Let's face facts. Not all client or freelancer relationships are good ones. What starts out as a positive venture can suddenly alter in an instant the minute money changes hands. What most freelancers do not always grasp is that they are in a position to "fire" their clients just as much as their clients are in a position to "fire" them.
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Unlike a 9-5 job at a corporation, the title of Boss now fits both the client and the freelancer. The relation of where the power lies now needs to be treated like a delicate balancing act, and you are going to need a safety net should one of you come crashing down.
Surviving a Bad Client/Freelancer Relationship
In this article, I will cover how to know when it's time to fire a client, how to do so with tact, and how to survive with your reputation in good standing. But first, let's start with...
The Red Flags
Before a bad relationship reaches it's boiling point, there are warning signs telling you that you and your client are headed for a major meltdown. I call these warning signs "Red Flags" because if at any point you encounter one, the ideal reaction is to stop! If at any time you ignore the Red Flags and continue to plow through the project then you are setting you and your client up for certain disaster.
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So what are the warning signs?
One big sign is that there is a sudden communication breakdown. Either you are no longer understanding what your client is asking for, or your client is no longer understanding what it is you are trying to tell them. Deterioration of communication is the number one reason why relationships fall apart, the trick is to catch it while it's happening.
- Am I frustrated when I talk to my client?
- Does my client seem frustrated with me?
- Does there seem to be an elevation in the amount of phone calls, emails, or meetings taking place between me and my client? -
If you can answer 'yes' to any of these questions, then be aware that you are facing your first Red Flag.
Another warning sign is your mood.
- Do you become grumpy or irritated when you think of the work that you will need to do to get the project finished?
- Do you feel the urge to avoid talking to your client because it makes you feel uneasy?
- Are you and your friends or family having mini fights over silly things that normally wouldn't bother you?
Answer 'yes' to any of these and congratulations, you just found your second Red Flag.
Red Flag number three comes from your own body. Believe it or not, our bodies try to talk to our brains on a regular basis. When something isn't right in our world the body has a funny way of responding. Psychical pain can be a major Red Flag. Headaches, back aches, blurred vision, restless sleep, stiff joints, and changes in weight can all be induced by stress. Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you. No amount of money is worth putting your health at risk. If you encounter a Red Flag like this, ignoring it can put you out of commission and that is the worst place a freelancer can be.
Ok, so you're starting to encounter some Red Flags - what do you do now? Now it's time to take an assessment. The assessment is a logical examination of how the project went from happy to unhappy and see if you can pinpoint just where it all went wrong. Sit down with pen and paper and create a time-line of events from the very first moment of communication to where you are now. See if you can visually track the progress or lack there of. Don't trust your emotions at this point.
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It takes two to tango and chances are you are partially responsible for the meltdown, but you may not have been able to see that due to your over exerted emotions. Getting things out of your head and down on paper will help you to weed out the problem and help you define the solution.
Also, now is the time to ask questions like:
- Am I being perfectly clear when I attempt to communicate with my client?
- Have I exceeded my skills in completing the project?
- Am I being logical and rational with my requests of the client?
- Have I done all that I can to understand why I or my client is unhappy?
- Have I done all that I can to make my client happy and the problem is still persisting?
If you are answering 'yes' to some, most, or all, of these questions, then now might be the time for you to put an end to the relationship.
The Escape Clause
It's my firm belief that every project should come with a contract, and every contract should come with an Escape Clause. The Escape Clause is about one or two paragraphs long and will list the terms of what will happen to you, your work, the client's information, and the client's money should an unforeseen event take place.
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This paragraph not only covers an unsatisfying relationship, but also if one of you is no longer able to fulfill your end of the bargain due to poor health, family emergency, equipment breakdown, company emergency, environmental act, sudden lack of interest in the project, or even if the client's funding falls through.
You wouldn't want to be in a burning building without an evacuation plan, and this is your freelance evacuation plan. By having the Escape Clause clearly stated in your contract at the beginning of the project, then both you and your client are protected should something go wrong. Also, if you do feel that things are starting to head in the wrong direction, then make sure to remind them that the Escape Clause is there, and there for their protection as much as it is for yours.
The Backup Plan
If you or your client decides that it's time to invoke the Escape Clause, then it's a good idea to have a Back Up Plan. The Back Up Plan is a list of trusted colleagues that you know, that you could refer your client to in order to get their project finished. Knowing who your colleagues are, what their personalities are like, and what skill strengths they possess will help you match your client with a more suitable freelancer.
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By having this list on stand-by, your client will recognize that you really do have their best interests at heart and it will act as a sign of good customer service. It's hard to bad mouth someone when they are being kind to you, so make sure to ask if your client would like some assistance in getting connected with their new freelancer.
By personally making the introductions as you pass the project on, then both the client and the new freelancer will appreciate the respect you have shown them. Also, it's a good idea to follow up with the client a few weeks after the introduction to just touch base, see if the match worked, and see if the client is now seeing the results they had been hoping for.
The other half of the Back Up Plan is how to cover the loss of income. Once the project is stopped so are the payments and this can turn your world upside down as we freelancers are often falling victim to counting our chickens before they are hatched. One way to make sure this doesn't happen is to make sure to not spend future payments until they are securely nesting in your bank account, purse, wallet, or even your hand.
By sticking to a strict budget until the project is complete, then you can rest a little easier knowing that you haven't lived beyond your means. Also, include a "no refunds" policy within your contract. This way, clients will not be able to come after you for the money they have paid you which you in turn paid to your own bill collectors.
Then it's time to find your next job. At this point, it's good to crawl out of your freelance cave make yourself visible to the world again. Talk to your colleagues on your Back Up Plan list and let them know that you are available should they need any help with their own clients or projects. Brush up your networking skills and hit the social media sites. Shoot an email to previous clients to see how they are doing and offer them a discount on their next project if they can gain you some referrals. And best case scenario, contact those clients that you had to put on hold until your schedule freed up.
Firing a client is never an enjoyable event. But by keeping track of your red flags, making logical assessments, having an escape clause in your contract, and a back up plan in place - then you can breathe a little easier knowing that you are not going to get burned in the process.
Have you ever fired a client before? How do you handle a good relationship with your client? Please share with us.