When you’re just starting out as a freelancer, it’s tempting to take any gig you can get. By the time you have a few clients on your roster, though, you start realizing that not all customer relationships are equal.
There’s the dream client who adores your work, gives you a predictable stream of challenging (yet rewarding) projects, pays you on time and even refers you to other clients. But at the bottom of your list is the client who constantly surprises you — and not in a good way. We’re talking last-minute revision requests, weekend text messages, scope creep, late payments and irrational complaints. Eventually, you start to wonder whether you should even renew your contract. Is it time to cut ties? I caught up with five fellow freelance business owners to find out which problems can justify a parting of ways.
Turning down cash in hopes of landing more cash is the ultimate pickle. But that’s exactly the situation freelancer Heather Burdo found herself in when she realized it was time to part ways with an anchor client. “I began to raise my rates and realize my worth,” she says. “He was a nice client, but didn’t have the budget.” Thankfully, the end of that client relationship was the beginning of many more high-quality, fairly compensated collaborations.
Chris Johnson, freelance sales guru and founder of I Close Your Deals, recounts a client guilty of this infamous crime. “Once, early in my career, I had a client who was 50 percent of my revenue,” he says. “He was demanding [of my] time and instant messaging me at all hours, and then at the end of a gig, he’d ask for a lot of ‘extras’ to cover the bill.”
As a fellow freelancer, you can probably see where this is going. Johnson was at a crossroads. “This pattern went on, and the money would have been fine, but he kept doing it,” he recalls. “So I changed the terms, insisted on payment upfront to begin any work and to have a scope of work defined at the outset, including revisions. After the first job, he was mad,” Johnson says with a smile. “So I said that it was time for us to go in different directions, but I’d be happy to work with him at the arrangements I proposed.”
The result? Freedom. “The stress was reduced almost immediately,” says Johnson.
Clearly, insufficient pay is not the only life-sucking reason some client relationships fail. Scope creep has a unique way of eroding the professional confidence of otherwise elite talent (that’s you). Nip it in the bud, and if your problem client pushes back, consider moving on.
Unreasonable Direction Changes
Freelancer Eric Ridenour faced something even worse than scope creep: Unclear, impracticable twists and turns. “One revision request turned into five, then the client complained that it wasn’t what they originally wanted,” he says. “High-maintenance clients are exhausting, never happy and just soul-draining. I am much better off with clients [who have] a mutual respect for time and work.” And so are the rest of us.
“Someone hired me to write copy for a health supplement,” says Michael Witcoff, founder of Level Up Copy and Consulting. “[The] pay was good. Then I looked at the supplement’s ingredients and reviews, and couldn’t advertise for it without harming my own conscience.”
In this case, philosophical, moral and ethical differences were a showstopper. When Witcoff considered the benefits of retaining that client, the financial payoff didn’t compare to the moral costs of the actual work. “So I gave the money back and I don’t even consider working in that market anymore,” he says.
“From a web design and marketing perspective, I’ve had to part ways with clients in the past from a purely creative direction,” says Jon Pasquariello, the mastermind behind PasquarielloDesign.com. “From the first consultation, you and the client are equally assessing each other for compatibility, and if your style and branding voice don’t mesh, the project won’t end well for one — or both — of you,” he explains.
Scripts for Success
No idea how to approach the touchy conversation? Fellow (former) freelancer Nick Reese provides three smart ways to break it off with clients:
The “it’s not you, it’s me” approach
The “polite-but-direct” method
The “scapegoat technique”
On his site, he explains each tactic in detail, and discusses the benefits and drawbacks of all three. That way, you can apply the perfect one to your specific situation. Best of all, Reese supplies readers with a loose script for each method.
Manage Your Relationships
Letting go of clients is not something you should do every day. In fact, with proper strategy and vetting, you can prevent most subpar customer relationships in the first place. A fair pricing plan, a clear contract to prevent scope creep and strong customer relationship practices can ensure your client list stays full of those favorite dream clients we all know and love. No matter how good the gig is, always consider how it will affect your freelancer balance — and decide if taking on the client is worth it. With these lessons in your pocket, you’ll know how to approach a difficult client decision and make the right choice for your business.