As freelancers, we love to go above and beyond for our clients – but what about when they go above and beyond what is reasonable? Sian Meades-Williams gives her advice on stopping work for a client professionally.
Q: I’m having a difficult time with a freelance client. I enjoy the work, but he calls at all hours expecting me to drop everything. He’s really demanding and makes huge changes at the last-minute and doesn’t respect my commitments outside of work – I’ve got two young boys. I’ve decided to quit but I feel so guilty about leaving the project unfinished. He’s really well known in my industry – I don’t want to end things badly and damage my reputation. How do I end the relationship professionally?
Sian says: Leaving a freelance job can be a difficult decision, but if you’re spending more time complaining about the job than actually doing it, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the relationship. We freelance so we’re in control of who we work with and the jobs we take on, but things aren’t always smooth sailing.
It sounds like the biggest issue here is lack of boundaries around your own time. This is something that can potentially be remedied – reinforcing your available hours can help the situation, even though it sounds hard. As freelancers, we tend to be people pleasers and we know that happy clients are often repeat clients. As a result, we often go above and beyond. That’s when boundaries can shift.
However, sometimes we’ve done all we can and a client still consistently oversteps. If the working relationship is making you unhappy or has become damaging to your mental health, parting ways on your terms is perhaps the best option.
Although you might be desperate to pack it in the second you’ve made the decision, you should give as much notice as you can. Check your contract, if you have one, and make sure you wrap up as much of the project as you feel able to. If it’s an ongoing commitment, leave at a point that makes sense for both you and your client, not the day before a huge deadline. Communicate effectively, don’t just vanish.
When it comes to sharing the news with your client, put it in writing so you can organise your thoughts. Phone calls can catch people on the hop and can quickly get aggressive or leave you feeling guilty and unprofessional. Give your client time to process the information and offer an appropriate time when you’re available to discuss in more detail. In my experience, difficult clients get particularly tricky when it comes to paying their final invoice. Bear this in mind when you’re taking that call.
When we struggle to gel with a client even after working together for a while, it’s often because our values and goals no longer match up. I asked email marketing consultant Bec Rivett-Kemm about her experience with ending a client relationship and the emotions involved. “The relief that washed through me was incredible,” she says. “Since then, I’m always careful to make more checks on my clients so that I never compromise on my values.”
That feeling of relief is something that shouldn’t be ignored – remember it if you’re ever in doubt that you did the right thing (usually around the time you realise that your bank balance is looking a little slender). Listening to your gut before you sign anything is a good habit to learn. A freelance audit can be really helpful, even when a project ends well. Grab a cuppa and a notebook and ask yourself the following:
- What went wrong?
- What could have been improved?
- What went well? (There is always something!)
- What would I do differently next time?
The key to this process is being honest with yourself but not beating yourself up. When things go wrong, we ruminate and play events over and over in our minds. It’s not always possible to fix things; sometimes we can only learn from the experience. As with our personal relationships, emotional and mental exhaustion takes its toll and you’ll probably need time to bounce back.
After a particularly bad experience, it can be tempting to pull a social media stunt or “name and shame”, but airing your dirty laundry is what will damage your reputation. Bear in mind that other people in your industry have probably had a similar experience with your client, it’s rarely an isolated incident. Still need to vent? That’s what WhatsApp was made for.
Finally, it’s important that you don’t see quitting as a failure. You are doing what is right for your wellbeing and your career. You’re also opening yourself up to new opportunities. Fill that space in your schedule – and in your mind – with an exciting new challenge where you can produce your best work.