The Career Building Power of “No”

I was chatting with some friends this week, and we got on the topic of how hard it can be to fire clients.

I mean, they’re giving you their money, and you obviously want to keep a strong freelance following and your good reputation.

Here’s the thing. Keeping a client who is a holy nightmare to work with is counter productive on soooo many levels.

Give yourself full permission to fire terrible clients, guilt free.

If you’re considering firing them, one or more of the following are probably true:

#1 They suck as human beings.

#2 They’re taking advantage of you by trying to make you feel guilty about your fees/the amount of time it takes to finish their project.

#3 They’re the actual worst at communicating, which means you’re wasting time you could be working on other projects waiting for them to respond/wrestling decisions from them.

#4 They’re paying you late/refusing to pay for something you’ve already completed.

#5 You’re just not vibing, and it’s frustrating both you and the client in a big way.

Toxic clients are detrimental to ALL of your design work—not just the work you’re doing for that one client.

If any of these issues are occurring, give yourself 1000% permission to fire them, guilt free. Why? The stress they’re adding to your life is taking away from the other awesome clients you’re working with. They’re negatively affecting the quality of ALL of your work, not just the work you’re doing for them.

Keeping a toxic client will not have a positive impact on your career.

Choosing to keep a toxic client around to “keep your good name” isn’t going to have that effect. The rest of your work back sliding is going to damage your reputation, and there’s a high chance that they’re not going to recommend you to their peers anyway after the fact.

It’s always ok to respectfully fire awful clients.

When firing a client needs to happen, don’t just tell them to take a long leap off a short pier — have an open and honest conversation about your concerns.

Sometimes that conversation on it’s own will resolve the issues you’re encountering. If it doesn’t, tell them that you’re sorry, but they’ll need to find a designer who will better fit their needs for the remainder of the project and issue a refund for any project work you haven’t completed yet. That way you’re not “blaming them” for the issue, and you’re not saying you refuse to work with jerks. You’re just peacefully parting ways.

Fear of bad press isn’t worth destroying your sanity and your career.

Even if they rage out and try to blast your reputation afterward, there is a good chance that others in the industry will already be aware of how awful they are to work with. And if people aren’t aware, they will be when they see the client publicly blasting someone. Consider it a public service if that happens. Other designers will know to steer clear. The benefit of removing the negativity from your life is worth the gamble regardless.

Sometimes you can finish the current project and just gracefully decline additional work with the tried and true, “I apologize, but I won’t be able to take on this new project.” You don’t have to make up excuses, you don’t have to lie about a huge workload (especially since you’ll be looking for additional work), it’s ok to just say no.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to pay your bills. And you’ll always have clients that are difficult, it’s just part of being a freelancer.

But you need to know where you draw the line between difficult and toxic (and that line will be different for every freelancer). ID that line and stick to it. Saying “no” and firing awful clients will save both your sanity and the quality of your work (and your career) long term.

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