October 3rd, 2007 - by ses5909

I’ve been working with clients for almost five years and have had varied experiences with my clients; some good, some average and some I hope to never work with again. All that said, all of my clients have been satisfied with my work. But last month I did something that I haven’t ever had to do before, I fired a client.

The project was a redevelopment of a very large community to include implementing a new design by the client. The redevelopment included porting over old functionality into new code, implementing several new features, and integrating a new design that was provided to me and my partner by the client. We worked on the project for several months and had a pretty good relationship with the client.

We were about 90% done with the project and were wrapping up a lot of things. The client asked us to implement something and I really didn’t understand what he was asking for so he told me he would show me an example. He took me to a link and when I clicked on the link, my stomach sank. I was looking at an exact duplicate of the site we were creating except for some slight color changes. I immediately went to Domain Tools to check how long that site had been up. My initial thought was the other website somehow copied his. The idea that he copied this website design and it’s functionality hadn’t crossed my mind until I saw the website had been in existence for a couple of years.

I said to the client, “This site looks just like yours!” and he wasn’t sure what I was talking about and we went back and forth on whether it looked just like his site and finally he admitted that he had taken a screenshot of the design and completely copied it. I felt very disappointed and somewhat deceived actually. Here is someone I grew to know and had regular conversations with, yet he hadn’t been honest with me. I immediately started thinking about the project. We were so close to being done, yet it now turned into something that we could never put in our portfolio. That wasn’t the biggest issue though; it was the unethical actions the client took, didn’t disclose to us, and brought us in as an unknowing party to this. At this point I needed to decide whether we would continue with the project or stop where we were and hand over the code.

I took some time to think about it and talked it over with my partner as well as some colleagues. We really just wanted to finish the project but we didn’t want to do anything that could hurt our business. A big factor in our decision was to think about it as a new project. If the client would have come to us in the beginning and told us that he wanted to completely rip this site’s design and functionality, would we have accepted it? The answer was definitely not.

We have a clause in all of our contracts that basically says that either party can cancel the contract for any reason. We simply must give them the code and they pay anything that is due for that code. So, that is what we did. This isn’t something we wanted to do, but we don’t want to work with people who aren’t honest with us and who we feel are unethical as it can hurt our business. I still feel a slight conflict about firing the client as I really wanted to finish the project because it was a pretty cool one, but it just wasn’t worth it, so we handed over all of the code.

As I said in the beginning, I’ve been in business for 5 years and never had to worry about something like this before, but it is something every developer should consider and be prepared for. The first thing to do is make sure you have a contract and in that contract give yourself a way out if you ever encounter a situation similar to mine. This clause should also protect the client if they are unhappy with your performance for any reason.

So how do you decide when to fire a client? It really comes down to your business and how you want to run it. If the client has asked you to do something that could affect your business poorly, this should raise a red flag. It isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly and only done in situations that you feel very strongly about.

Have you ever had to fire a client? What would you have done in my situation?

11 Responses to “When to Fire a Client”

1 Jack @ The Tech Teapot

I think you were right. If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.

You were sensible having a contract. You would have had a lot more difficulty without one…probably having to walk with no compensation.

2 ses5909

Jack, thanks for the comment. One thing I learned very early in the game was to always have a contract!


I have done exactly the same thing. That is all you can do. Have a good contract, get paid and walk away. I had a client once that kept changing the scope of the project. When I went back to him with the estimated costs for the added work he said I should do it all for the same price. I walked away right after that and he got nothing. Last I checked his site is still not done.

4 Susan

I haven’t had this situation but am glad to know about it so I can watch out for it. I think you did exactly the right thing – not only for ethical reasons, but it also seems possible that your ex-client could end up with a law suit on his hands. I’m curious – how did he react when you confronted him and resigned? Did he have any sense that what he had done wasn’t cool?

5 Robin

This might be a good article for search-this: what should be included in the contract? I’ve made up mine, but I’m not sure if everything is in it. Cancellations like this, for example, are not included. How do you handle such situation? Do you say that you’ve done 90% of the work, and ask to get payed 90% of the project price?

I know clients tend to look at competitive company website, pick the best, and ask to build “something like that”. I mostly answer with: “oh, but I can do a lot better than that”. Opens their eyes.

6 Patrick Burt

When a client starts to completely veer off the guidelines put through in the contract: eg. tons of new features that they don’t want to spend money on and that were never in the contract, that’s when I know I’m not being valued. “You’re fired!”

7 ses5909

@LGR -It really is about protecting yourself but you also protect the client in the same way.

@Susan – yeah, i thought there might be a possible legal ramifications too and the first question they would ask is who designed and developed it for you.

@Robin – I have a “Termination Clause” which covers the cancellation thing. It states that either party can give 7 days written notice to terminate the contract. As the contractor, I would deliver a “termination invoice” which will specify all unpaid hours at the agreed hourly rate which won’t exceed the cost of the estimate. Upon receipt of the payment, I hand everything over to them.

@Pat – Very good points.

8 daniel butterfield

I normally don’t read such long posts if it isn’t related to my business directly, but I really enjoyed your post. In my business, Real Estate and Finance, it seems that I find people that I don’t want to work with all the time. In addition, I used to find people that I worked with but decided it was a bad idea, then I guess i have fired the client.

9 ses5909

@daniel – thanks for taking the time to read it and I’m glad you liked it. I think this situation can apply to almost any service-based industry!

10 Susan

Broadening it to any service-based industry, when I’m not wearing my web developer hat, I’m a psychologist. As a psychologist, I have an ethical responsibility not to work with clients I don’t feel I can help. So there are certain situations where my profession says I’m actually SUPPOSED to fire a client. They’re very few and far between and hopefully, you figure it out in the first session or two before the client gets attached, but still – that possibility is not only out there, it’s the choice we’re expected to make under certain circumstances. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. I had to do it once and it was an extremely difficult decision.

[…] violating copyright laws and involving us, unknowingly, in it. I wrote a more in depth post about when to fire a client which you can read more of the grisly details […]

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