how to fire your oldest client

A reader writes:

I’m a web copywriter, and my oldest client (I’ve been with her for 6+ years) is like a family member to me. A family member who drives me nuts, is incredibly high maintenance, and likes to take all the credit for my successes, but also one who I admire and appreciate. After all, it’s primarily through her word-of-mouth that I’ve built my business over the years, and I am grateful. But now I have clients willing to pay me more than twice as much as I charge her, and I can’t let her take up all of my work hours. It’s time to let her go.

Is it possible to let her go in such a way that salvages our relationship? I am concerned that she’ll take my leaving personally and become vindictive and spiteful (she’s done it to others who’ve left her employment in the past).

Well, would you want to keep her as a client if she were willing to pay the higher rates you’re charging other people? Because if so, that’s where you should start.

You’d say something like this: ‘”Jane, I am so grateful for all the the help you’ve given me these last few years. As my business has grown, I’ve been raising my rates but have kept yours the same out of loyalty and gratitude since you were my first client, but I’m now at the point where I’m charging you half of what I’m charging everyone else so I need to finally raise what I’m charging you. I’m charging $X now. I realize that might be more than you want to pay, and if that’s the case, I can help you with a transition period to someone new, and even refer you to a few people who might be good prospects for the work.”

If she says that the new rates are too much for her, then you’ve solved the problem; you’ll exit for that reason and ideally put her in touch with some other copywriters. But she might surprise you and be willing to pay your new rates, in which case you’ll have solved the problem in a different way.

But if you wouldn’t want to continue working with her even if she’d pay you double (or even more) and you’re not positive she’d refuse the new prices, then there’s no point in going down that road. In that case, you need a different explanation for your exit. The fact that you’re expanding your clients could be a good one — you could explain that you’re committed to diversifying your client base (because not being overly dependent on any one client is a far more secure position for you to be in), and that means that you need to scale back on the time you’re working on her projects.

Or, if you’re worried that she’ll say you can lower your hours with her, when your goal is zero hours with her, then you could instead say that after a lot of thought, you’ve made the decision to move more toward doing X type of work for clients (when what you do for her is Y), and that means that you’ll need to transition fully out of the work you do with her by April (or whatever).

In all of these scenarios, you’re gaming out what you think her response is likely to be and proactively heading it off any problems with your initial explanation. You’re avoiding these conversations:

* You: “I’m raising my rates.”  Her: “I’ll pay your new rate.” (When you don’t want to work with her at any price.)
* You: “I need to diversify my client base so can’t spend the time you need on your work anymore.”  Her: “I’ll take whatever time you can give me, even if it’s not much.” (When you don’t want to give her any of your time.)

… Or, alternately, you can leave the door open for those results if they’re results that you’d be okay with.

In other words, think through all the possible ways this could go, which ones you’d be okay with and which you wouldn’t, and choose your approach accordingly.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Steve G*

    I wouldn’t be thinking of firing her at this point, I’d have lunch with her, especially if she’s like family, and just tell her about your problems and she what she thinks and what she is willing to compromise.

    You must have alot of competition and if you are only 6 years into this, it may seem like a long time, but it still seems a bit premature to think you are at a point where you can start firing clients – Especially when they talk about how great you are. Hello! Free marketing!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that she’s in a position to be choosy about her clients. I’ve only been consulting for a few years and I’ve fired clients (and turned them down from the start). It’s definitely possible, and six years in, I’d think she’s absolutely in a position to know if she can do that.

      1. fposte*

        Though it did seem like it might not have occurred to the OP that she could simply charge her current rate.

      2. Steve G*

        maybe my opinion is because of the industry I’m in, a subsection of the energy market that is not limitless and is viewed by some as a commodity that requires little work (even though it does), so from where I stand, my MO is to never turn down business unless the deal’s real bad

  2. Nodumbunny*

    I think it probably did occur to OP to charge the customer her going rate, but she’s afraid of what the client’s reaction is going to be:

    “I need to charge you the rate that my other clients are paying me.”
    Client: “What?!! You wouldn’t have those clients if it weren’t for me. I made you and I can break you….[extended unpleasantness]”

    1. Katie*

      I would word it differently, my prices have increased to reflect my additional experience and expertise. Focus less on the other clients and what they’re paying and more on you’ve raised your going rate to match up with you being more skilled and experienced.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        +1. My company hires freelancers and will pay them their increased rates as long as they don’t go over a company maximum. Good freelancers are hard to find, and any reasonable client knows they can’t pay below market rate forever.

