how to respond to a rude firing as a freelancer

A reader writes:

As a freelancer with many different clients, occasionally some of them don’t work out. However, I’ve found that some employers can be what I consider rude when letting me go after the work I turned in was not what they wanted. One was very cordial up until the point when she wrote, “You’re good, but not exceptional. And we’re looking for exceptional.” Another told me that I “wasn’t worth the money.” Part of me feels like I’m being too sensitive–what they said was true, after all–but part of me feels like I deserved more respect, even if I wasn’t what they were looking for. Now, I never responded back saying I felt this way because I feel like it would be rude of me to do that (lovely irony there), and I shouldn’t be telling someone else how to fire me. Am I right here? Is it better to just let that stuff go? I feel like there’s no way for me to bring that up without looking incredibly bitter.

Also, what is the best way to fire someone with class? Any tips on doing that? Any specific language you’ve used in the past?

In this context, I don’t see a lot of point in responding back to point out that they were rude, even if they were. It’s likely to make things more antagonistic and there’s not a lot to gain from doing that. In general, I think you have more to gain from being gracious — saying something like, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I put a lot of effort into ___ (trying to hit the right tone/understanding your client base/whatever) but it sounds like I didn’t hit the mark. I appreciated the chance to work with you and wish you all the best in your work.”

You might not quite feel like saying that when someone’s just been less than gracious themselves, but this approach will generally make you look better than the alternatives — and it comes with the bonus of sometimes making the other person feel like a jerk, while you remain a shining example of professionalism.

As for how to fire someone without making them feel like these clients did to you … I’ve got advice on firing employees here (and here and here and here), but I think you’re asking about freelancers. That’s a little bit different. Depending on how long and how closely you’ve worked with the freelancer, it could be anything from a detailed conversation explaining why you’re switching gears (for someone you’ve worked with closely and/or for a long time) to a simple “I really appreciate all your work for us, but we’ve decided to try something different.”

Of course, with an employee, you’d typically want to give clear feedback about problems, a chance to improve, and a warning if you’re considering parting ways. With a freelancer, it’s good to do those things if it’s practical — but it won’t always be practical. Quick feedback like “we’re looking for something more like X than Y” of course will usually make sense, but when it’s more complicated than that … well, in a lot of cases you’ve hired the freelancer to be the expert and don’t have the time, ability, or inclination to invest in developing them, and it will just make sense to switch horses. So there isn’t always a warning with freelancers, although it’s good to provide one if the situation allows for it.

One other thing: While I totally get why what your clients said didn’t feel particularly kind, there’s another way to look at this, which is that their candor is giving you potentially valuable information. “You’re good but not great” is actually the reason for a lot of job rejections, although people rarely hear it so clearly (and bluntly) stated. It doesn’t mean others won’t consider you great; it’s just useful data about how this one company saw things. And “you’re not worth the money” — while I’m sure it stings — is good information to have about what at least a portion of your client base is willing to pay. Of course, if you’ve got plenty of clients happily paying those rates, then pay this one no heed. But if  you don’t have the number of clients you’d like to have, maybe there’s useful info here about pricing, who knows. Or maybe these two clients are just be jerks and not representative of anyone else … but the point is that it can be useful to depersonalize feedback and see if there’s anything of value to you in it.

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. My 2 Cents*

    My reaction was the same as AAM: They are giving you some very valuable information here, use it! You’ve had at least two clients now tell you that you are good but not great, maybe that’s a fluke but maybe it’s a sign. Do what you need to do to make sure you are GREAT, and if you can’t be, then find another line of work.

    1. YourCdnFriend*

      I think it’s important to take this feedback seriously, but I wouldn’t go so far as changing careers if you’re not great. Not everyone can be great and sometimes “good” is all that’s needed.

      The thing is to be self aware and recognize if you’re good or great and choose projects that you can be successful at while pricing your services appropriately.

      1. Pessimist*

        Agreed. Don’t search for another line of work if this is what you love. Sometimes “greatness” just comes with time, luck, or an ideal client relationship. “Good” is extremely valuable for the world as well!

        1. Aknownymous*

          I second (third?) this. There is a lot to learn from feedback, especially the kinf that stings the most. True, sometimes people can be jerks or have unrealistic expectations, but sometimes there can be important lessons to learn from their criticism. Ideally it should be constructive, but not everyone has managed how to do this successfully. Maybe your pricing is off, or you could work faster, or there are things that could be improved. If you can, try to solicit more specific feedback. Not in a defensive way, but more as in a “I’m curious because I’d like to serve my clients better” way. There might be something to learn from that, even if it’s just that it wasn’t a good fit of personalities/styles/whatever. And please don’t let it get you down. Even people at the top of their field have unhappy clients from time to time, who say harsh and rude things. It’s just part of the job.

      2. My 2 Cents*

        I allowed for it being an isolated incident and maybe it’s not part of a larger issue, but wanted to point out that if it is part of a larger issue then you need to figure that out (including possibly changing careers) and not just focus on the client being rude.

        Sometimes “good” is all that is needed, but the client very clearly said in this case that it wasn’t, they needed exceptional.

