2021 · career

that time i fired my client

Over the course of my career, I’ve spent a great deal of time freelancing and in that time I’ve run into just about every type of client. The clients who know exactly what they want; the clients who haven’t a clue but trust you to guide them; the clients who don’t know, don’t care; the clients who haven’t a clue but still want to do X, Y, Z and nothing but. For the most part, I’ve always gotten along really well with my clients – even when we had a difference of opinion – but there was one client with whom I simply could not work.

And so, I fired them.

The relationship started off pretty OK – we had an initial discussion over the phone to discuss needs. They explained that they wanted someone to help them dial-in website copy, create social media profiles, and support them in finding their messaging for marketing collateral. I loved their business idea and had a unique connection to it based on past work. It couldn’t have seemed more perfect, so I agreed to meet up for a complimentary 1-hour session to get things started.

Four and a half hours later, that meeting ended.

In hindsight, I should have realised then that my time and boundaries would not be respected by this client. I went home with a sense of concern but chocked it up to the fact they were passionate and wanted to get it right. I got that. Or, well, I thought I did. That evening, I did a thorough review of the project and documented the scope and my rate. I sent it through in an email and began to unplug when the reply came asking my absolute favourite question: could you do it for $400? That’s all I have left.

I should have said no. But, because I loved the business idea and I believed in the project, I said I’d do particular elements of project for $400 but that I couldn’t do all. It was too much. I rationalised it to my spouse explaining that it would look good in my portfolio.

From there, the calls began. As I sat in meetings with other clients, they would call me – sometimes repeatedly until I would finally answer. The demands to do things their way instead of the right way mounted. There would be multiple voicemails left while I was at the gym for 45-minutes or at sports with my son. They called in the evenings and on weekends. On one occasion, after they’d interrupted an important meeting by calling so many times, it burst through my Do Not Disturb, I ended a call with them and promptly burst into tears from the anger and frustration while standing on the street. Finally, I set a call to discuss the issues at hand.

I explained both my experience and the best-practices of web copywriting. I walked them through the original scope of the project. I reminded them that they were asking me for much more than what I’d agreed to do for the price. I reminded them of my price for the full scope of work. And that’s when they yelled into the phone, It seems like you’ve forgotten that YOU work for ME. I’m the client. It’s your job – your ONLY JOB – to make me happy.

“Well, I guess you’re not my client anymore.”

Firing that client felt horrible in the moment. My whole body felt hot. I hate confrontation. I hate uncomfortable conversations. I hate letting someone down. But not as much as I hated having my boundaries disrespected. Not as much as I hated the thought that my name would be on work I couldn’t be proud of. I wanted to be a service provider and consultant who helped people do things better, not someone who took the easy way to make someone happy at the expense of my integrity and doing it right.

And, as a person who actively tries to be better, I’ve also wondered if I could have done things differently.

(And yes, I could have.)

Could I have been more clear from the beginning, better articulating my process and recommendations? Perhaps I could have simply stood my ground or just stood up for myself earlier on. Maybe my aversion to confrontation meant that I didn’t have the conversations I needed to have earlier on, thus allowing things to go completely off the rails. But maybe, just maybe, it was always going to end this way. Not every client <> service provider relationship is meant to be. It was an experience I’m in no hurry to revisit.

But, despite the stress in the moment, it did, however, teach me to be more upfront and more selective with my clients. I strive to be a partner and spend more time learning about the client and their expectations before we begin work. I require a signed agreement on projects. I clearly communicate my boundaries and availability, service level agreements (SLAs), and explain my process well before we kick off. And I always offer the “eject button”. If either one of us isn’t happy and can’t see a way forward, then either one of us can – and should – hit the button.

Ironically, I’d spent most of my career being so afraid of not pleasing someone that they’d fire me that it had never occurred to me that I would drop a client. While it felt awful at the time, I felt lighter by the next day – a sign I knew meant I had done what was right. I handed over all of my work to-date and walked away, leaving money on the table but sanity intact.

So, why am I sharing this? Mostly because I wish someone had helped me understand how entirely OK it is to turn down work or end a client relationship when it didn’t fit. Because bad clients happen. Because business relationships can take a real wonky turn. Because we need to normalise ending business relationships instead of trying to make it work for the sake of “not burning a bridge”.

Because, some bridges need to be razed.

Note: This client and I *did* communicate again after terminating our relationship and I helped out with some issues that arose as a result of the handover (document access, passwords, etc.). I wished and continue to wish them well. With someone else as their service provider.

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