        OP, I hope your client is a reasonable one, at least where your rates are concerned!

      2. Julie*

        Yes, and definitely be tactful in how you phrase this. I can’t remember exactly what I said to a client once when I needed to raise the rate he was paying, but I didn’t think it through ahead of time and decide what I was going to say, so it came out weird. So I’d advise thinking about it and getting comfortable with what you want to say. And it would also help to think about what to say in response to all of her possible responses (I think AAM said this, so I’ll second it!).

      1. Anna*

        One of the things I noticed in your letter is referring to her “other employees”. Remember you’re not an employee of anyone but yourself. She can be unpleasant maybe but you don’t work for her. Good luck and please let us know how it turns out!

  3. Noah*

    Allison’s advice is excellent. I’ve been consulting for the last two years (with the approval of my full-time employer). When you have a problem client you really have to think through what the issues are and what you would like the outcome to be before you have a conversation about them. I’ve had several who I recently raised rates on because I found I undervalued my time when I first started. They were willing to pay the price and I was happy to keep them.

    1. Julie*

      That’s what I should have said! – that I undervalued my time, experience, and expertise when I was getting started (see earlier comment, above). Thank you, Noah, for the wording I’ll use next time this comes up.

  4. Katie*

    Firing annoying clients can be so freeing. I’ve done it.

    Best way to do it is as kindly and professionally as possible. If you can spin it so it’s her idea I would go that way. I would go with telling her you’ve been giving her a discount but you can no longer do that and starting X date the rate is (take your normal rate and seriously pad it – make it something so if she agrees you’d be willing to do the work). That way she’ll probably fire herself. Then have a list of copywriters ready to recommend at the point.

    It’s always best to never burn any bridges especially for someone who has brought you so much business over the years.

  5. Joey*

    it’s primarily through her word-of-mouth that I’ve built my business over the years

    Wow she must really suck if its worth compromising the person who almost single handedly provided you with enough referrals to build and sustain your business. Id think hard about whether its worth letting her go. Raise her rates? Sure. Devote less time to her? Sure. Cut her off? I think it would be incredibly risky to cut such a valuable client off. That is, unless your business no longer relies on not just the business she provides, but the business she brings in. I wonder if you’re blinded by how much of a pain in the ass she is.

    1. Katie*

      High Maintenance clients though can be troublesome to the point that no amount of money is worth it.

      When you’re new you have to take on whatever you can to pay the bills. Once your established you have more flexibility.

      Letting go a high maintenance client is no different than leaving an employer where you got your start but never was a good culture fit for and now your ready to find a place where you mesh better.

      1. Joey*

        Agreed. For me personally it would depend on how much business she’s bringing in now. If the business is sustainable without her AND her referrals it may very well be worth it to dump her.

      2. Anonymous*

        This. There are some high maintenance clients that are never happy regardless of what you do for them. Obviously I don’t know what this client is like but I’d ponder if raising the rates wouldn’t be a better option.

  6. Ruffingit*

    What is it with people who get vindictive and spiteful when employees (contractors/others who work for them) leave? I find that so strange. Just because someone has worked with you awhile doesn’t mean they have to do it forever. Life goes on, things change, work changes, people change. I find it really sad that someone isn’t able to roll with that and I think it really says something about their stability that they get bitter when someone leaves their employ.

    1. webDev*

      In my experience it is not spite, just simple human neediness and the habit of dependency on another.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Human neediness and dependence is one thing, but I’m referring to what the OP says and what I too have seen personally in some cases. The OP says I am concerned that she’ll take my leaving personally and become vindictive and spiteful (she’s done it to others who’ve left her employment in the past).

        Actual vindictiveness and spiteful behavior because someone leaves your employ is out there and not necessary. Human neediness and dependence can explain some reactions, but for me spite and vindictiveness is a whole other level.