        In a tight job market and the new economy, people aren’t going to be able to float by as they used to, the future is going to belong to the hustlers who really step up and outshine the rest.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Which is just a nice way of saying “most people don’t deserve to be able to make a living; aren’t we awesome people special? You should be grateful anybody ever pays you at all; they ought to be financing my vacation house instead.”

      3. I'm a Little Teapot*

        +1. We don’t live in Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average, and I think a lot of people need to be reminded of that. (Especially newspaper columnists who blather about how all workers will need to be extraordinary in the future just to keep a job and isn’t this great? Um, no, by definition not everyone can be extraordinary at once.)

  2. fposte*

    I like Alison’s suggested response, but I also wonder if it’s possible, in a case like the “good but not exceptional,” to ask if they’re willing to give you more information. If you’re established and generally have happy repeat clients, I might not bother, but if I were starting out, that could be some useful information.

    1. Sarah Nicole*

      Agreed. I would want more information. I do a little freelance work on the side sometimes and I would definitely want to know where it was I feel short. It’s a lot like a regular job in that way – knowing where you can improve it vital to any person’s business. I would graciously ask for more specific feedback.

    2. Ruthan*

      I wonder if this could also point to clients with unrealistic expectations (Google “can you make the snow look warmer” if you need a laugh) — in which case there might be work to do on the client management front.

      Of course, there might not be. ;p

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        That’s amazing.

        I like clientcopia its all tech clients but some of them are so funny.

        1. Dynamic Beige*

          There’s also Clients From Hell, which is more web based with the occasional video/photo/print freelance story

    3. Lizabeth*

      It also reflects on the client’s possible less than stellar communication about the job from the beginning – if they’re not giving you all the information and clear direction to do the job right the first time, that on THEM not you. Being a freelancer does not mean you’re an “exceptional” mind reader.

      1. M-C*

        But a really GREAT freelancer would tease it out of them, knowing that’d be the case most of the time anyway.. Not knocking the OP, it’s hard to do your job well AND run the business perfectly AND be a mind reader as well.

      2. Colette*

        The client might know what they want the end result to look like, but they may not know what the freelancer needs to know to make that happen. Ultimately, getting the freelancer the right information is the client’s responsibility, but only after the freelancer is clear and direct about what they need and when.

      3. John*

        “Good vs. exceptional” isn’t used to delineate between someone whose work is off the mark; it’s speaking to the quality of the work itself. This is not a communication issue.

        I use freelance writers, and there isn’t any guidance I can give them that will elevate their work from good to exceptional. They have it or they don’t. Good writing/mediocre writing/bad writing. Communication doesn’t improve that.

    4. Anon Accountant*

      That’s what I’d try to do. Ask for specific feedback where their expectations weren’t met.

    5. Sunflower*

      I would also ask for more specific feedback as it sounds like maybe there is a disconnect between expectations

  3. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*

    I agree that it is good information to receive, but I can’t help but think that there is a way to be honest and still be kind. I think this applies both the professional and personal world.

    1. MK*

      This is what I thought too. Why say someone wasn’t worth the money, when you can say “we feel your services are overpriced”? Or that they are good, but not great, when “we are looking for a higher level of expertise” conveys much the same?

      1. LBK*

        I actually think “your services are overpriced” is more blunt than “we didn’t feel you’re worth the money”. The first one says no matter what, no one should pay as much as you’re requesting for your work. The second one could mean they had a limited budget and couldn’t afford enough revisions, or they wanted something quick and cheap and you had a high late-minute fee they didn’t want to pay, or other situations that are more about that specific job than you as an overall creator.

        1. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*

          But the difference between what the employers were saying and what MK suggested is that MK used I (we) statements. Those are often interpreted more kindly without sacrificing any of the honesty.

          1. Kyrielle*

            I would hear “we feel your services are overpriced” as a you statement, despite the careful phrasing – and “we didn’t feel you’re worth the money” is also a we statement technically, but again, hearing “you’re not worth the money” under it isn’t hard.

            Depending on what exactly the issue is, “We don’t have the budget for your services any longer” (if it really is a budget issue, not a value issue) or “We aren’t getting what we hoped for” (if services are overpriced relative to value) or “We like your work, but can’t sustain this pay rate” or….

            I suspect sometimes you can’t soften the feedback, if it’s really negative, not without making it dishonest, though.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, I think this is sort of like how “I feel that you’re an asshole” is technically an “I” statement, but not really. The message with this one is still “you’re overpriced,” regardless of the words that precede it.

              That said, I think this might all be parsing it more than is needing. The client used pretty blunt wording, but the OP is still better off listening to the substance of the message and not worrying too much about the language (in my opinion).

          2. LBK*

            My point was just that anything can be parsed any way by different people – what you consider softer sounds more harsh to me, some people may buy into “we” statements while others see through them easily, etc. In the end if the message is that you’re firing someone, there’s only so much time you should spend wordsmithing the phrasing. As long as you’re not cussing them out or insulting them as a person, it’s probably up to their own personality whether they’re going to end up accepting or ignoring the feedback, no matter how you say it.

            On the OP’s side, being someone like that who accepts feedback for the message, not the messaging will be beneficial in the long run.

        2. MK*

          I don’t think anyone would reasonably use “you’re worth the money” (note that the OP did not say they used “we feel”) when what they mean is that they can’t afford the price, which “limited budget” and “we want cheap” basically means.

