 13 years and have never had to fire a client nor have I really had any I don’t like – but this guy – I don’t know what to do. By the time I am done with this project I will be in the hole about 1,500

    Help what should I do?????

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