How to Let Go of Smaller Clients

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I use Fridays for strategy and Mondays for getting caught up on payments to contractors, cleaning out my email inbox and all that good stuff. And because it's the first week of February at the time of this post, I've also totaled up everything from January and reviewed my workload.

This is something I do all the time; I have a spreadsheet in Google that I use to keep track of one-off projects and my monthly recurring retainers - using that to see where I'm at, how many clients I'm working with, whether I need to bring on additional clients - that sort of thing.

Looking at my spreadsheet this morning, I realized that I have too many small retainers. And while having a bunch of small projects as a new freelancer is very normal, it can be really difficult to keep up with. You might have 10, maybe 12 projects a month, different clients, each with their own requirements, guidelines, revision requests, communication preferences, ways of working etc. It can get very exhausting and you won't have time to build recurring work, which is a real pain because retainers are everything in the world of freelancing particularly from the perspective of income predictability and being able to plan ahead. It's also much easier, when you have retainers that cover your bills and expenses, to let bad clients go or to say "No" to them in the first place.

 

Lesson Learnt

In 2015, I came close to burning myself out. I had outsourced - at this point - a lot of my writing projects. Freeing myself up for writing and working on client projects.  What I got back in return was,

  • Administrative headaches, and
  • Time spent paying invoices for outsourced work that didn't even meet my expectations.

Although my business experienced growth from the perspective of revenue, it was not the type of growth that I wanted. It is why I am now really mindful of how I structure my business and whom I am working with. Working with a handful of clients of high value - I'm not talking about just high dollar, but valuable projects from a business growth perspective - is really important for me. For my own sanity.

 

Shortlisting Your Client Portfolio

One way that I separate the clients who should stay versus those who shouldn't is this - right next to the column where all of my retainers are totaled up, I create a column for the clients who I like working with the best.

Doing this, I realized that the difference was approx. $3000 in monthly revenue, but the clients that were left consisted of really small client projects requiring the most hand holding. They would take up a lot of my time, rent a lot of space in my brain, not work in a way that enabled me to plan/work ahead. These clients would give the project to me one week at a time, and I would end up having to budget time in every single week to work on their projects.

In contrast, I have a client that I have worked with for four years. It's a $600 monthly retainer, but I can do all the work in one to two days a month. It doesn't take me much time to do - I block out three days in my schedule; one day is for topic selection, the next day for writing, and the last day for editing. And then if I'm delivering the work electronically, I would preschedule the emails using Boomerang, so that the client receives one content piece per week.

 

Firing Clients is Scary

The idea of firing clients and letting them go can be terrifying, especially if you are at the beginning of your freelance career and you don't have a ton of clients on retainer yet. But achieving a breakthrough into higher levels of earnings – for example, $5k to $10k a month - requires this mindset. Let's say that I was working 40 hours a week, and I have filled those 40 hours with clients who are okay, they pay alright, the job's alright, it's not ideal but it's okay. I have now blocked my ability to get better paying jobs from clients who are more of a fit for me, because I filled those 40 hours. I've given all of my time and energy and writing ability to those specific clients. So I literally can't take on anyone else without firing.

We are typically creatures of habit, and can easily get stuck in a rut; staying with these less than ideal clients. In my personal experience, I have always found replacement clients that were better suited – and better paying – than the ones that I decided to let go. When you make a decision to let go of some of your current clients, it's almost like you're telling the universe ‘thanks for this client, it's not right for me and I'm going to release them for somebody else to work with.’ What you would also be saying is ‘I am calling in for something bigger.’ Before you know it, a referral occurs, or somebody sends you a random contact form on your website.

It has always happened for me because I've had the faith that it would happen. I've never regretted firing a client. There has not ever been one client that I let go of without a sense of relief. When you feel that there's a weight that's been lifted off of your shoulders is when you know that it was the right thing to do.

 

Keep it professional and Don't burn Bridges

Let's dive into letting those clients you selected go. There will be clients who will be shocked that you're letting them go. They will even think that their retainer, which could be $300, $500 or even jus $100 a month, is a significant amount.  They could very well not accept that you want to go. You need to be prepared for that.

Sometimes they might be like, ‘okay, whatever bye.’ They might even get mad. But it’s very rare in my experience. It is rare even if you have worked with this person for a while. It will feel like they don't know where it's coming from, and why would you leave money on the table. I'm always firing clients, not like every week but once a quarter - I'm looking at my list and saying who's a fit, who's not.