          In any case, I wasn’t trying to offer a more palatable reason for firing; if the client wanted to make the OP feel better, they could have given a generic one. I think there is nothing wrong with informing people that you don’t feel you got good value out of the money you paid them or that there work was less stelar than you want. But there are polite ways to say it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I could see it in other situations too though — like if you paid someone to do, say, online advertising for you and ultimately concluded that the return you were getting didn’t justify the money you were spending on it. Or other services too where it might be about the return you’re getting (SEO, or PR, or so forth). True, it would be kinder to frame it as “it’s not worth the money,” but it’s still useful feedback to get if you can de-personalize it.

            1. Ann O'Nemity*

              Yep. I’ve said things like, “We’re not seeing the impact we expected.” Or, “We’re not seeing the returns we need in order to proceed.”

              Still, I’ve seen freelancers bristle at this type of feedback and take it more personally than it was intended.

            2. MK*

              However, I think there is real difference in meaning between “it’s not worth” and “you are not worth”; it’s not just about kindness.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I agree, but there are lots of people who are not especially thoughtful about what words they choose and don’t mean anything by it — like in this case someone who sees “you” as meaning “the service I purchased.” It’s sloppy language usage, but there are lots of sloppy language-users out there. It’s so much better for our mental health and quality of life not to take it personally, when we can pull that off (which isn’t always easy, I realize).

              2. Kelly L.*

                Yes–the latter sounds like they’re talking about your value as a human being, even though they’re not.

            3. Laurel Gray*

              One of he reasons I point job seekers or the frustrated and employed to this site is because you really know how to give great advice and feedback while de-personalizing it. I think one of the ways we tend to self-sabotage is by personalizing everything when it comes to issues with our work and work environments.

      2. OhNo*

        That’s a great point. The fact that these people can’t be bothered to be polite might speak to how the situation would have been working for them if the OP hadn’t been fired from their project. Working with people who have no sense of tact can get wearing after a while.

    2. Mimmy*

      This was my initial reaction too.

      OTOH, I am slowly beginning to accept that not everyone is as polite as we’d like. Sure, you catch more flies with honey, but as long as a client who fires a freelancer doesn’t actively try to harm the freelancer’s reputation or isn’t acting unreasonable–e.g. demanding their money back–then, depending on how well-established you are, either just let it roll off your back or, as others have already suggested, consider whether there is some merit to the comments.

  4. Three Thousand*

    It might help not to think of these clients as employers but as customers, which is what they essentially are. And customers can be rude, unprofessional, entitled, and obnoxious beyond belief. They resent having to spend money to get things, and you’re their enemy because you’re making them pay. These are the kinds of people who treat retail workers like personal servants. You might be a step above retail workers in their minds, but you’re still not an equal who deserves professional courtesy.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yep. Context is everything. OP, did you have other clues along the way the the customer did not have the best of communication skills? Not that anyone does, but some folks have a far better handle than other folks. So consider if what these clients said fits the personality that you have been seeing right along… and perhaps ignoring right along.

  5. some1*

    Another way firing a freelancer vs an employee is going to be different is that when it’s an employee, the employer understands that this is probably your only source of income and will take the gravity of that into consideration and not kick you while you are down.* Your clients probably don’t see as much need to sugarcoat anything because they know/assume you have other clients.

    *I should say _hopefully_ employers do this — as yesterday’s thread showed, it’s not unheard of for employers to be bad at firing.

    1. Stephanie*

      Yeah, employment in the US is at-will, but I think the “I’m firing you because I don’t like your shoes” scenarios are less common than we think. So with an employee-employer situation, I’d guess a firing might be less sudden. (Maybe?)

      The client-freelancer situation seems like it’s just more tenuous by definition and it’s understood that it can be cut off much more immediately.

    2. Mimmy*

      Oh gawd, your comment about yesterday’s “firing” thread piqued my curiosity, so now I’ve just wasted an hour or so reading through people’s experiences. I’m not even done and I’m like “yiiiiiiikes!!”

  6. KerryOwl*

    Now, I never responded back saying I felt this way because I feel like it would be rude of me to do that (lovely irony there)

    That’s not irony, that’s etiquette! It’s rude to point out someone else’s rudeness. Good on you for your restraint.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      “It’s rude to point out someone else’s rudeness.”

      I thought this rule varies by context, no? I’ve seen it done in professional settings and had to actually do the pointing out in one instance and the whole situation ended very positively. (It’s amazing when you realize how some people haven’t the faintest idea they are being rude!)

      1. Kelly L.*

        I think that rule applies to a very particular type of circumstance: you see somebody doing something harmless but not correct, like using the wrong fork, and the rule dictates that you should ignore them and let them save face rather than embarrass them by going “Apollo! I can’t believe you just used your salad fork for your oysters. Were you raised in a barn?” It kind of goes with that old legend where an upper-class host (the names vary) drinks out of the finger bowl because a guest did; the host didn’t want the guest to realize they’d made a faux pas and feel embarrassed.

        I think it’s different if you’re in kind of a mentoring role, and I think the type of rudeness can also be a factor–you don’t want to point out wrong-fork stuff, but there are things much more offensive than that and may need to be called out.

