The only checklist you’ll ever need to end a business relationship with professionalism and tact.
Business relationships can be tricky. When you’re working with all different kinds of clients, you’ll have some that are a pleasure to work with and others that are… not quite so easy. If you’ve found yourself in a tough spot with a client who is making it an absolute nightmare to continue your relationship, look no further than this checklist to help you fire that client with tact and professionalism.
Keep reading (and print this checklist!) so that you can be ready to handle difficult client relationships and fire a client if you really must.
Note: It’s important not to skip a step in this checklist unless otherwise noted.
If you’re thinking about firing your client, you’re probably angry. Even before you attempt to talk to your client, take some time to breathe and calm yourself. It is never a good idea to talk to (or fire) a client when you’re upset and your emotions are high. Take some time to work through your emotions. Once you’ve done that, move on to Step 1.
STEP 1: If possible, try to talk things out with your client.
Sometimes a working relationship with a client can seem unmanageable because there has been a communication breakdown. Maybe you’re not getting straight answers from them (but perhaps it’s because they need your help sorting out their ideas), or they thought something was your responsibility, but it was really theirs. That’s why it’s important to try to talk to your client to figure out what went wrong.
Related to communication breakdowns is problems with expectations. If you didn’t nail down and really clarify your expectations at the beginning of the project, there’s no doubt you would have problems later down the road.
For example, say I’m a graphic designer who just submitted a first draft to a company that has hired me to design their website. The project manager sends me an email, obviously upset, stating that I haven’t included any writing or wording on the design. I insist that that is a separate job—the work of a copywriter—but since the expectations were not set out clearly at the beginning of the relationship, there’s a huge problem, and my client is irate. They state it is within the scope of work for me to include wording with my designs and are withholding payment until I’ve done so.
If I can calmly talk this out with the client, perhaps by stating that there has been a misunderstanding and offer solutions, there may be no need at all to fire this client (or for the client to end the contract with me!).
It’s essential when approaching a problem that teeters on ending a client relationship that we put our egos and attitudes aside and focus on the problems that have led us to this point. In so many instances, it’s possible to resolve the problem and finish the project together before ever needing to fire your client.
That said, not all problems with clients are due to communication or expectation problems. Sometimes there are just nightmare clients, and if you have one of those, then read on and go to Step 2.
STEP 2: Check your contract.
The contract you signed with your client at the beginning of the project will have methods that allow you to cancel your contract.
Didn’t know you needed a contract or just didn’t sign one? Go on to Step 3. Also read this blog post on how contracts can prevent nightmare clients and take a look at these contract templates so you can have a contract ready to go for your next client.
If your client has not fulfilled the expectations set out in the contract, you are legally allowed to end the relationship due to “breach of contract”.
For example, if you hired someone to complete a marketing project for you, but they have continuously submitted things late, refused to use any of your ideas or inspiration, and have not done the proper research to complete the project, but all of these expectations were in your contract, you can easily hold that client in breach of contract and end the relationship.
Your contract may also have requirements for steps you have to take before ending the relationship or a specific procedure you follow. It may require that you give your client a certain amount of advance notice before you can stop working for them. It should also give you guidance on what happens after the relationship is over.
If you’re sure you’re ready to fire your client, move on to Step 3.
STEP 3: Provide notice in writing.
If you have worked with this client for a long time and have a history together, you can also give them a courtesy call in addition to emailing to give them a heads up if you wish, but an email alone is completely fine (and totally legal).
As long as you put everything in writing, you’re golden. Just be sure to:
- explain why you’re cancelling the contract/project;
- point out the part of the contract that allows you to cancel the contract/project;
- include the exact date your services will be terminated (this could be immediately or at some point in the future if notice is required under your contract); and
- explain your expectations going forward (for example, if there is an outstanding balance the client must settle, explain that this must be done and by what date; if there is anything you need from the client, tell them what you will need; if there is anything you will give to the client, like unfinished parts of the project or perhaps materials that must be returned, tell them precisely what it is and how and when it will be given to them. You want to cover anything that needs to be resolved to disentangle yourselves from the relationship).
STEP 4: Sign a termination agreement (if necessary)
If the contract you signed with your client doesn’t allow you to cancel the project (or you didn’t sign one to begin with), cancelling by way of termination agreement might be a possibility.
Contact your client in writing (see Step 3) and ask if they would be willing to sign an agreement to terminate the contract. If your client has also found that your working together has been unsuccessful and emotionally and financially taxing, they may very well gladly welcome this solution.
Even if your contract does not allow termination or has certain requirements that you don't want to follow, you can always get around this if you and the client agree to it. You can show you both agree to the termination by signing an agreement to terminate the contract.
Ending a client relationship, from a legal perspective, is easy—as long as you follow these steps.
If you must fire your client, be careful not to:
- blame the client or get into a he said/she said situation. State your reasons, be firm, and be professional;
- fire the client over the phone; or
- lie. The safest way to end a business relationship legally is to be entirely honest with all parties involved.
Firing a client is a big decision. Linger on Step 1 for as long as you need to. It is better, if possible and healthy (for your mental health and your business), to finish a project and simply choose to never work with that client again. But it’s a choice only you can make, and if you really need to end the relationship, follow this checklist to make sure you’re doing so safely and legally.
Firing a client is a part of the free masterclass “How to Legally Protect & Grow Your Online Business So You Can Keep More of the Money You Make” that I’m currently running. If you sign up, you’ll also learn how to:
- avoid 3 big mistakes that are putting your revenue at risk;
- put the right policies in place on your website so you’re legally protected; and
- protect the content you create through trademark and copyright,
along a number of other things—once again, all for free.
For other ways to protect your money and business, watch the free masterclass: How to Legally Protect & Grow Your Online Business So You Can Keep More of the Money You Make