Can this client relationship be saved?

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Dr. Freelance: I recently sent a client an email letting him know that a certain task was going to take time beyond the agreed-upon scope and therefore cost more, and asking whether he wanted to proceed. In response, he “reviewed” my services (i.e., enumerated all of the ways that I was falling short, basically questioning my fees. He softened the blow a bit by listing what he considered my “most significant contributions,” but it was still an unexpected blow. Anyway, I responded back with a list of my own honest thoughts about the relationship. I’ve been thinking about dumping him as a client anyway (he’s a chronic slow-payer) so I don’t really care what happens, but would like your perspective on how best to handle this type of thing. — Blindsided

Dear Blindsided: Based on that type of email “review,” not to mention the pay and myriad other underlying issues, I can understand why he got under your skin. It sounds like he is far underestimating how much work you’ve been putting into his projects. I’ve dealt with that type of client relationship many times before — heck, it was part of the disaster I shared the other day on my Jake’s Take blog.

As far as your response, I assume he’ll get the point. Personally, I prefer to have those types of conversations over the phone, because you can hear subtle cues (good or bad) that don’t come across in writing, and you can alter your approach during the discussion.

Part of the challenge is that you’ve both written fairly long emails to each other and thrown some pretty hard punches. As writers, we pride ourselves on communicating a message, but when it’s a hard-edged message, it can be received with more emotion than we realize.

Can this client relationship be saved? Since you are already in pre-dump mode, I suppose it doesn’t really matter how you handle it. You can go out with a bang or a whimper, the result’s the same. The other advice I try to give myself is to always sleep on a tough email — when you wake up in the morning, you may find yourself reconsidering what you’ve said or how you’ve said it.

If you *do* intend to iron things out, my only caution is that you can’t change how clients act, only how you react to their actions. Sure, you can gently guide them in one direction or another, but clients are always eventually going to revert to type, particularly under pressure. I know that sounds fatalistic, but it’s a client relationship reality.

Freelancers, have you ever given a client a “pure” piece of your mind? Tell us about it in the comments.

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  1. says

    I am so glad to hear that you prefer to have those conversations by phone. Maybe it’s because I spent 30+ years in Corporate and only 3 (so far) in freelancing that I don’t seem to have the aversion to picking up the phone that some (emphasis on some) freelancers do.

    And the old adage of don’t burn your bridges is a good one in whatever job you’re in. You never know when you’ll run into that person again – directly or indirectly. So, keep it professional and unemotional. Call him an @#%$ after you hang up the phone. Hey, we’re human.

    The email sounds like a way to put Blindsided on the defensive to take the focus off the issue – the change in scope and the need for additional compensation.

    There was a time where a valued client “blindsided” me by some back and forth emails in response to my follow-up on payment. The client got defensive about how they paid faster than most and I could see the thing escalating, so I picked up the phone. Best thing I did. Turns out the client was under quite a bit of pressure and I think my follow-up just added to a long list of To-Dos.

    Love your practical advice, Jake.

  2. Dr. Freelance says

    Cathy, I’ve been FL for 12 years now, but, like you, my 10 years in the corporate world were instrumental. Not just from the perspective of being on the “other side of the desk” as an editor and publisher (and briefly, an awful P.R. pro), but from observing best practices in a wide array of industries.

    I just tweeted this link, but it’s worth a look if you have a moment — 75% or entrepreneurs spent 6 or more years in a corporate environment:
    Who Are Entrepreneurs? I’d be curious to know the relationship between that and successful launches.

    To your larger point: I personally have become more patient in my old age, particularly when it comes to business. There are times to play hardball, but I try to save up for when it’s really necessary. You’re absolutely right about the importance of de-escalating whenever possible.

  3. Lori says

    I think given the first punch was dealt by the client, there’s little to salvage. I’ve been in situations just like this. The clients, who are slow to pay or reluctant to pay, start picking apart whatever loose threads they can find in an attempt to avoid payment.

    I would not have sent any reciprocal complaints. Rather, I would stick with the facts – client contracted for XX hours (which hopefully was spelled out in the contract). The work has now surpassed that. If he’s willing to continue, the new contract will be on the way. If he’s not, the invoice will be attached in the next email. Either way, it stays above the fray. If he’s come off with some serious accusations that have any basis in reality, I might address those with him over the phone, as you’ve suggested, Jake. If not, I might say I was sorry he felt that way, and I would walk through that contract wording with him to make sure he understood I performed as expected per contracted terms.

    In the end, he’s going to walk, but you’ll have done what you can to stay professional and create a paper trail should it come to litigation.

  4. Dr. Freelance says

    Good reminder, Lori, to have a mutually agreed-upon document to point to when things go sideways. It’s not a completely jerk-proof strategy — nothing is — but it helps drill things down to facts when someone’s eager to drag it into the realm of feelings and opinions. (Ick.)

  5. says

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