    2. BRR*

      Sometimes you just have to hold yourself to a higher standard. It’s super hard but I think we know when it’s the right thing to do.

  7. Bend & Snap*

    That definitely stings, but I suppose it’s the risk and reward of freelancing. You’re selling yourself and your talent–they’re buying a product. The feedback isn’t personal even though it’s framed that way.

  8. AnotherHRPro*

    While I understand that the feedback you received may have stung, it is useful information. As a freelancer, these companies are not your employer. They are your customer and you are a service provider. If your customers are not satisfied, it is best to know why. Knowing that they expected higher quality or that the cost of your services is not inline with the quality is actually fairly good feedback. They may not have delivered it politely, but as someone who is selling a service would you rather have a polite “no thank you, we are going to go in a different direction” or actual customer feedback? Just something to think about.

  9. Burlington*

    I dunno, I kinda don’t think the examples presented are particularly rude. I wouldn’t say they are the epitome of politeness, either, and they are blunt, but I just don’t think they fall under rude. I could easily envision writing very similar things to a freelancer that I just wasn’t excited about the work I got, especially if you assume that the entire email wasn’t that small bit:

    “Dear Freelancer, thank you for your prompt return of the mailer design. Unfortunately, it’s just not really what we’re looking for; you’re good, but not exceptional, and we’re looking for exceptional. I understand you worked very hard and of course we’ll pay the fee, but I want to be transparent that we’re not going to use the design you created. It just wasn’t worth the money to us, so we won’t be able to hire you again.”

    I really do get that it stings to be told that your work isn’t as good as you thought it was, but I just can’t interpret that as anything other than professional. Maybe they thought they were doing you a favor by contacting you at all? Like, organizations I’ve worked for that worked with freelancers would just stop sending work to someone they didn’t want to work with anymore; no “firing” happened at all. I’d say these phrases are at least more professional than doing that?

    1. Ruthan*

      Given that people who hire freelancers always have the option not to hire them again, I wonder why they feel the need to say anything at all.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Sometimes there’s an ongoing relationship that you need to specifically end.

        But even without that, it’s always better to hear something, I think.

    2. Wanderer*

      Yes, i have the same opinion as you. I am even surprised by the responses here, i thought i would read more response in the vein of: “You should grow a thicker skin”.

      But then i am a very blunt person myself…

      1. KarenT*

        I am too, actually. I didn’t find those comments to be rude or inappropriate (not polite, but certainly not crossing any line). Now, I do think I felt that way because I think it’s likely that those were snippets of a conversation, not a conversation in it’s entirety.

    3. MsM*

      I don’t think the context helps that much, honestly. I agree that “you’re not worth the money” should probably just be read as “we’re not getting the ROI we need,” but “you’re good, but not exceptional” is a valueless piece of totally subjective feedback. “You’re just not what we’re looking for” conveys the same meaning without making it about the other person.

      1. KarenT*

        I think that really depends on the context. I hire a lot of freelance editors, and the rates for freelance work are pretty standard in our industry (we have a freelance pay scale that indicates our pay range and our competitors have very similar ones). When I hire someone at the top of the range and get back average work I do let them go because they are good but not exceptional. Now, I’ve never used phrasing like that in my life, but I could see how someone else could get there.

  10. Kat*

    Am I the only one hung up on where LW says what the client said is true?

    If what they said about you is true, it’s time to put some serious effort into fixing those things so you can succeed. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a reputation as mediocre and over-priced.

    1. Helka*

      I think that’s tangential to what the OP is asking about, which is why we’re not generally focusing on it.

    2. fposte*

      In addition to what Helka says, I think it’s pretty common to get “That’s not what we wanted” feedback sometimes as a freelancer. Specs change, people get wild hairs, etc. I’d only worry if it was more than sometimes.

      1. Kelly L.*

        One site I like to read sometimes is Clients from Hell. People get the oddest ideas about what is and isn’t possible.

        1. esra*

          Clients from Hell is great, but too real some days.

          Honestly if OP feels like they need develop their skills, that’s something to work on. But no matter how good you are, you’ll always have clients who want unicorns.

    3. Dynamic Beige*

      It’s very easy as a freelancer (or at least I find it so) to not have much of a yardstick to measure yourself by. Unless you’re the kind of freelancer who does temp work in offices or short contracts in offices with teams (and I’m not, I work project-by-project mostly out of my home), then you don’t have colleagues to compare yourself to, managers to do your performance reviews and when you look at your work and only your work, you just don’t know how you measure up. I mean, I’ve heard from my clients about X person or Y person and how awesome they are, but when I saw their work which I had been hired to correct, I didn’t get why the client thought they were so great — yet said clients continued to hire them. In the circle of people I know who do the same kind of work as I do, it’s also not something that gets talked about, how much you charge for what and why, which also makes it hard to judge if you have priced yourself correctly. Whenever clients start saying things like “you’re so cheap!” is when I know it’s time to bump it up.

