how to fire a long-time 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).

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Lil Fidget*

    This can be tricky, if your client is a more relationship-oriented person you might need to brainstorm ways to honor the relationship while ending the business transaction. Whether that’s just an especially effusive thankyou, or a token or gesture of appreciation, or an official hand off to the new contractor or whatever.

    1. Snark*

      I would usually go with a frank conversation, but if she’s vindictive, this isn’t an awful way to go.

      1. esra (also a Canadian)*

        I add in an invisible “I really don’t want to do this” rate. Basically making it so exorbitant that, on the rare occasion, if they still want to go ahead anyway, I’ll still be happy to do it.

          1. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

            Yep, asshole tax! And I’ve seen/heard of people getting very creative with just how & when they charge that tax. Shockingly so, at times.
            For people who have no other reason not to act like jerks, the asshole tax should at least give them pause.

          2. IForgetWhatNameIUsedBefore*

            Oh! One small business I used to work at had the register programmed with department keys we used for each item we rang up.
            It went something like this:
            Dept 1: Llamas
            Dept 2: Teapots
            Dept 3: Thneeds
            Dept 4: EAT SHIT

            PITA customers always got at least one item rung up as DEPT 4.

      2. The Supreme Troll*

        The frank conversation part here, is key. I think the OP should be ready, and brace herself for some major pushback. But I think that there is a very tiny chance (and I mean extremely tiny) that the client just might come around – and realize that yes “it is me”.

        First, though, I would try to follow Alison’s script. But, ultimately, the OP will have to stick to her guns, so-to-speak, if the script fails. And then the honest conversation will have to happen.

  2. Samiratou*

    You could also (or additionally) approach it such that you feel like you’ve been writing for her for long enough it might be beneficial to her to look for a new “voice” for her content, and suggest some other writers you think would be good for her.

    1. SpiderLadyCEO*

      I really like this idea. Especially in conjunction with “I am looking to diversify my portfolio, so I will not be able to work x hours on your project anymore. I also think that it would be helpful for your business…”because then it serves both of you.

  3. Ramona Flowers*

    I used to work as a freelance journalist and copywriter, and I fired a long-term client using a different strategy to the ones mentioned here. Don’t know if this will be useful to anyone but just in case.

    I was thrilled when this client approached me. But the reality was that I found the work really stressful for various reasons. Then they asked me to work on a project at a time when I wasn’t free, so I suggested my friend Jane (one of the few people I felt confident recommending to my own clients). Jane mentioned that she had really enjoyed working with them.

    So the next time they asked, I said I was busy but Jane was free. And the next. And the next. And then they started going directly to Jane (which I had told her would be absolutely cool with me as I wanted out). I never exactly fired them. I was just never free to do the work. With freelancing, that is sometimes the best way – especially if you want to preserve the relationship.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      That’s a fantastic way to do it — it sounds like it really worked out better for everyone involved. You no longer had a client you disliked, Jane got one she liked, and the client continued getting great service (and with you and Jane being in touch, probably got a much smoother transition than they would have otherwise).

    2. Triumphant Fox*

      Totally agree on this. It doesn’t have to be a super formal conversation. The whole point of freelance work is that its flexible – if she needed someone all the time, she’d have to get an in-house person. The cost of doing work with freelancers is that the one you want may not be available. The first time, you might say, “Actually, I’ve had a few large-scale projects come up simultaneously, so I won’t be able to take that on.”

      This only works if you’re not on retainer, though. If you are, then the “diversify my portfolio and increase flexibility” might be the way to go.

      Also, definitely double prices. You’re bringing everyone in line and there’s so much work that you need to prioritize at this point.

      1. nonymous*

        depending on the personality of this legacy client, she may get some mileage out of raising prices 110% and then “discounting” back to the the common rate, in honor of the long history. It’s pretty common in some professional services (although I don’t know about the creative world) to discount for repeat customers, because you’re saving the effort of hustling a lead.

        But that assumes OP would be okay with the legacy client in general, just not at 50% discount.

    3. Triple Anon*

      I think this is a great way to handle it. And it’s appropriate to the nature of the relationship. You’re not firing anyone. She’s not your employee and you’re not her employee. For each job, she requests certain work for a certain amount of money. It’s like going to, say, an auto mechanic. Or having a pet sitter. You might become friends and help each other out, but, by definition, they’re hired for each job individually. So it wouldn’t be weird for them to suddenly start telling you that they’re booked. You’d probably take that at face value. However, when there is a friendship involved or someone wants to be really professional, they tend to refer you to someone else. So that’s what I would do. Respond to each inquiry saying that I’m booked and giving a referral.

    4. Glomarization, Esq.*

      This is exactly how I’ve “fired” a few of my law firm clients. “I’m really sorry, but I am slammed with other client work for the next few weeks, so I won’t be able to give your case the attention it needs” or “so I won’t be able to meet your deadline.” Then I’ll give one or two referrals. This worked especially well for a former client who was an old friend, who was very stressful to work for, and who tended to take things personally. By blaming my calendar or court deadlines, I could preserve the mutual friendship.

  4. steve*

    You could keep her as a client and appreciate she has helped you so much in the past instead of dumping her now that you no longer need her. A little loyalty is worth something. Or just view it as business and have no loyalty to someone who was a big help in building your business.

      1. Pollygrammer*

        Ditto. I would put systems in place to limit how much I could commit to her, but I wouldn’t just dump her completely.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      Not every relationship has to last forever and that’s perfectly OK. People grow and change.

      1. DuchessofMuchness*

        Exactly. Would you tell someone to stay with a boyfriend she didn’t love anymore just because he was there for her when her parents died? He got her through the roughest time of her life, so she owes him loyalty by staying in a relationship she no longer wants to be in?

