When should you break up with a client?
It always feels so good to finally wrap up a story and see your byline. No matter how long it is or which publication it’s written for, I’m always happy when my work reaches people.
It’s easy to get a high off of this sense of accomplishment. But what you start to figure out is that freelancing is not just about sharing your work, it’s also about making sure you can make a living off of your work and avoid burnout.
I started thinking about this recently after reviewing a list of clients I’ve had over the past two years. Some paid better than others. Some paid faster than others. While most sent payments via snail mail, others had more sophisticated B2B payment platforms or issued direct deposits. They all varied from paying before the story ran to sending in payment 60 days after receiving the invoice.
I say all this to explain that a freelancer-client relationship is about give-and-take. You listen to what your clients need and provide them with a service. They, in turn, should pay you what the work is worth and within a previously agreed upon time frame.
But things don’t always work out that way. There are clients who pay late or pay well below what other publications in the market play. Sometimes editors are difficult to work with or hard to reach. A contract and a clear communication strategy help to alleviate some of that stress, but s*** happens.
So the question I have had to ask myself when a freelancer-client is showing signs of going sour is: Is this relationship worth continuing? Before breaking off the arrangement altogether, there are a few factors to consider.
How lucrative is this relationship? If this client is a huge source of income, give it some extra thought before you pull the plug. Yes, the relationship may not be what you want it to be, but you need to either work it out or find another source of income before you let go.
Can the problem be solved with a calm phone call? It’s good practice to establish what’s the best way to communicate with your editor. Many editors I’ve worked with are frequently checking email, but it’s good to have their phone number for serious problems. As soon as a serious problem arises, make a mental note to talk about it at a time when you’re rational and open to compromise. Have your documents and emails ready to reference during the phone calls.
Are contract violations taking place? Look for clauses in your contract that dictate how and when you should be paid before starting work. If you’re thinking of severing a relationship because of a contract violation, bring that up during future talks. Yes, contracts are intimidating, but they’re there to clarify the scope of work as well as when and how you’re compensated. If a client repeatedly violates these terms, break it off once you get what you’re owed and complete the project. If it’s a one-time thing, it’s probably a mistake.
Will this gig help you get more in the future? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You can get exposure and a check. If a client is repeatedly causing you problems, it’s probably time to walk away. But if the gig is prominent and gets you story tips, it’s worth talking with your editor to see if the relationship can be salvaged. Sometimes a little talk can go a long way.
Is it time to move on to new kinds of work? If you're feeling dissatisfied, it'll show up in the quality of work that you do. Check in with yourself and see whether the work you're producing is making you happy and accomplishing your goals. If not, it's time to recalibrate. If you don't you'll run the risk of burning out. Ask yourself what you want, and then work your way towards the best version of you.
Knowing when to say “No” is very important for freelancers. As independent workers, we are our own accounting department, negotiator, and creative person all-in-one. That means the stuff you’d go to a boss for are things you’ll now have to handle on your own. Once you know whether a relationship to work out, it’ll save you a lot of time and stress. Trust me. Choosing who to work with and what work you do is the best benefit of freelancing.
How have you broken up with a client? Did it go well? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.