      As many people have also mentioned Clients From Hell (I should have read the whole thread before commenting), for a certain kind of client — which is what this relationship is as Three Thousand pointed out — putting you down is a way of trying to get you to lower your bill so they don’t have to pay you as much, or have you be so hurt or embarrassed you don’t charge at all. In my experience, rates/fees/length of project are things that are discussed before the job is accepted. Depending on what kind of work you do, there are contracts or up front fees (not in my business). If you don’t have a previous relationship, in some places they want to look at your portfolio or at least get a good reference before they will hire you. You say to them “my hourly rate is $X” and they complain that that’s too much or you ask what the budget on the project is and it’s too small for what they want, that’s just the first red flag. In my line of work (not sure if the LW has a similar workflow), I get the brief, I ask questions/get clarification on things, I do a draft or a design, it’s sent in for feedback, changes or tweaks are made and then it’s sent to the end client (sometimes it’s sent directly to the client for their feedback). A final is chosen or more revisions are requested, then the project continues. I can’t imagine a studio where a freelancer is hired, turns in finished art without any feedback along the way.

      There’s also no context given here about how old the LW is, how long they have been freelancing or their general background. Low self-esteem should not be confused with bad work, especially since the submitter is judging them self and may be their harshest critic.

      I also agree with Ruthan. Most freelance projects have an end — you can’t be a full-time freelancer at one company. If you don’t like someone’s work, simply pay their invoice, send them on their way and never hire them again.

      The one place were I would say such harsh feedback would be necessary would be if the freelancer in question kept calling or e-mailing to say they were available and did the company need any help? If after a few polite “don’t call us, we’ll call you” exchanges they still weren’t taking the hint, then IMO it would be time to throw the hammer down like that to get them to back off.

  11. Stephanie*

    Yeah, been there. It kind of sucks. But telling the client off is going to feel like peeing your pants: good initially with horrible aftereffects.

    Give yourself a day or two and don’t think about it (or go work on other work). When you’re a bit removed from the situation, pick out the constructive parts of his feedback. At the very least, even if you still think it’s all inaccurate or wrong, that is how someone views your work and it’s helpful to figure out the why and how that happened.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But telling the client off is going to feel like peeing your pants: good initially with horrible aftereffects.

      I just needed to repeat this comparison to ensure everyone saw it because it’s a thing of beauty.

  12. PEBCAK*

    I’m not clear on whether to OP was let go mid-project, or if it was just a matter of not continuing to do additional business. I would handle those two situations differently, as someone who works with contractors.

  13. Laurel Gray*

    Rude vs blunt in feedback world would be such a great topic to hear opinions on. Interpretation plays such a major role. I hope I am here in time on Friday to ask in the open thread.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Rude is direct negative feedback I receive. Blunt is the direct negative feedback I give. : )

      I’ve never been great at hearing criticism.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oooh, it would be a great topic for a standalone post: What’s the difference between rude and blunt feedback?

      I’d have to do it as an “ask the readers” because I don’t feel like I have an authoritative answer to give on that, since I think everyone defines it differently. The two things I’ll say with certainty about it are that (1) speaking up, even if blunt to the point of hard to hear, is always better than not giving feedback at all if the issue is an important one, and (2) it’s easier to take very blunt feedback if it occurs in a relationship where you trust that the feedback-giver cares about you as a person.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Rude vs blunt. I think it boils down to intent. Which, really, you can never prove a person’s intention without directly asking them. And even then they could lie. “No, I did not mean anything by that comment.” hmm.

        I would consider the comments made to OP more toward the rude side of the spectrum because the comments are not that informative. It does not tell OP what she could do better. It seems more like lashing out. But I don’t know the people involved. This could just be candid people that if you went back on the conversation later, they would fully and sincerely explain what went wrong.

        Rude comments hurt/injure in some manner and that is their main function.

        Blunt comments CAN hurt but they can also be informative and supportive, even though that may not be apparent at first.

        1. BRR*

          I think intent is part of it but I also think it depends on the recipient. Some people can handle blunt feedback better than others.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            One person’s rude is another person’s blunt- that makes sense. But I do believe there is a baseline that most of us will agree at X point remarks turn from blunt to just plain rude. Gray areas are tough to nail down.

            1. BRR*

              Oh definitely agreed. My boss is blunt. I love it. Her boss has told her to try and sugar coat things a little as others find it rude.

        2. MissDisplaced*

          Agreed. There isn’t really a specific thing they’re stating, and who really knows what “exceptional” means to them.
          Reminds me of my ex-boss. He would constantly be hiring and firing all sorts of freelancers looking for “that magic something,” and he was never satisfied with any of them whether they were designers, programmers writers or printers. Not saying it was the case with OP, but it does happen. Sometimes also the expectations of some clients are way out of line with what they expect to pay (as in they seem to think designing their website should only cost them $100 because their cousin’s kid brother could do it, yada, yada yada….).

    3. MK*

      I wouldn’t think a rude\blunt criterion can easily be found and apply generally. Everyone should agree that factual statements (the piece of writing you sent us had 73 spelling mistakes) are blunt, not rude, no matter how baldly put. Also, that personal insults (you write like a moron) are rude, no matter how great the provocation. But in most cases it would depend on tone, context, etc. For example, I consider the expressions in the letter rude in themselves. But I don’t think Burlington’s example communication upthread is rude, despite the fact it contains both phrases.

