How to know when you should let a client go
When you started your freelancing business, you may have been keen to build your reputation in the marketplace and earn a buck as quickly as possible. As a result, you probably accepted any work that came your way.
See also: Dumb Things Clients Say to Graphic Designers
However, now that you're more established and have a strong freelancing portfolio, you might be saddled with long-term clients that don’t fit the bill. While these clients were beneficial in the beginning, they're now burdening you with mundane work and low budgets.
So when do you know when enough is enough? Here are 5 signs that it's time to cut loose from those less-than-desirable contracts.
1. Poor at paying
One or two late payments might be forgivable, especially in exceptional circumstances. But a persistent lazy-payer is impossible to maintain a trusting relationship with. As a freelancer you must remain vigilant over your accounts. It's not unreasonable to expect prompt payment in return for work, especially when you have made every effort to meet the client’s deadline.
Of course, there might be a few steps you wish to take prior to ending the contract. You could send a polite reminder, gently outlining that they're late paying an invoice. This should be no more than a friendly nudge. If it doesn't work, a firm reminder could be necessary. This gives the client a set number of days to respond and shows them you mean business if they don't.
As a preventative measure, it's advisable to set out late-payment fees at the start of the contract. This means that the client will have to cough up extra cash if they are slack at managing invoices. This could be the kick up the butt he or she needs to pay on time.
Social shaming, whereby you expose the non-paying company publicly, is a last resort. It's likely that once you do this, the relationship will be damaged, so it's best you exhaust the less tempestuous tactics before declaring war on their Twitter feed. Be careful too, as you don't want to make yourself look unprofessional in a public domain. Kenneth C. Wisnefski, the CEO of digital marketing agency WebiMax, has said “Calling out delinquent payers via social media is something that has begun to gain steam, but I feel it is a very slippery slope. Damaging people on social media can reflect poorly, because it crosses an etiquette barrier—it can make your business, in some cases, look very small and extremely confrontational.” This is something that needs to be considered before holding your client accountable using this method.
As a rule of thumb, if it ever gets to the point when you're sending frequent payment reminders or hashtagging the hell out of them on social media, it's best to cut loose. Of course, chase any outstanding amounts, but close down the contract and refuse any future business. It's just not worth it.
2. A lack of direction or feedback
If a client is new to hiring freelancers, they may be naïve as to how much communication is needed to achieve good results. They may forget to fill in some important gaps in the brief or it could be that they haven't quite decided what they want yet. This is especially true of startups, whereby the general direction is still being established. As a freelancer, it can be frustrating, especially if you've worked on a project for many days only to find the requirements have altered somewhat.
Here's an example. Let's say you've been asked by a group of executives to design a brochure for their latest business venture. Except, they've not clarified the purpose, tone or preferred design. They've sent you some links to their existing projects for inspiration, before disappearing into thin air for several weeks without a trace.
Sure, you crack on anyway and do your best with what you've got. You email the first draft over to them for feedback. After a rather long wait, you get an email back saying that the brochure doesn't encompass the feel of their business and to try again. They do not give you any extra information, and expect you to come up with something else anyway. And this pattern continues. Their feedback is fluffy and vague, and your time is being wasted. This can be deeply frustrating for freelancers on fixed rate contracts, where time is especially precious.
Of course, it's not just newbies who can fall flat at communicating. Some clients are simply too busy, stressed out or stretched to answer emails or structure detailed briefs. Others are big dreamers with too many wonderful ideas to ever possibly focus on one.
So how do you handle this dilemma when freelancing?
There are some solutions to try before packing in the job.
A good first step is to select five or six questions that you need answering to be able to complete the job. Write these in an email and make it explicitly clear that you will not continue until you hear back from them. If they still cannot answer the questions, or simply ignore the email, it's probably best to take a step back. This doesn't need to be a permanent measure, you can always leave the ball in their court, invoice them for completed work and wait to see what happens.
As a freelancer, you need to be trusted. You've earned your mark through years of experience and are capable of producing top notch results without having a manager breathing down your neck.
