What do you do when a client fires you?

4 min read
Patrick Stafford
  •  Mar 26, 2019
Link copied to clipboard

I was recently fired by a client.

Didn’t see it coming, either. One day we’re working on a project together, and the next? The budget dries up. There’s nothing left.

As a freelance copywriter and UX writer, I’ve worked for companies both large and small: from startups with only a single person to huge multinational firms like KPMG. But it doesn’t matter the size—losing work always hurts.

Every project, every client, comes with the risk of firing. But not every instance of being fired is equal. How you respond and continue with your work really depends on the way you’ve been fired in the first place.

Sometimes as freelancers we miss that nuance because we get upset we’re losing a job at all. But the reasoning is everything: if I get fired because there isn’t any more work, how I respond will be very different than if I was fired for telling my client they were an idiot.

Let’s look at some of the different reasons freelancers get fired from projects, and what you can—possibly—do to prevent that from happening.

When it’s in your hands

The obvious one: You were a jerk

Sometimes, people bring out the worst in you—and sometimes, those people have the power to kick you off projects.

It’s difficult to stay calm when a client says “Nope, we’re not there yet” for the third time, or when you ask for feedback, answers with “I’ll know it when I see it.” No one’s going to fault you for wanting to put a client in their place when they crown themselves art director. When it’s 10 p.m. and your phone is buzzing with client feedback, it might even feel like they’re baiting you.

Clients don’t always play nice.

But successful freelancers have a talent that others don’t: patience. So much patience. Because responding to clients the way you want to might feel good…until you press send and realize, What have I done?

Stop the firing in its tracks:

If you’re being pushy—or as your client might say, rude—don’t be surprised if the client hits back and terminates the relationship.

Thankfully, I’ve never encountered this one personally. But I’ve been tempted more than once to counter a snarky comment with one of my own. Which probably meant it was time to sever that client relationship.

Prevent this from happening by identifying the problem—your attitude—and its source. If you’re having a bad day, suck it up. If you’re dreading client phone calls because he’s a mouth breather who believes in 9 a.m. Monday wakeup video calls, then it might be time to reevaluate your contribution to the project.

“If you’re being pushy—or as your client might say, rude—don’t be surprised if the client hits back and terminates the relationship.”

Twitter Logo

Get a feel for how your client likes to communicate by spending a little bit of time with them before the project kicks off. Read their communication style and try to mirror it as much as possible.

Your personalities don’t match

Just like in any relationship, personality clashes happen between freelancers and stakeholders. For a client who’s all-business, working with an exceptionally friendly freelancer might send red flags about professionalism. A client looking for a trusted confidante might be turned off by limiting conversations to email or signing protective contracts.

I once worked with a stakeholder at a large, publicly-traded company. Whenever I would send a draft of a document dozens of pages long, they would call after reading one paragraph and start giving their critique.

No matter how many times I’d ask for them to read the entire document, they would be too eager to give feedback and pick up the phone straight away.

“Are you just sensitive to feedback?” they asked me. My eyes almost rolled through the back of my head.

“This cannot be happening,” said the overwhelmed designer

Stop the firing in its tracks:

You can’t really stop this firing from happening, but you can prevent it from happening in the first place. You should watch for red flags as early as possible.

Relationships like this aren’t necessarily your fault, but they’re (kind of) in your control. Your job is to get a feel of the client and their communication patterns and, if possible, to complement them. If your client is all-business, hugs won’t work. And, after enough hugs, they might just not want to work with you anymore.

“Just like in any relationship, personality clashes happen between freelancers and stakeholders.”

Twitter Logo

(By the way, you should seek out other freelancers who have worked for your clients. They can give you valuable insights into their working styles.)

The work just wasn’t good enough

If a client fires you because the work wasn’t up to scratch, they often won’t even tell you that’s the case.

If you’ve received lots of comments throughout the project, requests on requests for revisions, and discerned a general sense of frustration—well, you may very well find the next project continues without you.

The client may, however, be explicit with you about their unhappiness. If they feel like you’re not giving them your all, or that your portfolio isn’t representative of your actual skills, then you’ll have a hard time convincing them otherwise.

Google Translate for clients: “We don’t need your services anymore.” = “We weren’t happy.”

Stop the firing in its tracks:

There are a couple of ways to stop this from happening.

Firstly, be really honest with yourself about whether you can actually do the work in the first place.

You do that through discovery. At the beginning of a project before you commit, ask lots of questions. What type of work are they looking for? Can they point to examples of other work they like they want to emulate? What level of knowledge does the client want in the work?

“This cannot be happening,” said the angry freelancer.

I often initiate new clients with a trial run. They pay me to produce a small portion of a project to show I actually know what I’m talking about. If we find at that stage we’re looking for different things, no harm done.

Secondly, you should include as many points for feedback as possible. Don’t just say you’ll provide a project at the end. Schedule more checkpoints at the beginning of a project, then fewer as the project goes on and they’re more satisfied you can handle the work.

You aren’t a good fit for the work

Sometimes it isn’t that the work is bad. It’s just not what they were looking for.

