Client relationships often start out beautifully, making the client seem, at first glance, to be a knight in shining armor. We start working for them and everything seems fine. But the warning signs are there. And over time, we slowly realize that the person underneath that shiny plating isn’t who we thought they were at all.
And no, client relationships aren’t like dating. We would never imply such a thing. Nope, not at all.
Communication has come to a standstill
In the beginning, they’d reply to your emails in minutes. Heck, they'd even answer your questions in the evening or on weekends. You both wove plenty of LOLs, smileys :), and playful banter into these work-related emails.
You’d never met a client quite like this. And they were smitten with you and your abilities.
Then something happened.
Email responses that were once immediate now require multiple follow-ups. You find yourself refreshing your email every 30 seconds or so, barrelling through pints of Chubby Hubby to fill the void. You don't want to come off too needy, but you do need their approval on your latest updates.
Maybe there’s someone new, you think. Of course. They’ve found a new freelancer who’s smarter, has better taste in music, and built a more attractive portfolio. Which they’re constantly updating.
Your client tells you they’ve been busy. They say how sorry they are.
But things only get worse. Project directions, once detailed and thoughtful, become terse, confusing bulleted lists sent under the all-capped subject PROJECT FOR YOU.
Feelings of insecurity creep in. You wonder just how many times you need to follow up just to get an answer you need to proceed.
Since they no longer seem to care, you stop caring too.
You start scrolling through the job boards. You haven’t sent out any messages yet, but you’re ready to see what else is out there.
What to do when communication comes to a standstill
Communication is key to any relationship, and it’s a two-way street. You can’t force your client to keep you in the loop, but you can keep them up to date. Even if that means setting a final project-end date.
Nothing you do seems good enough
It’s the same thing you’ve given them before, but now the colors are all wrong. What are you, some kind of idiot?
When you first signed on with the client, they were in love with your work. All you got was praise. Then the negative feedback began. At first you accepted it as well-intentioned. You’ve got enough self-awareness to know you can improve. But the negative feedback kept coming. And now the it’s becoming … self-contradictory.
You’ve made multiple revisions, each time paying careful attention to their bulleted input, but it’s still not what they want.
You even made the logo bigger. The shame of it keeps you up at night, thinking of those glowing old emails you used to exchange.
Sometimes it’s pressure from upper management. Maybe there’s been a restructuring. But whatever happened, it’s made your relationship the exact opposite of what you started out with.
What to do when nothing you do seems good enough
If you feel like you’re under constant criticism and your hard work is no longer appreciated, it’s time to find someone different. With so many clients out there, there’s sure to be someone else you resonate better with.
You’re settling for less
Your friends don’t understand what you see in the client. Your parents are just happy it could turn into a full-time commitment.
Well-meaning friends will tell you that you need to get out. That there are many clients in the sea. Yet, you remain in a job that’s no longer fulfilling. But every once in awhile, you think, maybe it’s time to find someone who deserves my talents and will reward them.
Financially, you mean.
What to do when you’re settling for less
Take a look through some of your older work. The stuff that both you and the client used to love. Remember that you still love it — and if they don’t, that’s more their problem than it is yours.
You’re getting less work
When you first started working with this client, you had more projects than you knew what to do with. Sometimes multiple projects in the same week.
But then things started to slow down.
The frequency of jobs decreased to one or two projects a week. Then once a month. Then… you can’t even remember the last time you worked together.
They promise they’ll send you more projects. They’ve just been swamped. They assure you that you haven’t been forgotten.
But nothing changes. You start blaming yourself.
What to do when you’re getting less work
You can stick around and hope things get better, but often it’s better to just move on. Maybe someone new can give you the projects you’ve been lacking. Or maybe what you need is a shift in perspective. Maybe you are the only one who can give yourself the projects you want to be working on. After all, that’s why you went into freelancing in the first place: to work on projects you love.
And maybe the best way to do that is to break up with this client.
You’re just not into it anymore
When you first started working for them, you couldn’t wait to talk to them on the phone. Everything was new and exciting — even the most mundane projects seemed full of possibilities.
Now, when they call, just the sight of their name on your lockscreen fills you with dread. They just need one more tweak, they say. This is the last one. They promise.
You’ve heard that one before.
You no longer care about your work. You’re making design choices you would’ve been embarrassed by in the past. You used to dress up your designs in attractive typefaces. Now you’re using Times New Roman out of spite, half-hoping someone will call it out just so you can cop to not caring anymore without having to start the conversation yourself.
What to do when you’re just not into it anymore
If the work you’re doing brings you no joy, it’s time to find something that does. Accept that everything changes, and give yourself permission to find something, anything, you can be into.
When it’s time to break it off
The only thing worse than being in a bad relationship for one year is being in it for a year and a day.
You’ve been thinking about it for awhile, but always putting it off. You realize that moving on now would be better for your career in the long run.
You start writing the email over and over, but just can’t find the right words...
What to do when it’s time to break it off
Before you break it off, take care of any lingering work obligations. After all, there were some good times, right? And it would be nice to use them as a reference in the future.
Whatever reason you give your soon-to-be-ex-client, let them off easy. You can tell them that you’d just like to explore some different opportunities that have cropped up.
They may tell you things are going to change. But this is a decision that’s been on your mind for quite awhile, so stick to your guns.
We’ve all been on the other side of a bad breakup, so please have some tact. We know the pain that comes when a client says “It’s not you, it’s the economy.”
Wish them the best — and move on with your professional life.