  14. jen*

    I also think the OP needs to change her framing of the situation. it’s easier to keep from taking those words personally if you remember you aren’t an employee and this wasn’t a “firing”. (and i honestly don’t think they were rude. it would be nice if we all couched our sentiments in the most gentle terms possible but, man, that’s exhausting to worry about in every email interaction, and work itself suffers when ‘super-niceness’ becomes the priority at a company. I’ve seen it. you have to spend 5 times as long on every communication on the off chance that someone takes offense at the ‘tone’ of your email based on a single word choice.)

    you are a vendor and this was a ‘we’re no longer using you as a vendor’ conversation. you need to be mentally in that space where you are thinking of yourself as a business, and them as clients. no business would get very far by calling clients ‘rude’ at every slight. sometimes you have to suck it up, grit your teeth and smile and see what you can do better because your reputation is what matters if you want additional business, not theirs.

  15. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I have talked with friends who run their own businesses and I do see patterns. I would think as a freelancer you would see similar patterns.

    Not everyone is for everyone. Certain types of customers/clients are just a bad fit with certain business people. If I do small to medium projects it would be unwise for me to take on Bob’s Large Project. It’s out of my arena. It’s up to me to know my limits. Will I goof? You bet. I will take on something too big and not even realize. So I have to analyze why I underestimated the amount of work.

    With each customer/client that you pick up, you have to ask yourself “can I actually help this person?”. This could be as simple as recognizing a person who is NEVER, ever satisfied. No matter how good you do, it will never be good for them. Don’t go where you won’t win.

    And finally, some people just have restlessness about them. You line up to do business with them and everything seems fine, then all of the sudden they are gone. Someone, some where else, looks like a much better deal and off they go. Then you realize, “oh, that is how I came into their lives to begin with. I was that new, interesting person and they ditched Sue for me. Now, they are ditching me for what’s-his-name.” This leads to exhaustion because my friends are constantly trying to cultivate new business while balancing out the dangers of having too much work vs too little work.

    In short, think about your target market- it’s actually a pretty well defined group of people. But you have to keep examining it until you figure out the chief characteristics of that group.

    My friend does X type work. His target market is people who are not wealthy, but rather working class people. Because each dollar they spend means something to them, they are will to do parts of the job themselves and leave my friend to do the parts that require expertise. My friend values relationships. So he likes the type of customer that will offer a cup of coffee or chat for a bit. The customers that do that with him have longer lasting business relationships. See how his targeted group of people slowly becomes clearly defined? This is what I am suggesting for you take a closer look at the type of person you can best serve.

  16. The Queen of Rejection*

    Hi all,

    Letter writer here. Your comments are fascinating to me. Thanks for the feedback. I did not think this would spur this much interest. I’m going to give more context for each comment since I personally felt each one was rude.

    1. “You’re good, but not exceptional.” I had been hired by a tiny SEO company to write blog posts for their clients. I submitted a writing sample and the hiring manager loved it. She immediately assigned me about 10 clients. But that’s when things took a nose dive. I turned in a few assignments that were ripped to shreds by an editor who had been hired after me. There were a bunch of issues here. The job description called for a general lifestyle writer–which I am–but the company really wanted a more of a technical writer who had experience writing about home repairs/issues that home owners deal, which I am not. Please note that I did not pretend to have a bunch of experience with that type of writing. The hiring manager hired me very quickly (like called me 10 minutes after I submitted my resume fast), which I don’t think of as a good hiring practice. But I thought I’d give this job a try. Also, it was not a good move on the part of the hiring manager to hire the editor after me. If you know you’re about to hire someone who’s going to screen all the work from the writers, that person should have reviewed my work first and all of this could have been avoided from the get-go. I knew after I kept getting edits back that it wasn’t going to work out. She was nice up until the point she dropped the “good, but not exceptional” bomb. I felt like that was a judgment more than anything else. One of my very first professional mentors told me, “Be nice to everyone you meet. You never know where they might end up.” And I abide by this principle always. I wasn’t right for them. It does not mean someone else wouldn’t think I’m exceptional. Writing is very subjective.

    2. “You’re not worth the money.” I went in for an interview with a tiny magazine (it really is the smaller outlets that are the harshest), and we agreed upon an assignment and a rate. I was going to put together a short piece for the website. He would pay $150. Now, I agree for an online fee with a magazine that small, that’s competitive, but certainly not outrageous. Outrageous would be upwards of $350 or so for the scope of work. It was strange in the sense that he asked me what another website I wrote for paid. Normally, a website will tell you what they pay. Not the other way around. That website is a much bigger outlet so they have more money, but I gave him an honest answer. He agreed to the rate, and I submitted the story. I got a note back saying “I was thinking of more of a narrative” when I had submitted a more listicle (the stories that have made Buzzfeed so famous) type piece, but more fleshed out. I completely thought he wanted a listicle type story, but apparently there was a misunderstanding. I told him I was sorry he felt this way, but that I worked really hard on it. He ended up coming around and actually offered to pay for half the story. Also known in the biz as a kill fee. I still felt like “not worth the money” comment was rude. It was part of a two sentence email I received on a Saturday. Saying “your writing style wouldn’t work for us” is one thing. I’d welcome feedback like that. In hindsight, I should have offered to rewrite it, but something about his tone made it seem so final. Plus, he was nasty.

