In the first few years of my e-Learning freelance career, like many freelancers, I focused more on getting paid than I did on doing work that I loved. I dreamed of someday only doing e-Learning work, but I had bills to pay and a business to get off the ground in the meantime. As a result, I started taking on work as a technical writer, which I never really enjoyed due to the extremely tight timelines, dry subject matter, and chaotic review cycles—but it paid well. Then, before I knew it, my technical writing clients were making up the majority of my client roster, and I was spending most of my time on work that wasn’t aligned with my goals or my values. It was a problem I hadn’t prepared for: how can I reach my goals when the work I need to take to stay afloat uses up all of my time?
Eventually, I reached a hard conclusion: if I was ever going to have a career doing the e-Learning work that I enjoyed the most, I was going to have to break up with the clients whose work was pulling me in other directions. I learned quite a bit from that process, so this week I’d like to talk about the signs that it’s time to break up with a client, and a few of my preferred techniques for ending client relationships.
Mindset Change: Some Clients Can Hold You Back
As freelancers, given how much work we put into our portfolios, branding kits, and businesses, the idea of ending a client relationship can be a tough pill to swallow. I myself have used the logic, “I worked so hard to find this client, and they pay well, I would be foolish to let them go!” And depending on the financial health of your business, you may need to maintain a few clients who offer work you don’t enjoy to maintain an income flow—only you can decide when it’s the right time to take action.
But the key strategy to evolving the work you do is to always remember that some clients can hold you back from your career goals. The time you spend working with and for these clients is all time you could be putting towards finding clients and work that’s better aligned with the type of work you want to be doing. Once you begin to look at misaligned work as a hindrance to your professional development, it becomes a lot easier to see past the “any paying work is good work” mentality. For me, it was a matter of asking myself before each technical writing project I took on: “Is the money I get from this project worth delaying the goals I set for myself?”
The Signs It Might Be Time to Break Up With A Client
So, how do you know when to break up with a client, and which clients to break up with? Only you can say for certain, but I’ve come across six signals that can be strong indicators that it’s time to end a relationship.
1. You charge them significantly less than your other clients.
A few of my first clients were also friends and colleagues—people that I knew well and really liked. I appreciated them being willing to take a chance on me as I got started, and I partly showed that appreciation by working for them at a low rate.
While that worked in the beginning, it eventually created big problems for me, especially as I raised my rates. In a few cases, as I charged my other clients more over time, I kept my “friend” clients’ rates the same. And then I would be faced with weeks where I had thirty hours of work to complete, with ten of those hours at $75.00 an hour, and twenty hours at $25.00 an hour. It was important to me to be loyal, but that got expensive, quickly.
If you have a client that you’re significantly undercharging, it may be time to consider moving on—in fact, the financial health of your business may depend on it!
2. They take up a disproportionate amount of your time.
Even if a client is paying well, it’s important to consider how much time you’re devoting to a single client. Part of your responsibility as a freelancer is to make sure you’re prepared for the ebb and flow of freelance work, and spending the majority of your time with one client can be risky. If you were to lose their business overnight, what would you do?
Part of the idea behind this is “don’t put all your [freelance e-Learning business] eggs in one [client] basket,” because you never know when a client relationship may end. The other side is the idea that it’s always good to “diversify your portfolio,” because you’ll grow as a professional by encountering all different manners of clients and e-Learning needs.
If you’re spending too much time with one client, you may be robbing yourself of the opportunity to better prepare for dry spells, as well as grow your e-Learning skills through a variety of topics.
3. They cause you a disproportionate amount of stress.
This is a big flag that most freelancers tend to forget about: it’s OK to end a client relationship if they drive you crazy. Your mental health is a perfectly valid reason to walk away from a client! When I’m in the middle of an intense, engaging project with a client, I often forget to check in on my own stress level. It’s important to stop occasionally and ask yourself: “Do I leave my interactions with this client inspired, or frustrated?”
One of the best things about the freelance life is that you’re in control—if a client isn’t a good fit, you can always walk away. Most of us tend to forget this, and if you find yourself anxious or unhappy as a result of a particular client, that may be a sign that you need to move on.
4. They make you question your own abilities.
As the saying goes, “everyone’s a critic,” so getting constructive feedback about all of the work you do is part of the gig, and it can sometimes require having a thick skin for your client’s opinions about your output.
There’s a line, however, between a client providing useful feedback, versus having so much criticism that they make you question your own value. I’ve had some clients who have gotten so involved with the minutiae of my work that it’s made me begin to doubt myself and my worth. Sometimes it’s been me getting grilled about the design choices I’ve made, and other times it’s been a client holding me responsible for things I can’t control—but no matter how, in some of those instances, I’ve walked away questioning my own abilities, which isn’t healthy.
Like I said, criticism is part of the job, so only you can decide when a client is creating a situation where you’re forced to reevaluate your own merit—but if you find yourself in this predicament, breaking up with the client may be the healthiest next step.
5. The work they offer you isn’t aligned with your professional goals.
Not every job can perfectly line up with your professional goals—at some point, we each have to make compromises for money, time, and our personal circumstances. It’s critical, however, that as a freelancer, you’re consistently taking the big picture into perspective when it comes to the kind of work you’re taking on. Every few months, I try and make a point of listing all of the projects I’m working on, and then asking myself questions like:
- Am I growing my skill set through this work?
- How does each project align to my documented core values?
- How is each project moving me closer to my professional goals?
I encourage you to try this same exercise on a regular basis. As you’re thinking about each question, be brutally honest about your answers. Write them down. After some reflection, come back to what you’ve written: you may be helping yourself identify which client relationships you may need to consider ending.
Breaking Up with Clients 101
Once you’ve identified any clients you need to break up with, it’s important to have a strategy for how you’re going to do it.
In terms of the planning, I recommend the following:
- Adopt a policy where you only drop an existing client when you have a replacement client lined up. This will help you incur the change with minimal financial impact.
- Develop your break-up language ahead of time. These conversations can be awkward, so don’t hesitate to take notes about the points you want to get across. If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ll just plan the conversation in my head, it’ll be fine,” you might be surprised at how hard it is to do that! (If you’re not sure what to write, check out Nick Reese’s Problem Client Scripts.)
- Never fully shut the door. You never know when you might cross paths with your old clients again, or when you’ll need to reach out for a reference. So before you go airing all your grievances with the client you’re breaking up with, consider that it’s more to your advantage to leave in a professional manner in case you someday need to resume working together.
As you’re thinking about your own client portfolio, I urge you to be mindful of your client relationships and to frequently check-in with yourself to make sure the projects you’re working on and the people you’re working with are always moving your career and your skills forward. No one’s career is perfect, so it’s OK to have some client relationships that fare better through this lens than others, but the important part is that you’re maintaining an awareness of the work that’s moving you forward—and the work that’s holding you back.
How do you personally know when it’s time to end a client relationship? What strategies do you employ to have client break-ups go smoothly? As always, I’m eager for your thoughts, insights, and maybe even some horror stories about client break-ups! Join the group conversation in our private Facebook group, or share your thoughts with the Twitter-verse using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.