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December 13, 2012Freelancers: Knowing when it’s time to fire a client

In my five years as a freelance copywriter, I’d only ever sacked one client. Until yesterday. Now it’s two.

I hate to fail. At the end of any relationship, you find yourself replaying the final scenes in your head, wondering if you could have done anything differently.

There are those who subscribe to the Roger Sterling philosophy: “the day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” I’m not one of those people, but I do believe that people move on and grow apart. The trick is to get out of the relationship before it turns bad.

So how do you spot a bad relationship?

If you’re an experienced freelancer, alarm bells will usually be ringing long before things turn bad. That’s when you run for the exit. But sometimes, you can’t run fast enough. Here’s what happened to me:

Three “warning signs” a client relationship is turning bad:
1. The client treats you like an employee, not a freelancer.

There’s a certain type of client that believes that once they’ve paid for X amount of your days, they own you 24/7 – until the project’s completed. During the project, my client asked me to write two case studies unrelated to the project I’d signed on for. I already had other clients to service and I declined because I do not like doing piecemeal work. Instead of respecting my decision, he immediately “offered” me the chance to write a further 20 that month. Then got angry with me when I declined.

2. The client’s communication gets worse and worse.

Sometimes it takes a while. Other times it happens overnight. But sooner or later, a good client who was always a same-day responder starts taking longer and longer to reply. My client slowly stopped replying to me. Two weeks after finishing the job, I asked him if his client had signed off yet and if there was anything further I could do. It took him a week to reply to me. And a full two weeks to give me an answer. I knew I couldn’t work with this client any more – yet when he finally got back in touch, it wasn’t to pay me. It was to try to strong-arm me into doing more work.

3. The client doesn’t have a good grip on his client.

Nine times out of ten, if your client is stressed, it is because his client is giving him grief. I spent a month playing telephone tennis with our end client to get the information required for three days of copywriting, so I knew what a nightmare the end client could be. However, this wasn’t my problem – it was my client’s job to handle this. He expected me to become his project manager and deal with his difficult client for him – something I’m not paid to do, nor something I’m skilled at. Frustrated at our end client, he took his frustrations out on me.

This week, our relationship broke down completely.

I’d finished the work set out in the original brief over a month ago. He finally got back to me, telling me that the client wanted a further 5000 words writing, as well as three and a half days in-house work at their offices.

I replied with a three paragraph email explaining that firstly, I’d need to be paid for the outstanding work. Secondly, I’d need to increase my prices considerably given the difficulties encountered so far – the project had already taken way longer than the 28 hours the client had paid for. Thirdly, I explained that I’d be happy to cut my losses, be paid what I’m owed for the work I’d been contracted to do, and suggest another copywriter who better suited the client’s needs.

In short, I offered an olive branch.

The client’s reply? “Too long, didn’t read.”

So I summarised my three paragraphs in three sentences. I won’t publish the client’s reply, suffice to say he accused me of being rude to him, while being very rude himself.

And it was over.

I wrote to the client explaining I had no further desire to work with him and would like to be paid for the work I’ve done (which was the full scope of the original project). I even apologised for not meeting his expectations.

I await his response — though I’m sure I’ll be paid in the end.

Today I’m feeling a little sad – the way you always do after a break-up, after any unsuccessful relationship. This has only happened to me twice in five years of freelancing, and it just goes to show – you can try your best, you can do the work you’re hired to do, you can be polite and communicative, but sometimes it isn’t enough.

It’s easy to be hard on yourself.
Looking back on any relationship, you can’t help but wonder what might have been.
But dwelling on the past won’t help.

When you dwell on past relationships that have gone bad, you end up hurting relationships in the future,
seeing the worst in potential new clients, not the best.

Today, I’m sad. But tomorrow I’ll be getting on with some work for a new client.
And I won’t look back.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 13th, 2012 at 8:52 pm and is filed under Blog, Me and my business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One comment

  1. Mary says:

    Looking back can be useful if you learn from it. Freelancing for my first client, I spent time e-mailing asking for comments/feedback and whether they wanted changes to anything I’d written. Only e-mails I received were a forwarded one from the MD telling the commissioner that the work was good and a second asking if they’s paid me. It took me a while to realise that I was seeking the kind of approval employees expect (and if it’s good employment that includes appraisal and personal/professional development feedback) until I remembered that they just wanted to pay me and be gone. They’s employed me to do the job, they paid me and didn’t bother to say goodbye. I did what I said I’d do and had to find other ways to affirm my greatness.
    I’m enjoying your blogs and have found the e-book really useful.

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