I just had my first experience in “letting go” of a client. I let go of my biggest client, who I’d been with the longest, and who was my primary source of income. The very next day, after the shock had diminished, I experienced a near euphoric motivation to get to work. I felt this new expansive space in my brain for creatively serving my existing clients. I became more sensitive to opportunities around me, and even reached out to not one, but two potential leads with ideas I knew could serve their business.
For months, everything that wasn’t working with the client I let go of had kept me from fully showing up for my business.
Working for them felt like a compromise: not only was I not good enough for them, they didn’t treat me as I expected as a business owner.
I think we’ve all been here, in a relationship, a job, or in business. In many of these situations, we take on the connection or the client even though we have an inkling that it isn’t the right fit. At the time, the pros outweigh the cons, simple as that.
Developing a freelance client roster is like expanding your portfolio.
Each example of work you create for them is a testament to your skills, interests, and direction as a professional. Deeper than the work you do though is the portfolio of clients you intend to create. We all want clients who adore us, who pay us the rates we’ve earned, who flow with our work schedule, and who know we are the perfect fit to serve their organization. These clients pay their invoices on-time, respond to emails in a timely manner, seem to never need as many revisions or hand-holding sessions as other clients, and require work from us that stretches our creative muscles in the best way. Why do we take on clients who don’t fit those standards?
Take a look at your current clients (and relationships, coworkers, job day-to-day) and consider if any of them could be holding you back from reaching the next phase of service or growth.
Look at the clients that don’t pay your full rate and ask yourself, is the quantity of discounted work more valuable than making room for full-price contracts?
If your client continues to ask for work that isn’t in the scope of your services or is not work you want to continue doing in the future, is it worth keeping the income or making space for the work you know you’re meant to do?
These questions are scary because they’re asking us to examine something dangerous: the loss of livelihood, the closure of a relationship, or just the restructuring of an existing agreement. If you can get past the fear of missing out on your existing revenue, you enter a space where you can imagine a better situation and even make a plan for a healthier future.
What I found was that not only was the client not a good fit for me, I was not the right fit for them. They wanted work from me that I didn’t want to do; at a rate for which I didn’t feel comfortable working. We had different expectations that never quite aligned, and we were working on borrowed time. Rather than jumping ship or burning a bridge, there are ways to preserve a client relationship and even keep the light on for future collaboration if you plan accordingly.
Here’s what to do when you realize a client engagement is no longer a good fit for your business:
Understand the breakdown in the relationship and where your needs are not being met.
Determine whether or not the relationship is salvageable by considering - and even inquiring - into their expectations. If you can renegotiate duties, payment, time commitment, or scope, the client relationship will be stronger after the restructure that works for both parties.
Clearly outline what you need from your clients moving forward, based on what you’ve discovered to be unworkable in this situation. Keep this information handy as you begin to refill your client roster, and as you consider potential contracts in the future.
Illustrate how you could best serve this client on your way out. A transition plan, assisting with training your replacement, or an organized turnover of materials. Outline a timeline that works for you; I would suggest 30-90 days, based on the industry and how you’re able to decrease the scope of work over the timeline duration. This information empowers the company to replace you thoughtfully and not be left scrambling, and for you to maintain some financial security as you focus on substituting their income.
Communicate the breakdown politely, clearly, and concisely to your client, and be prepared to see the relationship through to the end. Be open to collaboration and compromise on your proposed terms, but don’t compromise your values and your commitment to creating a healthier business landscape for yourself.
Letting go of a client is scary, there’s no doubt about it. But, from the other side of that decision, I can tell you that the creative and intellectual space that became available to me after removing the stress of an ill-fitting relationship is worth the risk. In the future, both the client and my business will benefit from our time together, and from the opportunity to find the best fit for our respective journeys.