Dealing with losing a client: misfortune, carelessness, or it just happens?

Oscar Wilde famously quipped that to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Can Wilde’s witty maxim can be applied to freelance businesses, and the inevitable fact that our hard-won clients don’t stick around forever?

We spend so much time, capital and emotional energy finding and maintaining those precious relationships. How bad really is it when the hard-won clients – the golden icons of our professional life – move on?

When I first started out as a freelancer in 2016 I had one paying client. After almost three years in business I have had 18. That’s good, I hear you say. Six a year, admirable progress! But here’s the rub. Four of them – nearly a quarter – I have already lost. They’ve been and gone. They are ex-clients. In project management terminology they are ‘red’.

Of the remaining 14, five are pretty much active, or ‘green’. The other nine are, you might say, dormant or ‘amber’. I haven’t burned my boats with them but haven’t necessarily heard from them for a while.

It’s misleading to extrapolate too much from limited experience; but the circumstances of each of the four clients I ‘lost’ were quite different. And the losses were not all or wholly down to things I could or should have done.

The rest of this blog looks at the individual cases and tries to generalise from them.

In the end the message is yes, take care, but not everything is under your control, and it’s unhealthy and stressful to assume or pretend it is.

It happens. Sh*t happens. Still, we can learn something from the experiences.

1. Business models change

One of my client losses was essentially the victim of the external political situation. They are moving their European headquarters to continental Europe and introducing a new organisational and regulatory structure. It’s a change in business model. The particular context in which I was commissioned by them to produce work literally no longer exists.

The fact is that as a function of Brexit more and more firms – especially in financial services where the European passport is a vital feature of doing cross-border business – are going to be reconsidering their UK corporate stance. This will affect the flow of client work for someone like me who is providing freelance services to those companies.

It’s inevitable. All you can really do is shrug and get on with it. Keep the relationships going, just in case, in a rare moment of lateral thinking, someone in Frankfurt thinks of the great job you used to do for the London office. Cultivate that person, if you know who they are and you have the necessary technical capabilities (which might include working mainly in a language other than English).

Either way, do three other things. (1) Anticipate which clients might be considering this kind of business model change, especially any that form a large percentage of your revenue. (2) Work strategically towards a replacement. And (3) diversify for all you’re worth.

2. It never really got going

One of my ‘lost’ clients, in truth, never really got started. I did some pilot work for them and I held out great hope. They paid me for the pilot, and I waited for the call. It never came.

Arguably it is misleading that I considered them a client in the first place. But to me if someone has paid me a pound for Prism-Clarity’s services then they are (were) (have been) a client. There’s no minimum threshold to becoming one of the golden icons, to my eye. Once a client, always a client. Until they’re not!

Did I do anything wrong? I could have been more flexible. The work potentially involved direct competition, for time, with another client who I felt took precedence. I ruled myself out of time-availability which I knew would be taken up working for the other one. This didn’t help.

Then again, you’ve got to maintain good work-life balance and be true to your strategic long-term relationships. The ‘lost’ client here wasn’t important enough to trigger a rethink of domestic or existing work patterns. It was, in the end, my responsibility and my choice that I didn’t make it easier for them to hire me.

3. You can’t get on with everyone

Not everyone you meet turns into a lifelong friend. Some people you just don’t hit it off with. The same is true of clients. And I would say it was a personality clash which led to my most regrettable loss.

It was unfortunate because the work was good: it was regular and interesting and I learned a lot doing it. But in the end you have to trust your instincts, and if the way someone is dealing with you is causing you stress you have to challenge that and if necessary, be prepared to ultimately walk away.

Those words were carefully chosen. I could have played things differently in this case, by being more assertive in challenging the behaviours that caused the stress. But I felt, given the personalities involved, the act of challenge would cause at least as much stress as just walking away. So I walked away.

I do regret it, not the loss of work but the absence of closure. There were no real business or professional consequences for them – they found replacements easily. But I would like to have the time again, to explain my case and close things off more functionally.

4. The economics didn’t work

My most recent loss was after a short series of fixed rate pilot pieces, essentially a kind of extended test on both sides. Their budget was limited, and they were accustomed to using what amounted to a content mill at a ludicrous rate.

So the fixed rate I accepted for the pilot scheme involved a hefty discount, on two rational grounds:
(i) The project was so interesting and high profile that I really wanted to do it for its own sake.
(ii) I persuaded myself – maybe with a shade of professional arrogance – that I could do the work really efficiently, in, say, half the time I would normally expect to take. On this basis the reduction in time spent would bump my per hour rate back up to a tolerable level.

The client liked the work, but the reduction in time spent did not transpire. The content turned out more complex than it looked when I accepted the pilot terms. I ended up spending far too long on each piece, and my per hour rate plummeted.

This was not sustainable, so I pulled the plug during the pilot scheme. This time it was a good closure. I was honest and appreciative, and they understood. They even promised to revisit their budget and come back to me if there was a chance of reinstating the relationship on a more acceptable footing. There probably isn’t, but at least there is goodwill on closure, on both sides.

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Three ways to help you deal with it

So there you have it. Four clients lost. I pulled the plug twice; they pulled the plug twice. Four different circumstances but maybe some common themes.

Here are three ideas to help you reduce the risks of it happening and mitigate the effects if – when – it does.

1. Plan ahead

Although making plans for the end of a successful relationship – professionally speaking – sounds counterintuitive or even ridiculous, it’s a good idea to assume you WILL lose your best client or clients and plan 6-12 months ahead for that eventuality. It could happen and it’s wise to be prepared. I am indebted to a business coach I was seeing at the time for helping me to set up tools and processes which eventually yielded an excellent replacement.

2. Look before you leap

In two of my lost client cases I probably should never have entered into the relationship in the first place. It was vanity, a triumph of hope over experience. In one case I didn’t really intend to make the time available to make it work, deep down. In the other I sold myself short on price. It is practically never a good idea to do that.

3. Address problematic relationships early

If I had my time again this is what I would have done with the regrettable client loss. I should have been more assertive, more calm, more professional, dare I say it more emotionally intelligent in stating the problem, calmly and straight, and asking if we could talk about it. Easy to say, less easy to do, but in the end your business will thank you for it.

Don’t let the emotions take over. You wouldn’t in corporate life, why would you in freelance life?

To end this blog here’s a little visual map of my 18 clients to date.

The four I’ve talked about in this blog – and the timing of their loss – are denoted by red blocks. The value to my business of all 18 is shown as a percentage range at the end of each client row. On average over the 12 quarters I’ve been in business I’ve had four current clients – sometimes up to seven, sometimes down to zero – which feels about right and broadly comfortable.

In the end, accept that you might lose a few along the way and that – as long as you learn from the experiences – that’s OK. It’s neither carelessness nor misfortune but just part of our great freelance journey.