Articles - 11th June 2020

Bouncing back from losing a big client

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Will Francis

Not to be a downer, but let’s get real. Getting dropped by a big client is something that’s going to happen to most of us at some point.

But however prepared you are for this eventuality, it often takes us by surprise, and can act as a big shock to the system.

The reason for this paradox is what psychologists call the ‘Optimism Bias’: a cognitive tendency to believe we’re less likely to experience a negative event than others. This instinct is deep-rooted in our ‘chimp brain’ thanks to evolution, despite it being completely illogical. And so when this expectation conflicts with reality, it can feel like a real gut punch.

Having gone through this experience myself, I’ll share four main strategies to help lessen the blow, and get you onto a new path quickly and efficiently.

 

1. Plan your finances

The most obvious impact of losing a big client is on cash flow. And if you haven’t saved and no longer have enough to cover basic needs, addressing this should be your number one priority.

Do you have an easy way to plug the gap in your income, and to do it quickly? Great. Even if it’s not the kind of work you enjoy, or ideally want to be doing, you’ll just have to hold your nose, and see it as extra motivation to save more rigorously in future. However, if you can’t find an alternative earning stream – as sadly many of us are finding currently – you’ll need to get realistic.

Yes, it’s time to go through your household budget, line by line, and work out the absolute minimum you can survive on. That may mean cancelling lots of subscriptions, forgoing new clothes for a bit, and eating a lot of own-brand baked beans. But if you can make your outgoings balance your incomings, you’ll sleep much better at night as a result.

Also, look at other ways of boosting your balance sheet. You may be entitled to government benefits. Your bank may be able to provide loans or a mortgage holiday. If you have a spare room you could get a lodger. And note that even in countries under lockdown right now, Airbnb is still operating for hospital staff and other key workers.

Alternatively, it’s natural to bury your head in the sand and “hope something comes up”. But if you’re in dire straits, forming a sensible plan is essential; not just to make sure there’s food on the table, but to save you from being overcome by stress and worry. Which leads us on to step two…

 

2. Prioritise your mental health

Losing a big client isn’t about loss of income, it’s also about a loss of self-esteem; and this can be surprisingly wounding. All of a sudden, you start questioning your own worth. Are you just not good enough? Are you being replaced by younger, more enthusiastic (and cheaper) people? Have you been ‘found out’ after all these years of blagging it?

This kind of negative self-reflection can be seriously damaging to your long-term career if allowed to fester. So it’s important to acknowledge these feelings, but also to recognise that they are only feelings and don’t bear any rational connection to the actual quality of your work.

It might sound silly but losing a long-standing client really can be like suffering a relationship breakdown or bereavement. We don’t usually think about it in those terms, but it’s only once you recognise the strong emotions you’re feeling are real and need to be dealt with, that you can move on to the next stage.

 

3. Finding new clients

What’s the secret to finding new clients? Firstly, you need to think long and hard about the kind of clients you actually want. Then, once you’ve done that, try to empathise with them. Ask yourself: what problems are they likely to be experiencing at the moment? And how can you offer yourself as a solution to them?

(Note: this approach is so much better than just mass-emailing people and boasting about how great you are. Think about how people who make a similar play when trying to date, and how often they get the brush-off. Desperation is not a good look on anyone.)

Once you know the type of client you’re targeting, how do you find them? Begin with people and companies you already know; either because you’ve worked with them, or because you’ve been an enthusiastic customer. Beyond that, you need to start researching your chosen area thoroughly, from LinkedIn keyword searches to reading relevant articles, and beyond.

To generates further leads, ask around amongst your contacts, your friends, your friends-of-friends, and even those people who are technically Facebook friends, but you’re not sure who they are.

It’s also useful to check out the websites of other successful freelancers in your discipline, and their list of past clients. Could there an opening for you with those clients too? Plus, check out jobs boards. Yes, we know you don’t want a full-time job, but while the company are waiting to recruit somebody, there could well be an opportunity for freelancers to help fill the gap.

In short, there are a million ways to find potential clients, and the more creative you get, the better. After all, if a company generally hides their light under a bushel, they’re less likely to be bombarded by offers from rival freelancers, leaving you a wider opening to make your pitch.

 

4. Reframe your loss

If searching for new clients genuinely fills you with dread, then don’t discount that emotion, but listen to it. Ask yourself: is this just low self-esteem? Or is it a sign that you’re actually not in love with the kind of work you do, or the kind of clients you’ve been working for?

If the answer is yes, then maybe this is your opportunity to do a different type of work, to go in a completely different direction with your career.

For many freelancers, losing a big client turns out to be less a reversal of fortune and more the start of an exciting new chapter. Maybe you could use this time to retrain and pivot to a new discipline entirely. Perhaps you seize the moment and start your own business. If you have the funds, you could even take a sabbatical: write that novel, launch that podcast, take that online degree, spend time with your children.

Conversely, even if you continue doing the same thing, you might want to do it a different way. For example, have you thought about signing up with an agent, rather than managing all your bookings yourself? Many freelancers find they double or triple their earnings overnight as a result, because they’re bad at negotiation and were previously undercharging.

Whatever you decide, the main point is that losing a client is only a disaster if you frame it that way. Frame it as an opportunity or a new chapter in your life, and the sky’s the limit.

Looking for a free tool to manage your freelance business?

Sign here

Want to know about the UnderPinned Virtual Office?

Contact us

Related Articles

Cover letters: Should freelancers have to write them?

As freelancers there are many things we can say ‘goodbye’ to when we choose not to live in the ‘real work world’. Rude or controlling bosses, askin...

Read more
Universities are failing to close the skills gap, especially when it comes to freelancing

Getting started as a freelancer isn’t easy. Self-employment requires getting to grips with a range of practical knowledge and skills that employed ...

Read more
A guide to dealing with tax as a part-time freelancer

Freelancing, or running a small business, requires constant navigation. Completing your own tax is probably not at the top of the list of reasons w...

Read more