I had a client who started out with a $600 per month retainer; he was a third-party marketing agency. Business, however, began to dwindle for him and what started as a $600 monthly retainer became $200. This was when I had to say, ‘unfortunately, I'm no longer able to work on these smaller projects.’ I further explained that I would definitely complete the next two months for him but that he needed to find somebody else as a replacement. He tried to persuade me to stay on, but I stayed firm. The possibility of $300 or $400 a month is not really worth the excess time of me emailing a client in the hopes that they pay their invoices. Always pick clients that make commitments and keep them.

In 2015, where I almost burned out, I was managing a team of a dozen content writers and we had this huge contract - it was massive. We were writing hundreds of blogs a month. It was a tremendous amount of work on my part: a lot of admin, managing of writers, and I learned that I don't like managing writers. It was too much work and hassle, and too much editing and admin time. It just wasn't worth it. Anyway, I actually tried to quit with this client. I was the project or content manager. I wasn't even doing the writing. But I tried to quit three times and every time, she talked me back into it and would say, ‘we'll make this easier for you, we'll try to plan things better for you.’

One of my complaints was that they weren't paying the writers enough, so we consistently got crappy articles and then the clients complained. As the project manager, I always said, 'we could fix this by paying the writers more so there's an incentive for them to do high-quality work: clients are happy, you get paid on time, my contractors get paid on time, they keep working, and they deliver on deadline. It's all connected, all part of an important cycle.' She wouldn't budge. She's like, ‘no, we're paying this minimum rate.’ The writers were burning out. Every time she'd be able to talk me back into it and I realized my mistake. I eventually left.

What I had to do was give them a hard and fast line: there is no push back. Make it very clear that you are done, and you are walking away. Be professional about it but leave no wiggle room.

One of my favorite things to do is to not get into the details. You don't need to say I am having personal problems or I hate this project. Just say, ‘I wanted to let you know that my business model has changed and effective (insert date here), I will no longer be able to work on your project.’ Mention that you wanted to give them plenty of notice, so they have time to find a replacement. And remember to thank them for the opportunity to work with them.

It's clear. It's firm. It's professional.

There are no emotions and drama tied up in it. Even if this is a horrible client that you have been dying to fire, just keep it professional, don't get too involved in it. Keep it professional. Don't burn bridges unless you have to.

You have to be really careful when you give clients an opening for questions after stating that you are discontinuing the relationship. They will push back. They will push back because it is a major hassle to hire freelancers. Most clients don't want to go out and find somebody else. They are going to push back.

I had a client a couple of months ago who was always changing the guidelines and requirements. It was no longer easy for me to work with him because I couldn't plan ahead. I didn't know what the instructions du jour was going to be. I let him know via Upwork that my business model had changed, and I could no longer work on smaller projects. He came back with a request for a phone call to talk this through; he was concerned that there was a miscommunication and that he had upset me. I got on the phone with him and just basically had to reiterate the same message. I fired that client and still got five-star feedback on Upwork. Keep it neutral and professional and you can still gain benefits from that client. I have even had clients that I fired who then went on to refer me to somebody decent. Don't burn a bridge unless you have to.

 

Replacing the lost income

If you truly need to replace the lost income from firing a client, make a personal challenge to yourself to replace the exact dollar amount you lost. If you are just trying to cut back your working hours and you don't need that money, let it go. But if you are nervous about losing that amount of money, give yourself a firm deadline - this is important.

You could also,

  • Make it into a game.
  • Go out to your current ideal clients and see if there is potential for more work.
  • Write to clients who you haven't heard from in a while and have done projects for in the past. 
  • Bid on projects on online job boards or whatever websites you use.

With the right mindset, you can easily replace that client – or those clients – you just fired.

There are so many clients out there. So, many good clients too.

Don't back yourself into a corner with bad clients when you can actually let them go. Let them go as professionally and as peacefully as you can.

 

Next steps

I hope this helps you with one of the scariest things about running your freelance business i.e. letting clients go and ending contracts.

We often spend so much time talking about landing the client and closing the deal; and we don’t think about the other aspect of this, which is - you get to choose who you work with.

This applies really well to Upwork clients too because if you have ongoing Upwork contracts where you are being paid peanuts or where the client gives you sporadic work, that's not helping your job success score or helping you land future business on Upwork. So this applies across the board.

If you are not already tracking how much money you have coming in regularly or even on a month to month basis, do it. At my day job, I would just write down every pending project I had, how much that was supposed to pay, how much more I needed to hit my target at the time which was $3000 in work.

It gets a lot easier when you have retainers and you can count on clients paying you every single month. But start tracking it; be aware of your money and be positive about it. Treat it like an opportunity to have a 'money check-in' and to actively align your actions with what you are going to do to hit your personal goal.