Articles - 31st January 2019

Doing yourself justice: When to walk away from a client

Words by Fi Shailes
Illustration by William Francis

No matter how long you may have been freelancing, you will always come across clients who are great, and those who… well, aren’t so great.

Here’s what happened to me a few months ago

I’d been managing social media for one of my clients, for what must have been over two years. Then, towards the end of last summer, I noticed that an agency, whom my client had hired to carry out a website build for them, had started scheduling the odd social media update.

Red flag alert.

I could see straight away that the posts weren’t optimised. Tweets they’d drafted didn’t include any hashtags, third-party content that sometimes wasn’t even relevant to my client’s offering or industry was being posted, and some posts were even missing correct punctuation. I emailed my client to alert them, but I had no response on my concerns.

A second red flag.

I’d had no communication about them ‘taking over’ via my client. But, a week later, I noticed the other party was removing some of my updates and adding their own.

I immediately contacted my client, who responded to my email with an apology for not communicating with me sooner, but with no address to the emails I’d sent about how rubbish their attempts at posting were.

Instead, I was told that the agency would be handling social media for the next month to see if they could render ‘better results.’

At this point, I felt pretty pissed off. We haven’t spoken since then.

I felt very much like I’d been treated badly and cast aside without any due courtesy – and, most annoyingly, for another ‘supplier’ who didn’t even seem to know what they were doing with social. It all seemed to have come out of nowhere.  

By this time though, I’d built up a fair amount of other work with some very nice, newer clients. So, I willingly walked away. I wasn’t going to bother fighting for the work, and I wasn’t going to be treated like this anymore.

I’d fired my first client, and it was for the best.

What good clients do

A good client would have been upfront and honest with me and communicated far better than they did. It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked with someone, it can all go a bit pear-shaped at any point.

Good clients will also correct their behaviours or any negative elements of them working with you, quickly.  

I do think that there are a great many ‘good’ clients out there in the marketplace. In no way do I think that most of our clients are what you’d regard as the bad ones. They’re just the ones which you remember – the ones you toss and turn in bed over, and the ones where you put down the phone to them after a catch-up call and something they’ve said niggles at you for the rest of the day.

What are the red flags you should  look out for?

  • A distinct lack of communication: In order for you to best serve your client, they need to provide good, honest levels of communication, and not a dialogue that is built on conflicting messages or one which lacks clarity of instruction.
  • Late or complete absence of invoice payments. Sometimes this is an honest mistake. But, sometimes it’s a sign that your client is taking advantage of you and not taking your need (and right) to be paid on time, seriously. It’s unprofessional at best, and malicious at worst.
  • Your professional advice is often undermined. There are absolutely some occasions where the best approach to the work in hand will be achieved in collaboration with your client. But when they hire you to support them on something they’re not experts in – and then ignore / disagree with what you recommend (which, in all likelihood is conventional / best practice stuff!), it may be time to reconsider whether this is someone worth working for.
  • They talk inappropriately or rudely towards you. Whether you’re a lone freelancer or part of massive agency, no one deserves to be treated in a way that makes them feel small or undermined. You deserve the very same levels of respect and professionalism that you give to your clients.

How do you walk away from a client?

It’s difficult. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescriptive checklist to refer to, to be honest – but when ‘enough is enough’ you just know.

In general, if you’ve decided to call it a day:

  • Be polite and clearly communicate and confirm in writing that you’d like to call time on your working arrangement. Cite your reasons if you want to, but look to do it constructively, and without emotion.
  • Confirm when you’re sending your final invoice, and state when this needs to be paid by.
  • Tie up any outstanding loose ends for them, and don’t be obstructive with anything you may need to hand over to someone new – you are professional to the end.
  • Send your final invoice, and ‘mentally’ move on.

As freelancers, I believe we can end up putting up with a lot of rubbish from would-be and existing clients who behave badly – all because we’re trying to conserve the work – especially when you’re new to freelancing.

It really needn’t be this way. And you shouldn’t fear speaking up or being selective with clients. In fact, they’ll probably respect you more for it.

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