    I have mixed emotions about all of this. For one thing, I think feedback is one of the only ways to grow as a writer. However, I do think it’s important to deliver it with class. I always try my hardest to be professional and cordial, even when it sucks to do so. Is part of being professional learning how to be polite and respectful at all times? I’ve always felt like it is. I just wish I’d run into more hiring managers who feel this way. But if everyone was a great hiring manager, blogs like this one wouldn’t exist now, would they? A quick note about publishing: the industry is known for being somewhat nasty. I once had an art director with 20 plus years experience (who worked on some very prestigious magazines that I’m sure you’ve heard of) roll her eyes at me and pout when I was an intern. True story.

    If you have more questions for me, fire away. Please keep your comments professional though. That’s really the crux of the issue. Also, I named myself “Queen of Rejection” because I can handle it. I’ve actually felt like dealing with rejection in a respectful way is part of learning to become a professional. Just FYI, I’m in my mid-20s. I also realize there are probably spelling mistakes/grammatical errors in this comment. I’m not getting paid to write this one though.

    Thanks for reading!

    1. dragonzflame*

      1. Sounds like it comes down to the editor’s personal tastes and expectations, and I suspect that “you’re good, but not exceptional” came from them and was parroted by the hiring manager. And there was probably a disconnect on their end as well – for all you know, the editor was annoyed that the hiring manager had gone ahead and given you this work before they had a chance to vet you themselves, and possibly already had their own favourite writers in mind. I don’t know if you could have won in this scenario.

      2. You didn’t get briefed properly. He should have been explicit about the kind of article he wanted…but you should also have made absolutely sure you knew what he wanted by asking every question you could about his expectations so there could be no misunderstanding. Always, always, ALWAYS make sure you’re properly briefed.

      Chin up! These things go hand-in-hand with freelancing. And I hate to say it – often the clients who are antsy about the cost (especially when it’s as small as $150) are the pickiest. If I were you, I’d be looking for higher-paying markets than tiny SEO firms and small online magazines because they are so much easier to deal with. The last thing you want is to be treated like ‘the help’.

      I recently had a similar experience – rewriting a website, I got briefed, I worked to the brief, the client didn’t like it and I doubt the web design firm will use me again. I’m not too worried, however – I’m in the middle of executing a career change and getting out of freelancing. For reasons like these, it’s not the path for me.

      1. The Queen of Rejection*

        Thank you all for this valuable feedback! It’s most appreciated. I especially appreciate yours tips, dragonzflame.

    2. Sharon*

      Thanks for adding more info.

      I think the take-away lesson for #1 is two part: First, don’t accept jobs where the hiring manager jumps so quickly. He clearly just jumped at anything without evaluating if you were a good fit or not. Second, a good question for you to ask potential bosses if if they already work with an editor. Asking that of this guy would have likely prompted him to admit that he didn’t have one but was in the process of hiring one – a red flag for you.

      For #2, the added detail just confirms that guy was a rude jerk. But I’d accept that and move on.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Great additional information here- thanks for posting.

      Yes, I do feel that part of being professional is learning how to be polite and respectful. But that is only a part of it, because that will only carry you so far. You can be the politest most respectful person out there and still hit a brick wall now and again.
      A friend was a professional (sorry I cannot explain this too much). Her main focus was being socially appropriate at all times. Her chosen profession ate her up. Not kidding. There are times where you have to stand up for yourself. There are times where you have to be able to dissolve a business deal. Sometimes you have to repeat something you just said because if the person does not understand it, disaster will follow. Saying things like “that is not a service I offer” or “that is not what I remember that we originally agreed to”, needs to happen in certain settings. My point is politeness and respect are good, but to survive and perhaps thrive a focus on fairness is absolutely necessary. I mean fairness to yourself and fairness on the part of your clients. Don’t put yourself in unfair situations- that is not fair to you to make yourself do that. Put yourself where you get a fair shake. And refuse to deal with people who do not play fair.

      Dragonzflame does a great job of explaining the importance of questions. If you want to avoid these situations questions will go a long way to stop them. Questions take the preemptive strike at any potentially unfair situations that could come up. Questions also help to insure people are being fair with you and you are being fair to yourself.

    4. Every Johnson needs a Boswell*

      A quick note about publishing: the industry is known for being somewhat nasty.

      I think the “creative” professions in general tend to tilt rather more towards snark than other more mundane fields.

      While I agree that even rude feedback should be considered, I’ll also note that there’s a tendency for people to think that other people’s jobs are easy. For instance: I once spoke to a group of people who make custom hats as a home business. It turns out that there’s quite often a pretty big gap between the price a customer expects to pay for custom head-wear and the actual price of same.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Definitely! Writing, art, design, web development, photography are all so subjective. So often, the clients don’t really know what they want either (but they’ll sure know what they don’t want when they see it!). SIGH! It’s a tough life.

    5. Dynamic Beige*

      Once again, I should have read all the comments before commenting… it’s hard when you all are such a chatty bunch and there isn’t any “sort by newest” type thing to help filter but I digress.

