When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, you might take every gig you can get, just to build up a portfolio and a good reputation.
You’re willing to take the cheap and sometimes frustrating assignments in the name of building your business, and that’s OK when you’re just getting off the ground.
Eventually, though, your freelance business will grow.
You’ll land more clients who are willing to pay you more for your experience, which means your time becomes more valuable. You might be able to juggle these high-value projects with the low-paying ones for a while, but at a certain point, you will likely need to drop the latter to free yourself up for bigger and better things.
So how do you know when it’s time to “break up” with a certain freelance client? Here are four signs you should reconsider working with that particular client.
1. They pay you less than other clients for comparable work (and won’t raise their budget)
Freelance rates can be a tricky subject, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience.
When you’re not in a position to negotiate, you might accept a $10 or $15 per article just to get the gig.
But when other clients start offering you double, triple or quadruple (or more) to write that same article, the choice becomes rather obvious whom you’d rather write for.
For example, a potential client of mine offered me $20 to write a 600-word blog post. Even at the lowest, “beginner” level pay rates, paying five to eight cents per word ($30 to $48) for a 600-word article.
If you ask your client for a modest raise based on a few different average recommended rates, and they can’t or won’t offer you more, their projects aren’t worth pursuing.
2. Their work takes more time to complete than it’s worth
Let’s say I accepted that $20 offer for the blog post. If the piece took me a half hour to write with no additional work involved, that would be the equivalent of a $40 hourly rate.
Not bad, right?
The problem is, what the client expected me to write would have taken at least two to three hours of research, interviewing and writing — which would make my hourly value plummet.
I always recommend taking a couple of sample assignments before making a long-term commitment to a client, to see how long each project takes and whether the pay rate is worth the amount of work I’d have to do.
3. You hate the work
It’s worth sticking with a client if you truly enjoy the work you’re doing, but if you dread the thought of working on certain assignments, it’s time to think about dropping them.
I once worked with a client who had me write headlines and meta descriptions for product reviews he had written. I’d done SEO projects before, but I found that the client’s large workload, demanding deadlines and difficult specifications made it difficult to stay motivated and do a good job. I ended up canceling the contract part-way through and refunding the money the client had already paid.
I hope to never have to do that again, but sometimes when you’re in over your head, you need to get out so you can focus on work you’re better at.
4. They’re hard to work with
Regardless of what they’re paying you, no client is worth hours of frustration spent on back-and-forth exchanges, last-minute project changes and endless revisions.
This is especially true if you’re charging a flat fee: As in the above example of the $20 blog post, the more time and energy you put into a flat-rate project, the less you’re earning in the long run.
If you have a “give an inch, take a mile” client who continually demands more without compensating you accordingly (or worse, won’t pay up at all), let that client go.
How to end your professional relationship
As with any relationship, breaking up with a client is no easy task.
You may feel guilty for leaving them hanging on a project, or worry they’ll leave a negative review on your online profiles. If you do it right, though, most clients will be understanding when you request to end your working relationship with them.
The best approach is to treat it like you’re quitting a traditional job.
Explain in polite and professional terms why you’re unable to continue working for them — in other words, focus your own business needs, rather than on whatever they’ve done wrong.
Do your best not to badmouth or berate the client, to their face or to anyone else (unless you’re in a situation like Simon Owens, who publicly called out a client who owed him more than $2,000). Here are a few examples:
- Low pay: “I am pursuing higher-budget projects.”
- Demanding deadlines or takes too long: “I am juggling a lot of opportunities right now and need to balance my workload.”
- Unfulfilling work or difficult client: “I am focusing on work from other clients right now.”
Once you’ve given the client your reason, you can offer to stay on for a little longer (through the end of the next project or a specific time frame, depending on the work you had been doing) until they find another freelancer to replace you. Your willingness to ease the transition will assuage any hard feelings, and may even earn you a good recommendation or future referral.
Most importantly, remind yourself that this decision is right for you and your freelance career. Don’t feel badly about dropping a client in the name of business growth — sometimes, you need to clear out the weeds to make room for the flowers.
Have you ever broken up with a client? Share your experience in the comments below.