        1. tcookson*

          I think spite and vindictiveness kick in with people who have real issues with abandonment or rejection and they turn that against the person who abandons or rejects them. Like Gavin de Becker says in the Gift of Fear, how even the most terrible behavior can be traced to people’s desire for acceptance and dislike of rejection.

  7. webDev*

    This is what I did with my last client. At my initial interview, I would tell she was going to be a little needy and clingy. I have a FT job and just do off-hours work on a very occasional basis. I *really* don’t want a client like her. So, I said that the website she wanted was pretty simple, and my rate for that was only $25/hr. My usual rate is $75. It was only going to take me 1.5 hours charge time to create her site, so I said, don’t pay me, just send Border Collie rescue $50. Since she never paid me, my hope was, it would make her reluctant to continue to ask me for more. It worked like a charm and rescue’s happy too.

    I know this is a variant of your situation, but I’d simply make the point that your charge rate is much different now, and your specialty is in another area, and suggest a few alternatives that she can contact immediately. Also, have a file for her with the particulars for her site (logons, urls, source materials, etc)

  8. Interviewer*

    Is she aware of the discount she’s continued to get? I’d worry that she was only referring me because your rates are still so low. Maybe you can cushion the blow on the increased rates conversation a bit. Let her know that you’ve grown the business and specialized in certain areas, and your rates for new clients have increased substantially to reflect that new experience. But with that growth, you have recognized the increased demands on your time for her day-to-day needs, coming at the same time as your client base is growing. You can recommend she transition to ABC Company who can provide more daily support on routine tasks, and going forward you’re happy to help with one-off projects or special events at $NewRate. Give her examples of the routine tasks versus the one-off projects so she knows where the boundaries are.

    That way you’re still continuing the professional relationship and possibly the referral stream, because you’ve shown her you are a valuable resource rather than a cheap commodity.

  9. Ivy*

    Definitely find alternatives to offer her though – real ones that will fit her needs and perhaps you can refer her, not just give her the contacts.
    I am working with an editing group and actively recommend them to other people in our organization, definitely generated some business for them. If they just fired me I would be offended, but if they found a plausible, face-saving even, excuse and if they connected me with alternatives I would understand and move on.

  10. The OP in Question (Hi!)*

    Thank you so much Allison, Option A looks like the best one for my situation. I know she won’t go for increased rates, and she’ll likely be angry, but I hope she’ll respect that this is my business, and businesswomen raise their rates all the time. I am grateful to her, so very much, but I also can’t allow that gratitude to translate to willfully indenturing my services for rates that no living, breathing, bill-paying human could sustain. Thank you, and thank you to all of your wise readers, for helping me solve this problem – it’s been haunting me for far too long!

    1. Ruffingit*

      Glad you wrote in and please come back to update us on how it went. It’s not an easy thing to do, but there are times in life where you’ve got to move on. Good luck!

  11. Nicola*

    An update would be neat.

    Maybe take her out to lunch once in awhile to thank her for her help and support.
    Letting her know that you still value/like her as a person should take some of the sting out of it.

  12. The OP in Question (Hi!)*

    It went down as I didn’t expect – she got in a snit over a project (and by snit I mean borderline abusive) and it made it easy for me to cut the cord, which I did as politely as possible, giving her everything she’d need to finish the project with another writer. And just like that, she was gone. Yes, I took the coward’s way out and waited for her to do something so bad it pushed me into action.

    But that’s not the update. Firing that client was such a spiritually and financially liberating action, I went on kind of a client firing-spree last year. I asked all of my clients if they would pay my new rate, and some did, and some didn’t, and I left the ones who didn’t with oodles of referrals to other writers I hoped they’d love. Positive partings on all sides, though each one was just as hard as any breakup. I really love my clients, guys!

    Now I’m making FOUR TIMES as much as that initial client paid, working with clients who highly value my work and with whom I love working! No more abuse. No more feeling like an indentured servant. Literally days after I made space in my schedule, clients poured in as if they’d been waiting.

    So, to people who say “never turn down a job” – I politely disagree. Turning down jobs below my price point was the best decision I’ve ever made for my business and my quality of life.

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