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Dealing with difficult client

Breaking up with a client is never easy. But the only thing worse than having that dreaded breakup conversation is sticking around in a draining or difficult relationship.  

Whether positive or negative, the interactions you have with clients can have a direct impact on the work you produce. Not to mention, difficult clients can affect your mental health. If you’re working with a client who is causing you stress and frustration, then you’re not going to produce your best work and that stress can trickle down into other parts of your life. 

It’s not fun, but cutting ties with a difficult client is necessary to grow your freelancing business. 

In this article, I’ll share the things that make a client difficult to work with and how to break up with them in a professional way. 

Signs of a difficult client 

In a perfect world, every client would be a dream to work with. They’d communicate effectively, pay on time, value your work, and maybe even refer you to new clients! 

But even if you’re lucky enough to work with these ideal clients, you’re bound to run into a difficult client or two at some point in your freelancing career. There are a few things that make a client difficult to work with: 

  • They make it difficult to get paid (or worse, they refuse to pay).
  • They’re not sure what they want and there’s no clear direction, which can result in scope creep.
  • They’re over demanding and don’t respect your boundaries. 
  • They treat you poorly.

I’ve worked with a handful of bad clients, especially at the beginning of my freelance writing career. I was eager to take on any work that came my way, ignored the red flags waving wildly in my face, and hoped that the relationship would magically get better. But I can say from experience that working with a difficult client only gets worse. 

When I realized that things weren’t working out and finally built up the courage to cut ties with a difficult client, it proved to be more than worth it for my freelancing business (and mental health!) in the long run.

If you’re ready to part ways with a difficult client, here are the steps to take. 

#1 Review the contract 

Before you fire off a breakup email, review the contract you have with the client. Whether it’s a contract that you created or one that they sent, there should be a clause about termination. Review the details to make sure there’s nothing legally binding you to them. If, say, a 30-day notice is required, then be sure to notify them as soon as possible. 

It’s also worth noting that people don’t always read through contracts. This isn’t an excuse, but sometimes a client simply doesn’t know that they’re doing anything wrong unless you bring it to their attention. 

If you experience your first red flag with a client — like a missed payment — refer to the contract to let them know that you require payments be made in X amount of days. Think of this as a first warning. If it continues to be an issue, then you should consider moving on.

#2 Be transparent, but keep it professional 

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t tried to come up with a wishy-washy excuse to get out of a client relationship before. But if you’re anything like me and just the *thought* of having a difficult conversation is enough to make your stomach hurt, it’s important to remember how critical transparency is when cutting ties with a demanding client. 

Transparency is empowering. Having honest conversations helps build your confidence as a freelancer and enables you to clearly define how you want to run your business. 

On the flipside, you might find that you have no problem letting them know where things went wrong. But before you unpack your frustrations, remember to keep things professional and respectful. Stand your ground, but remain calm.  

In either instance, it’s a good idea to have a script prepared before the conversation. It doesn’t have to be formal, but having a few talking points lined up will help you stay on track and speak with authority. 

#3 Refer another freelancer

Depending on the nature of the situation, you could offer to connect them with another freelancer. Obviously, if this client wasn’t respectful or professional, you wouldn’t want to subject a fellow freelancer to a toxic situation. But maybe your communication styles clashed or the project simply wasn’t a good fit; in either case, you may know someone who would be a better match for the client. 

This is where being transparent also helps. If you let the client know the reason you can no longer work with them, then (hopefully) they’ll be more aware the next time they’re working with a freelancer.

#4 Whatever you do, don’t ghost them 

Just like you wouldn’t want a client to ghost you (especially when you’re chasing a payment), you should never ghost a client that you don’t want to work with anymore. 

Not only is ghosting unprofessional, but it’s just plain rude. Not to mention, it can have a lasting impact on your reputation. Potential clients talk and word gets around. You don’t want to be branded as the flaky type. 

No matter how difficult the client or difficult the conversation, you owe it to them and yourself to end things in a professional way.

If you'd like to get on the right page with a client from the start, make sure to have a solid contract using Indy's contracts tool.

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