      It is entirely possible that the person in #1, aside from not having been briefed about you and your capabilities (which it doesn’t look like were especially scrutinized at the beginning, it looks like the hiring manager was after a warm body), also had “their” people that they prefer to work with. I don’t know if it works this way in your industry but in mine it’s very cliquish and certain project managers prefer to hire their favourites. This editor might have had other people in mind to assign the work to, only to find out that they had been “stuck” with someone not of their choosing and nothing you turned in would have been good enough.

      As hard as it is to let this stuff go, do try. You’ve elaborated on why you didn’t think you were right for each of those jobs and you have sound reasons for that. We’re all just trying to make a buck the way we think best and these kind of missteps are unfortunately part of the package. You didn’t know going into them how they were going to turn out and now you’re wiser for what to look out for in the future.

  17. Graphic Designer*

    Greetings original poster,

    I have done freelance graphic design for many years. It’s hard at the beginning when you get feedback from a client like the feedback you got. I got burned by two clients who I later learned had impossible expectations – they’d burned through tons of clients, and were cheapskates on top of it.

    Some great advice that I received: when you first meet with a client, ask questions carefully, particularly about whether they have worked with other graphic designers and how that went. You are looking for reasons to fire them – red flags that they will be a problem client you will lose money on, and you will not be able to put the piece in your portfolio. It takes courage to do that, and that will come in time. If you are hungry, you may take on clients that are not a good fit and pay the price later. It also takes time to learn who your ideal customer is, and how to recognize them.

    Try going to YouTube and searching for problem design client. The videos can help you learn what red flags to look for; you are definitely not alone in this problem.

    Hang in there, and kudos for having the courage to freelance in a competitive field.

    1. Graphic Designer*

      Addendum – I am also a long-time technical writer and have done web copywriting – the advice I posted above works for freelancing in both writing and design.

  18. Mephyle*

    As a freelancer, here is my recommendation of the best way to ‘fire’ a client you don’t want to keep, no matter what the reason is (they’re rude, they’re high-maintenance, their projects aren’t fun, or whatever):
    “Sorry, I’m fully booked at this time and unable to schedule your project for the foreseeable future.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “That’s not a service I offer.”

      “Unfortunately, I am not set up to do X work, so I will have to allow someone else to step in.”

      “I’m sorry, I lack the background in Y and you really need someone who is good at Y.”

  19. Mephyle*

    Just as a note, those work for deflecting a new client you don’t want to take on, or an existing client who asks you to do something different, but none of them apply for a client who asks you to do another one of what you already did for them in the past, which is mostly my situation.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Well, I am sort of guessing at the situation as to why you do not want to work with this client.
        But here goes:

        I had a job where I told my customer, that she did not have x nor did she have alternative y and it was just too labor intensive and therefore not fair to her for me to continue working.

        A friend of mine (different from the friend mentioned above) decided to tell people that he was no longer accepting type X jobs. He would apologize but not offer a reason. What I liked about not giving a reason was it closed the door. The potential client was not able to offer a counter-point to his reason. To his credit, he knows people who would take the work so he mentions their names. That seems to help the client to move on.

        The friend in that I used in an earlier example has pre-planned things that he says if people do not pay and they ask him to come again. “No, unfortunately, I can’t take your job. I am not in a position where I am able to wait for months to be paid. I am sorry, but I must decline.”

        Am not sure if this is what you are looking for…

    1. Dynamic Beige*

      Actually, the “I’m sorry but I’ve been booked on something else during that time” works really well for all kinds of clients — new and old. The problem is when said client wants you to refer someone and being OK with saying something like that if it isn’t true and you just want to get rid of them.

      For a few years in a row I had a job where BadClient would call months ahead of time and I couldn’t turn them down because I honestly had no work booked for that time and was too broke to not book work. One year, I got a new job and when BadClient called, I told them I couldn’t do it because I was already booked for that week, I was practically dancing for joy to get out of it. Then BadClient asked me if I knew anyone who was available that they might call. I said I’d think it over and get back to them… and then “forgot” to do so. Because it literally came down to this: who could I least afford to piss off and send BadClient their way? The job was so bad — completely uninteresting — and BadClient was so… awful to work for there was no one I knew who I would have been comfortable referring. It turned out later that someone I knew took on the job and called me after being driven up the wall by BadClient. We had a long conversation where I told them what it had been like working for BadClient and then they knew it wasn’t just them. I don’t know what happened after that, hopefully BadClient retired and no longer torments the freelancers of our fair city.

  20. Vicki*

    What worries me about this letter is that I fear the client is trying to avoid paying the OP.

    OP – are you getting paid for the work you have done so far but then “fired” before more work can be done? Or is this a sneaky way of saying “You’re not exceptional so we’re not going to pay for what you’ve done so far.”?

    I ask because I read and a LOT of freelance designers post letters like this, often when a client is trying to get around paying for completed work.

  21. Louise*

    Hi – this was certainly eye-opening for me, perhaps in a different way to others.

    When I read the title, I was waiting for something really rude and shocking…….and whilst the responses weren’t flowery and romantic, I would class them as polite and would not say they were in anyway rude. Direct, providing valuable feedback and verging on blunt, but they don’t really seem unprofessional to me.

    Then when I read the nasty art director story……. I realised I must have had a different working experience. From my perspective, eye rolling would be an unpleasant boss, and nasty actually means people who are downright rude, aggressive and vindictive. For example shouting in the office, threatening people and manipulating.

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