ASK US WEDNESDAY: “When is it time to break up with a problem client?”

by Leo Wiles
08 February 2017

Ask Us Wednesday NEWI’ve been in this game for a long time, and have a few long-standing clients I am no longer so keen on working for. It’s nothing I can really put my finger on – the occasional project creep, the more than occasional absurd change to my copy. But I’d love your thoughts on when is it time to cut your losses and move on, rather than pushing on and struggling through? Fiona

If you’ve been freelance for longer than six months, you’ve probably experienced wonderful clients, problem clients and ho-hum clients. It’s really up to you to decide at what point the misery is outweighing the joy of being paid. Because, in a career where landing lucrative long-term gigs can be challenging, most of us are guilty of hanging onto clients we’re not passionate about.

I’m not talking about the ulcer-inducing client who gives us flaky briefs, late payments and sleepless nights (see Rachel’s post, “Am I crazy to end a client relationship even if it’s making me miserable?” for more on this). I’m more referring to those clients where you’re stuck between the decision to strike out for pastures new (and clients / work that makes you happy), or stay put and operate by the saying that it’s better the devil you know.

There are plenty of reasons why you may no longer be a good fit with a long standing client, including:

They can’t afford your new rates. This one is often dressed up as you (the service provider) being too expensive. In this scenario, I’ll try and fit in with their budget by scaling back the project. The hard bit here is to stick to your guns – and not become a victim of project creep by making sure everyone understands the deliverables. This can also happen if you’ve upskilled and understandably want more money but the client isn’t willing or can’t pay it.

The client’s workflow procedures drive you bonkers. It might be that they’re super slow to respond, leave things til the last minute, change their mind after you’ve filed copy, and so on. It could be because they’re totally disorganised, or totally time-strapped. My solution is to have a monthly meeting over Skype, phone or face to face, and issue email updates on the project either weekly or fortnightly. I also outline in a table the timestones, milestones and tasks of the project, which covers my butt – and I outline that without such-and-such we’ll miss their deadline or run into new costs. But if you’re still finding this one tough, it might be time to say goodbye.

You’re bored with the work. Writing something I’m not passionate about can take days instead of hours, which is a far less economical use of my time than trying to attract new business in areas that excite me. Similarly, I’ve worked with clients for decades and then realised I no longer want to write about those things, even though I was happy to when I was younger.

To avoid any of these scenarios and more before signing a contract or even agreeing to a follow-up meeting I will also ask myself the following 5 crucial questions:

  1. Is the money right?
  2. Is the timing right?
  3. Can I do the work?
  4. Do I like the client / product / service?
  5. Can I honestly get behind it?

Over to you Listees: What do you do to avoid being saddled with problem clients?

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.

3 responses on "ASK US WEDNESDAY: “When is it time to break up with a problem client?”"

  1. John Burfitt says:

    Hi Leo. Just found this great post – and it came at the right time. I had an editor, someone I have known for 20 years, who evolved into the client from hell and who I found myself complaining about regularly. This was not a good situation – calls never returned, emails never responded to, stories never run, invoices never paid etc – you get the picture.
    I did a writing course a few weeks back and shared this tale with the trainer, who was incredulous as she responded, ‘Why on earth have you put up with this for so long?’ With all the reasons I offered, not one of them made any business sense to me. I’ve since informed that editor I want back my unpublished work – the material that had been sat on for three years – and while this person was furious, I have since managed to get those works run elsewhere. Sometimes, you need to do a health check and determine why you are whining about one particular editor so much. And then know it’s time to walk away.

  2. Another good story Leo. And thanks for admitting that it can take you days to do a boring job that should only take hours. I have the same problem, a client that pays OK and is easy to work with etc. but their jobs are just so fricking boring I have trouble staying awake. I’ve stuck with them because they do give me a reasonable amount of work but your point that I could ditch them and better spend the time looking for more interesting work is an interesting one. I’ve mainly mentally beat myself up for not being disciplined enough to just get in a get it done.

    1. Leo Wiles says:

      That’s not to say I didn’t do my time writing about mobile phones for two LONG years Darren 🙂
      For me it’s always going to come down to need Vs want at that given time.
      So right now with dependents a mortgage etc. I am in the growth and build part of my career with a sideline of personal projects. Decades down the track I will hopefully be pursuing personal projects with a sideline of paid work.

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