Everybody appreciates direction and guidance, but nobody wants to be micromanaged. If you find yourself linked up with a ‘know it all’ client who appears to have superior knowledge about your job than you do, it could be an early warning sign.
Before throwing in the towel, try to gain insight into why they're behaving this way.
Do they not trust you? Have they never done this before? Are they anxious?
Communication is essential to find a balance you're both comfortable with. If you think you're not trusted to do the job, make sure you use persuasive, confident language that highlights your capability and reliability. Don’t forget to back this up with outstanding results. If your client is of an anxious disposition, try to use frequent and reassuring communication, so that they know the project is important to you, and will be delivered in time. If you'd like further help in initiating discussions with a micromanaging client, you can find a script to follow here.
If you've tried all of this and are still feeling claustrophobic, it might be wise to wrap up the contract positively and make yourself unavailable for any future work.
4. They over-simplify what you do
Have you ever had a client say to you “Hey, I've got this super-easy job for you, it'll only take you 30 minutes and you should really enjoy it.” Not only is this annoying, but it's actually quite controlling. The undertone to the message is “I expect this to be completed within 30 minutes because I consider it to be an easy task by my standards.”
It's not solely up to the client to decide how long a project takes. It's a mutual agreement which you have equal input in.
Assertiveness is a key quality in managing clients like this.
Remember, assertiveness doesn't mean stamping your feet or reacting aggressively, it just means assigning yourself responsibility over your own work, and retaining the stance that you're the expert in this field. For example, you could say “I agree that this looks like an enjoyable project. Thanks for thinking of me for this one. I do, however, believe it'll take longer than half an hour because of x, y and z. My estimation would be 3-4 hours. If you're happy to continue on these terms, please let me know.”
If the client then argues with you on this, it might be time to let them go. After all, you know you can't deliver your best work in their unrealistic time frames.
Remember, they would be morbidly offended if you told them how to do their job, so you've every right to retain the right to work the way you want.
5. You're not enjoying the experience
What is the point in wasting endless hours on a job you hate? Sure, occasionally there's a task that can be a major drag to complete, but when it's happening regularly with the same client, it could be time to call it a day.
There's no reason this decision should be unpleasant for you or your client. If you are part of a network of freelancers, you may be able to create a smooth transition to minimise any disruption. For example, you might be hating the marketing project you've been assigned, and know your client has plenty more that needs to be done. But your pal Kate has been dying for a marketing opportunity to sink her teeth into, and so you could recommend Kate to your client as part of the contract dissolution. This shows you care, and is likely to be appreciated by your client.
It's always advisable to end on good terms. When you tell your client that it's time to part ways, thank them for the opportunity and do not assign any blame. Give plenty of notice and offer some assistance in ensuring the work is redirected to another freelancer or agency. Furthermore, don't leave any loose ends that cannot be easily picked up by someone else.
Keep note of what it was you didn't enjoy about the project. Was it the client? The timescales? The topic? The processes? Whatever it was, find a way of learning from it. This will make you a much more efficient freelancer in the future.
Knowing which clients are worth your time and energy comes with experience. Every freelancer encounters the occasional nightmare client, or becomes entrenched in a project that's so tedious it's not worth their while. By keeping an eye on your client base you can determine which of them best fit with your current work ethos and future plans, and ditch the ones that don't.
6. What are your warning signs? (add them in the comments)
Have you ever had to fire a client? Do you have any particular warning signs that prick your ears up? Share them with us in the comments below and we'll add the best to the end of this post!
No.4 is the most common one imo. It’s a patronising and disrespectful strategy where they want to say “Look, I could do it myself, but hey, I know you need the work.” When all along we know they are vain and mean! (Do you detect some unresolved issues there???)
haha just a little bit, Jo! But I totally agree, though you never hear clients act like this with other professionals. Only designers!
My pet peeve is value added vs non-value added costs. ie equipment. If I know I need a piece of equipment to make my end product better and the jobs haven’t been profitable enough for me to get it, I mention that to the client. Usually get “your work has been good enough for us so we don’t want to or shouldn’t have to pay more”. At the end of the day, it’s my name on the product. As a business owner and artist, its my goal to continue to improve my end product as that would lead to more profitable jobs.