Just like with personal relationships, professional relationships require open and consistent communication, trust, empathy and patience. They take work.
At some point in your freelance career, you’ll come across at least one challenging client relationship. It doesn’t mean you don’t like them or they don’t like you, but sometimes you’re not a fit together. Or, more often times, they think they need one thing when they really need another and you can’t help them moving forward. There are several causes of relationship tension. Some are easy to overcome, others simply aren’t worth it.
Below, we cover the different scenarios that you may come across, how to know if it’s time to end the relationship and what to do in each situation without burning any bridges or hurting your reputation.
Scenario one: The client who knows no boundaries
One of the great things about freelancing is that you dictate your own schedule and are just focused on meeting your deadlines and producing quality work. Although you may adapt to your client’s communication preferences or work within their schedule, you’re still free to set your own. If a client has never worked with a freelancer before, they might not understand exactly how the relationship is supposed to work.
Not all of your clients are going to be used to working with people outside a full-time team. Some may expect you to be available 24/7. It’s one thing when emergencies arise and a client needs your help on off hours every now and then – and that will happen. But if you have a client texting you asking for help at 10pm more than once a week, there’s a problem.
This situation can be potentially prevented by setting processes and a communication schedule upfront before the engagement begins. However, even if a client intends to follow protocol, some clients are going to be needier than others. If you have other clients, this simply isn’t fair to you.
What to do
The first step is to have an open, honest and direct conversation with your client, reminding them of the processes and schedule you agreed on upfront. It’s best to have this in person or over the phone or video chat, then follow up with what you discussed in an email. Starting with a phone conversation allows them to hear your tone and have an open dialogue so they don’t think you’re being rude or curt. If they disagree, be ready to reference specific details in your contract.
If their behavior doesn’t change after a week or so, it’s time for another conversation. Explain to the client that they’re not the only people you work with — that you have other deadlines, meetings and expectations. Suggest that it’s best for them to find someone with more availability and that you will set them up for success in terms of handing over anything you have completed or started for them. Make sure to give them at least as much termination notice as agreed upon in your contract.
Pro-tip: Have all communications with your client saved in a folder if they’re to push back and say that a conversation never happened.
Scenario two: The client creates scope creep
Scope creep is when a client adds more deliverables and broadens their expecations of your role without you agreeing to the changes. This is the most common scenario we see in and is fortunately one of the easiest to solve before having to terminate the relationship.
Similar to the first scenario, the first step is to revisit your contract with your client. When they ask for additional deliverables, explain how what they’re asking for isn’t what you agreed upon and that you need to do one of the following:
- Rescope the role or project to focus on new deliverables.
- Offer to broaden the scope of the agreement for additional compensation. This is an excellent opportunity to renegotiate your rate and terms for a higher rate since you’ve clearly proven yourself to be valuable.
- Explain that you don’t have the bandwidth for the expanded scope and offer to either find someone to help you execute or help find a replacement.
- Terminate the contract and engagement on the basis that the expanded scope breaches the contract.
No matter which option you go with, make sure it’s written in an amended contract that both parties sign. The last thing you need as a freelancer is to be spending money on attorney fees to resolve a client issue that could have been avoided.
What to do
If you decide to terminate the contract, you can do so without creating a tense situation. Explain that the contract has gone beyond the scope of the project and that you no longer have the bandwidth. So that you don’t leave your client in the dark mid-way through a project, we suggest helping them find a replacement. Have a few names in mind who you’re ready to introduce them to if interested before starting the conversation.
Have a plan for phasing yourself out. Complete all deliverables in the works before doing so. Ensure that the client has everything they need from you and that everything is documented in writing or via email.
Scenario three: The client doesn’t pay or is slow to pay
You’re a business owner with bills to pay. Every now and then a client seems to “forget” this and think they can get away with not paying a freelancer for all of their work.
Other times, they might pay late due to internal processes or disorganization within their company. In the worst of situations, they hired you expecting a large client or investment that never came through and are scrambling to get you paid each pay period.
What to do
It’s one thing for late payment to happen once. If it happens a few times, you need to have a conversation with them.
