3 Reasons Why Client / Freelancer Relationships Don’t Work Out

I just finished a project as a freelancer – it didn't end as intended. After doing 100% of the agreed upon work, I called it quits and ended the relationship, losing thousands of dollars of compensation. Some projects just aren't worth the unnecessary turmoil and extra time. As a freelancer, you should always reserve the right to protect and take care of yourself.

If this sounds crazy to you, I get it. But I don't think these are completely isolated perspectives. As the project-based economy continues to flourish, the relationship between clients and freelancers needs to have stronger rules of engagement.

So how do I decide when the relationship needs to end? Like all relationships, the value you derive should have an overall end net positive on your life and career. I intentionally separate life and career, because those both need to be weighed.

  • Life impact includes things like emotional health, stress on personal relationships, and physical health. All three are normally sacrificed to finish projects, and that's totally acceptable to a certain degree.
  • Career impact includes things like building your brand, gaining additional reach, and, of course, compensation.

These aren't all quantifiable metrics. You eventually just need to trust your gut, which is scary but critical for long-term success. If you can't trust your own instinct, then you might not be able to pursue your true passions. I don't think you can pursue your passions with just quantifiable analysis. This understanding comes with time and experience – and lots of failure.

What were the main reasons leading to an early project termination? Here are the top 3.

  1. Project scope creep: The client continued to ask for additional content without agreeing on additional compensation. The additional content requests were presented as edits to the original content, but were actually completely new sets of content. Did I push back? Absolutely. Most times, the client is simply unaware that they're asking for new sets of content, instead of just edits. With this client, they could not understand how their requests wouldn't be in the original project scope. This brings me to the second reason I ended the project.
  2. Subject Matter Expert Trust: When you hire a freelancer, you're hiring a subject matter expert. It's the client's duty to research and vet freelancers to a point where they trust the freelancers as subject matter experts. That's why I always supply credible references and example work. I understand that this doesn't always work out because freelancers tend to exaggerate some of their experiences and skills. Let's assume, in this case, that I'm an experienced subject matter expert who clearly and accurately communicated previous experiences and skill level. The client second-guessed every piece of work without considering my POV. Balancing a client's adjustment to their original vision with completing quality work is difficult. I think adjustments to original vision are completely natural, as the freelancer and client need to explore the project and content together. Both parties are obligated to listen to each other and foster active discussion about the work. The project quality will suffer without a healthy dialogue.
  3. Constant urgent demands: The original project deadlines were all met on time, then the new content framed as edits to the original content didn't have clear deadlines. This is when the project started to unravel. Every new request had the word "URGENT" in the email subject line and had a deadline of "ASAP". At one point, a new request was sent on a Monday morning, then two reminder emails were send before EOD. When I responded at the end of that day, I reminded the client that sometimes I need 1 full business day to respond.

So let's put those 3 points together with life and career impact considerations.

  • Project scope creep will eventually eat into time allocated to other projects. I usually give myself 2 weeks after a project end date before starting another project. As a freelancer, I need to schedule some of these projects at least weeks in advance. When one project overextends for more than 2 weeks, then I start having major time issues. This hurts the quality and relationships of both projects.
  • Lack of subject matter expert trust damages a relationship. I'm particularly sensitive about relationship health, while others aren't sensitive at all. To each their own, right? This is more of a "me" thing, but it's important for my overall mental health. I didn't recognize this for most of my career. Mental health is a primary pillar in my overall success. When the pillar is damaged, then the quality of my work begins to deteriorate.
  • Constant urgent demands are a reflection of the client's respect of the freelancer. It's weird to say, but I'd rather make less money in a respectful relationship. I decided years ago that no one can pay to disrespect my professional and personal boundaries.

In the end, every hard decision comes with a cost or sacrifice. For me, ending this project has already protected my mental health and increased productivity on other projects. I wish all the best for that client, and hope they learn from this experience. I certainly have.

Jon ChangComment