      1. Pollygrammer*

        This woman was a huge part of establishing and growing that business though.

        And the paranoid part of me is thinking that the person responsible for your good reputation is in the very best position to give you a bad one.

        1. OhNo*

          That would be my main concern. If the person who recommended a freelancer to me suddenly came back with a negative review, I’d be second-guessing my decision to use that freelancer in the future. Word of mouth makes a big difference.

          If there is a way to preserve the relationship, it seems like that would be the safer choice.

          1. Maude Lebowski*

            Ya, that’s leaning twd what I was thinking, too… how small is the universe both parties operate in and are they going to x paths often, will let-go-client be close enough to enough of the OPs current and future clients to poison their opinion…

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Right, but it’s still a business.

          Business needs and priorities change. That’s okay. Sometimes it means no longer working with a particular client. That’s okay too. I think steve’s comment was making it a very personal issue — about appreciating the person and the past behavior — rather than looking at it as the business relationship it was.

        3. Liane*

          Suppose (hypothetically) OP had been the only person willing to take on projects from a new business and OP’s writing got ClientCo high profits at a time when other businesses in this field were losing money. Should Client keep hiring the OP forever, no matter what? Even if OP’s rates are 3 times what other freelancers charge? Even if OP can’t be reached for days at a time during ClientCo projects? Even if OP started getting sloppy and Client has to have OP make 3 or 4 revisions every time because of mistakes? Even if the OP suddenly starts using epithets in emails, calls, and copy?

          Not that I think the OP is doing any of that–just reversing the scenario.

    2. Anonymous Ampersand*

      [she] “drives me nuts, is incredibly high maintenance, and likes to take all the credit for my successes”

      I don’t think this client is highly deserving of loyalty, or that the letter writer “owes” them somehow

    3. Good Morning!*

      1/2 price and higher stress is more than a little anything.

      It seems the loyalty on this was only positive in one direction and that does not make for a good relationship.

      1. Jesca*

        Exactly. It is not like this client was doing them a favor by doing business with them. They got something out of the transaction as well. At any time, they both can pull out to fit their own needs. As to whether one or the other decides to take that personally and decide ill will, that is kind of their problem as long as the separation is respectful.

        1. Triumphant Fox*

          As someone in a position to recommend freelancers, I would also say that it makes me look pretty good when I can recommend a good one. I realize I’m helping their business, but it adds plenty to my reputation when I can “I have someone for that.” She’s not getting nothing for her recommendations, though those may stop if she thinks you’re too busy, etc.

        2. Good Morning!*

          This what I was thinking too.

          No one is doing favors for free or for warm and fuzzy feelings. There are obvious benefits, mainly cash.

          OP has people willing to pay double, I doubt one suddenly poor review from a former client can undone the work OP has proved themelf capable of beyond the baginning word of mouth benefit.

    4. Small Business Owner*

      Would you go back to your previous employer who pays you less, doesn’t provide benefits and expects twice the results? It is the same thing. Situations change where keeping a client isn’t always the best decision for either party. She is trying to exit in the right way. Ghosting the client would be disloyal. Changing the terms of the agreement is not.

    5. hbc*

      Oh, good grief. Yes, let’s all weep over how the high-maintenance credit hog won’t be getting a 50% discount in perpetuity for doing the very great favor of exchanging money for a service.

      Anyone worth a bit of loyalty would not insist that someone stay out of loyalty.

    6. Ramona Flowers*

      Sometimes it’s time to prioritise your own sanity – ideally before you run out of it.

    7. Jesmlet*

      There are only X working hours in a day and you don’t want to spend half of X working for half the pay with twice the stress. It is a business and at this point, this client is affecting OP’s profitability.

    8. Kathleen_A*

      It’s possible to appreciate that her help in the past while still recognizing that you just can’t work with this person any more.

      And anyway, it hasn’t exactly been a one-way street, has it? Presumably the OP has helped the client, too. So chances are, they’re even.

    9. Tuesday Next*

      OP got referrals from this client because they did a great job, not because the client was doing them a giant favour. OP has shown appreciation by not increasing their rates, but is not obliged to keep doing work for them for the rest of time.

      I think this was a pretty rude response to a very reasonable question.

    10. Glomarization, Esq.*

      I’m gonna reject the artificial dichotomy here (keep because loyalty/appreciation, versus dump). There are ways, as discussed in Allison’s advice and among the commentariat here, to have your cake and eat it too. LW can absolutely find a way to ease out of the relationship in a professional, businesslike way that doesn’t burn bridges, in order to improve their own mental health (and business!) as a freelancer. If stressful client has been “vindictive and spiteful” in the past, then that reputation is probably one that sticks to stressful client more than it ever will to LW, if LW handles this reasonably carefully.

    11. Bea*

      No. That’s not how it works. You work to make a profit, someone who causes major headaches, hogs your resources and pays a low rate are taking a huge advantage and should be stopped.

      The point though is to be professional and kind. I think raising the rates gradually would be the best thing. I wouldn’t spring 100% increase on the woman but I would let her know we have to speak about rates and I would give her a deal for her longevity.

      There’s plenty of ways to get out of this as detailed in the comments without telling her she’s not appreciated.

    1. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs*

      Awesome! Wonder if they’d be willing to check in with us again on how it’s going…

  5. Fergus*

    You can just say “YOU ARE FIRED” and then use the trump hand gesture. If you don’t want to work for her then don’t, this isn’t China.

        1. Fergus Formerly Known as I am Fergus*

          It still is an easy answer if another client is paying you twice as much and with twice as much work then tell other client new price, or make it even higher, let her think it’s her choice to cut loose.

  6. mAd Woman*

    Also consider your impact it will have on your business if most of your clients are her friends (as judging from her referrals building your business) and you upset her… Will it affect your relationship with the others?

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