It might not be you. It might be them.

I recently finished up some work on a large project for an agency client. Unfortunately, feedback on my writing style wasn’t passed on early enough in the project, and the agency’s stakeholder (who was particularly picky) didn’t think the writing style was a good fit.

Stop the firing in its tracks:

You can’t. This mistake is often made long before you walk into the room.

At that point, the project was too far along so the agency just decided to revise in-house. The good news? The agency is experienced enough in dealing with stakeholders that they can tell the difference between bad writing and good writing that just doesn’t fit a particular project.

“We definitely want to work with you again” is probably the greatest thing you can hear in this type of situation, and takes the sting away.

When it’s (actually) not your fault

The project ends

This is less of you being fired and more just…the project you were hired for doesn’t continue.

It also may be code for your client choosing to continue onwards—without you. I guess that could be defined as being “fired” if they provide a reason for not bringing you back. But it’s not the end of the world.

Your contact leaves the company

Argh, I’ve had this happen a few times. Your main stakeholder leaves the business and the successor needs time to get up to speed, has their own contacts, or just doesn’t want to keep the project going.

This probably doesn’t say anything about you—but it does impact your bank account for reasons beyond your control, meaning it’s considered “being fired.”

You become a scapegoat

I’ve dealt with one or two clients like this in my time. Last year, one client disappeared off the map for weeks.

After months without contact, she finally got in touch and said there would be no more work. I was confused, especially because the feedback on my writing was excellent—and the deliverables were published with minimal changes.

Despite all that, I was told my writing was “mediocre.” Shortly afterward the client’s website disappeared. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I get the feeling I was used as a piece of the blame.

If a client suddenly changes their opinion of you, despite evidence to the contrary, it’s likely you’re being used as an excuse internally.

The budget dries up

Similarly to the first two, this is completely out of your control. If there isn’t any more money, there’s really not much you can do. Except for doing free work. Please don’t do free work.

If you’re fired for reasons beyond both your and your client’s control, the frustration might be mutual.

How to respond when a client fires you

It’s rough. It might be unfair. It’s probably going to cause you some financial strife. But the way you react in the moment can, maybe, turn that around.

The golden rule of responding when a client says there won’t be any more work for you: Don’t respond emotionally.

(At least not to the client.)

It’s okay to be shocked, sad, anxious, or to cry. Being fired is certainly not a “nice” situation, but responding in the heat of emotion will make it even worse. Take your time and actually process the shock before responding.

“If a client suddenly changes their opinion of you, despite evidence to the contrary, it’s likely you’re being used as an excuse internally.”

Twitter Logo

Not only are you likely to say something you’ll regret and burn that bridge, but we often misunderstand shocking messages the instant they come across. That leads to catastrophic thinking, which is never good.

I once worked with a freelancer who swore at their client after being fired. Not only did they not get more work, but word got around this person was difficult to work with. Remember, a little bit of a negative reputation goes a long way.

Read, process, then take your time–at least a few hours–before making your next move.

Step 1. Understand why you’re being fired

Read the message–or conversation–carefully. Why are you being fired? What are the circumstances here? They will dictate your response.

The first question you ask yourself should be: Could I have done anything differently?

If the budget was cut, there was a change in direction or stakeholder…then no, not really. Take comfort in the fact that there was absolutely nothing you can do. All you can do now is thank the client for the opportunity and stay in touch.

Then you must ask the same question to your client:

Step 2. Ask if there was anything you could have done

The thing is, even if you weren’t all to blame, you might have been able to do something.

““We definitely want to work with you again” is probably the greatest thing you can hear.”

Twitter Logo

Unless the reason is entirely out of your control—don’t rub salt in the wound after a severe budget cut—you need to know what exactly that could have been, given that you probably have other clients whom this could apply to. Also, you want to be the responsible person you are in the event they ask you back to do more work.

Ask plainly: “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I could have done–or can do now–to maintain this relationship, or is this a final decision?”

Listen carefully to their response. If they say no, there’s no turning back, then you need to respond accordingly: “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. But I respect your decision and I’m glad to have worked with you.”

But if they “um” and “ah”, or even suggest some things you might have done to save the project, that informs your next question…

Step 3: Ask if “If you’re being honest, is there is anything you can do now?”

“This is something many freelancers go through, so don’t feel alone. What you should do is use it as an opportunity to get better.”

Twitter Logo

If they’ve already stated the decision is final then skip to the next section, but if there’s room for saving the relationship, then you should definitely ask if there is something you still can do.

At this point, they’re probably going to give you specific feedback about how you interacted with them. It could be any number of reasons:

  • You didn’t communicate enough
  • The project didn’t hit the brief
  • They felt they had to chase up too many mistakes

This is going to be tough to hear, but it’s necessary.

Everyone gets fired–deal with it correctly

This is something many freelancers go through, so don’t feel alone. What you should do is use it as an opportunity to get better.

The simple reaction is to get defensive and argue back, but that’s rarely ever helpful. Instead, think about the experience you’ve gained–and make sure your next project is even better as a result.

Want to read more about nightmare clients?

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard