Solopreneurs and small business owners invest a lot of time trying to win new clients. But what happens when you find you really need to fire one, and you’ve got to do it from a distance? The following advice will save you a lot of headaches by articulating what qualities to watch out for and how to make a clean professional break from remote clients who are just bad news.

If you experience one or more of these scenarios, it’s likely time to get out:

Paying late, or not at all.

Sometimes we enter into professional engagements without sealing the deal on paper or digitally. This is a big mistake, as those who have previously been burned by a client’s unwillingness to pay or sudden ghosting will surely attest. Struggling with accounts receivable negatively impacts your business in several ways:

  • you can’t pay yourself, or any of your teammates/contractors;
  • you’re left in a holding pattern where you must devote further resources to pursuing payment;
  • and last but not least, you’re often left feeling demoralized by the situation, which can affect your confidence and ability to sell.

Know that when you have a legitimate, executed contract in place, a client’s refusal to pay is a serious breach of the law. Sometimes a letter drafted by a lawyer on your behalf will spur them into action. No matter what, always ensure that clients return a signed contract and scope of work prior to starting to work with them.

Nonexistent or unhelpful feedback.

Ever burn the midnight oil so you could make a client-driven deadline, only to wait days (or weeks) to get a response? Maybe the feedback you finally did receive was vague, or involved more finger pointing than constructive insights. What are you supposed to do now?

  • First, take a step back and calmly review the project’s requirements. If you find that there’s some validity in what the client is saying, set up a call so that you can discuss any issues via video or phone, which helps to avoid miscommunication.
  • If not, feel free to respectfully push back, with itemized responses to their concerns and/or probing questions in order to get more context from them.
  • If neither of these actions pan out into a clear set of next steps, you need to think hard about whether or not this professional engagement (and relationship) is truly worth salvaging.

Constantly shifting scope.

Occasionally, a client will surprise you with their own internal changing of the guard, where a new or different staffer will take the lead on a project. This happens, and your flexibility will be seen as an advantage. However, shifts in personnel should not impact the overall scope of your collaboration.

When a client pushes to greatly modify the parameters of your workload with them—or to expand them altogether—it’s your job to put the brakes on and revisit the engagement’s goals and payment structure. If they aren’t open to doing so, it may be best to cut ties and issue an invoice for work completed at this juncture before moving any further forward.

Breaking up is (not that) hard to do.

If you’ve gotten to the point where the best approach involves a clean break with a client, here’s how to proceed with minimal friction. Note that this involves severing the professional relationship in writing, as it helps you to avoid any debatable “I said/they said” situations.

  • Message: Craft a brief, concise email outlining the project’s issues in as objective a manner as possible. There’s no need to dive into potentially tangential details or anything that could be perceived as a personal attack, as that only leads to stonewalling or emotional tailspins—both of which you want to avoid. Be respectful and stick to the project details, imagining all the while that this could be forwarded to anyone or posted anywhere online, and that you’ll want to come across as businesslike and without reproach. If you’re owed money, indicate that an invoice (with a net 15 or net 30 day window) is attached for their attention and prompt payment.
  • Timing: It’s best to wait to send your note until you’ve had a chance to step away from it and revisit its message. Waiting 24 hours before sending such a message is generally a wise idea, and you also can discreetly share it in confidence with a trusted colleague or advisor to get their take. We all have blind spots and unique perspectives on events, especially when it comes to our own interpersonal interactions. By building in time to review and hone your message, you’ll greatly lower the odds of prematurely shipping a snarky diatribe that could later come back to haunt you in industry circles.
  • Moving On: Once the debt has been paid and the engagement has ended, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of mentioning this client to future prospects. Perhaps it makes the most sense to remove their logo from your website, for example, in order for both of you to steer clear of difficult questions from or uncomfortable conversations with others. You’ll want to refrain from making negative comments or volunteering private information about any problem clients, unless you trust the person you’re speaking with implicitly. (And “speaking” is intentional here, because you should not put this kind of information in any easily shareable format.) Now’s the time to shift your focus to the road ahead, not the challenges in your business’s rearview mirror.

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