Your clients are the lifeblood of your business… or at least until one or two clients cost you money with endless revisions or low rates.

They’re not terrible people, and the idea of “firing” them might sound harsh. But it is possible to end a freelance relationship professionally so that you maintain good feelings on both sides and don’t trigger bad word of mouth.

When your time is filled with better-paying, more interesting projects, you’ll be glad you went through this slightly unpleasant process.

So how and when do you fire your clients? (And how do you fire clients who are actually terrible?) Here are a few techniques:

Strategy 1: The basic polite approach

If you’ve been working with a long-term client and have completed, invoiced, and been paid for your previous work, between projects is a good time to decline future business. A basic, polite phone call or email is simplest way to let them know.

Here’s a possible approach:

“Thank you so much for all the work we’ve done together over the past [time]. It’s been great working with you!

Unfortunately, my work with other clients prevents me from taking on any further work with [your company]. I’ve become very busy with other projects and don’t want to give your projects less than the attention they deserve.

Can I help you find another freelancer? I’d be happy to chat over the phone about a few freelancers I know who would be great for this role. (OR) I really recommend [X freelancer] and would be happy to introduce you both.”

In a situation like this, it’s very useful to know two or three freelancers who do similar work to you. Obviously, shafting off terrible clients to other freelancers is not a good idea; only offer to recommend another freelancer if the client isn’t awful but is just not for you.

Strategy 2: New business model

As a freelance writer, I used to take any client I could get; now I only take work where I have some degree of creative freedom and get paid more than $X an hour.

You’re your own VP of Strategy, and this counts as a new business model. Over time, most freelancers are able to weed out their not-terrible-but-not-great clients to make time for their new, better clients.

Here’s how I would write to/call those clients:

“For the past several weeks, I’ve been doing a strategic analysis of my business and goals for 2015. I’ve decided to focus my time to a very small subset of my clients. [OR At this point, I’d like to focus on [new type of work] rather than [old type of work].]

Unfortunately, this means that I won’t be able work with you as of [date].

I understand this may be inconvenient; I’d be happy to jump on the phone to discuss a few freelancers I know that could do great work for [company].

Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help make this transition easier for you. Thank you again for your business.”

Not only does this type of email make clear that you’re moving on to bigger and better things -- which, while probably annoying to your client, makes clear that you’re moving on to bigger, better paid things, so it’s a good template for penny-pinching clients.

Strategy 3: For dissatisfied clients

Sometimes a relationship just doesn’t work out. You’re not a good fit for each other, and you both know it. You can use one of the above strategies, but if the disconnect is fairly obvious, it might be best to take a more direct approach:

“Recently I’ve noticed a few issues with our working relationship. I think it’s possible that our two businesses are not a good fit.

This isn’t the easiest conversation to have, but I think it would be best if you worked with another [freelancer/agency] to finish the work on [project]. As of [date], I will not be able to assist you any further.

Here’s what I’ll complete before [the end of the month/date]:

  • Task 1
  • Task 2
  • Task 3”

This email is professional, but clear: you aren’t satisfied with the relationship, won’t continue it, but you don’t go into detail about what’s not working. I highly recommend that you don’t get into a discussion over email or over the phone about what went wrong -- it inevitably leads to a terse conversation about who’s to blame. And at this point, it’s not a productive conversation.

Strategy 4: Price them out

If an ongoing client is more trouble than they’re worth, raise your rates to a point where either a) you know they’re not going to pay, or b) if they do decide to pay that new rate, you’ll be able to continue working with them without feeling misused.

“It’s been a great year and this month, I’m taking some time to reevaluate how my business is growing.

To accommodate demand while maintaining focus for my clients, I plan to raise my rates from X to Y as of [date].

I understand that this may be inconvenient for you; if you prefer, I’d be happy to refer you to other freelancers in your budget.

Let me know -- and thanks again for your business this year!”

I recommend doubling your rate if you really want to lose them as a client. But be aware: you may be so valuable (or you’re already undercharging) and they agree! Only use this strategy if you’re prepared for clients you’re OK with keeping.

Strategy 5: For dissatisfied & abusive clients

With certain types of clients, displeasure with your work can quickly devolve into terse, mildly threatening emails. No matter how hard you try to recover the relationship, you sense it’s going to end in bickering over payment, and your client has already started calling you names or threatening you with non-payment.

“In my business, maintaining a positive and professional relationship with my clients is one of my top priorities. I understand that you’ve been unhappy with my work but I must insist that our relationship remain respectful. To that end, I unfortunately must terminate our contract as of today’s date.”

It is probably wise to save or archive some of the abusive emails you’ve received for your records. Again, I would side-step argumentative discussions by simply stating clearly what you plan to do to wrap up the relationship.

If non-payment is an issue, refer to our guide on what to do if clients don’t pay.

Freelancers, have you ever had to fire a client? How’d you do it?