Include a specific time in which the client is expected to pay each invoice in your contract. On invoices, you’ll often see “payment due [date] (net 10)” allowing payment up to ten days (or however long you choose) before they are expected to pay the late payment fee. Mention this when late payment happens. Explain that you give them plenty of time to pay and that your contract outlines when payment is expected.
If your client is consistently late in paying you and not paying the late payment fee, it’s time to end the relationship. Politely share that you cannot afford to work for free and that they have broken your contract by failing to pay too many times.
Scenario four: Your client can’t let go of control
Sometimes even the best of clients have trouble letting go of control. Your main point of contact might be new to managing but trained in your area of expertise. They trust you and know they need your help, but because they know how to do your job, they have a hard time letting go. It’s always easier to do what we’re used to. So if someone is more comfortable dictating how social media should be executed than they are providing constructive feedback, they’re going to default to what they know.
In other situations, our client may not have experience working with freelancers and have trouble trusting “outsiders.” Even if you work to prove yourself and earn their trust early on, sometimes you just can’t change a person’s attitude.
If you’re meeting deadlines and expectations and your client is still micro-managing you, it’s time to let them go.
What to do
This conversation may be more uncomfortable than the other scenarios. Your client is likely going to be unaware or in denial of their micro-managing ways. Start the conversation by asking them questions – if they’re happy with your work, if there’s anything you’ve done to make them lack trust in you or your work. They’ll then realize that they’re micro-managing then they’ll either offer to adjust their approach or explain that it’s “just how they work.”
If their response is the latter, explain how that’s not what you agreed upon or signed up for and suggest that they find someone who’s more available or a better fit. Frame it in a way that will benefit the client with something along the lines of, “I think it’d be best if we found someone who can work on your schedule” when having the conversation.
Alternatively, you can find a scapegoat. You can say you’re taking your business in a different direction and need to phase the project out. But it’s always better to be direct and honest when trying to preserve a relationship.
Scenario five: Your client doesn’t respect you
Sometimes a lag or lack of communication is because your client is simply very busy. However, you’re still owed respect. If they’re continiously cancelling or rescheduling meetings last minute, talking down to you, ignoring your emails or lack basic manners, you need to say something.
What to do
The first step is to approach the subject. Explain that you also have a calendar of meetings and that every cancellation costs you time and money. If it continues, start charging for cancelled meetings and time wasted (make sure it’s in your contract that they will be charged if they don’t provide appropriate notice – usually 24 hours).
If the issue lies in their tone or how they speak to you, be assertive. When they say something condescending, point it out politely and explain you’d like to not be spoken to that way. If either action continues, tell them that the relationship is not working and that you’ll be ending it. Remember, you’re hiring your clients just as much as they’re hiring you. You reserve the right to work with people who respect you.
What not to do when firing a client
We’ve all heard stories of client relationships ending in disaster. These situations are surprisingly avoidable. Here are the things you definitely should not do when ending a client relationship:
- Ghost. Don’t disappear without communicating with your client. You will always be better off broaching a subject or issue directly than avoiding it and slipping into the abyss. Communicate clearly, directly and empathetically.
- Put the blame on the client. Even if your client is the point of tension in the relationship, no one wins from a pointed finger. It’s best to focus on the facts of the situation and allow both parties to agree on an amicable separation.
- Get dramatic. You never want to let your emotions get the best of you when communicating with a client. Keep a cool head and even temper when discussing next steps.
- Make excuses. No one likes working with a whiner. If there’s an issue with the relationship, call it like it is. If you’re having personal problems, then find a way to communicate that professionally. It can’t ruin your reputation if you make it seem like you can’t balance work and life.
- Skirt around the truth. You want to be polite of course, but rather than hinting towards an issue, just come out and say it. You’ll save yourself and your client time.
- Be rude. You need to protect your reputation. Even if you don’t enjoy speaking with a client, always be professional and polite – even when they aren’t.
With these tips, you can hopefully get to a point where you’re working only with clients who respect you and your time. People who you enjoy working with. And eventually, you’ll end up looking a lot like this guy when getting your work done:
Have you had to end a relationship with a client in the past? Tell us how you handled the situation in the comments below!
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