When Regular Clients Become Unreliable

Have you ever had a long-term regular client who suddenly became less reliable? Maybe their business suffered due to economic circumstances. Maybe they had to deal with a personal issue and were less focused on business projects. No matter how reliable a freelance writing gig might seem, it can always disappear.

Let’s talk about some of the ways regular clients might suddenly become unreliable and what you can do about it if it happens.

Ways Regular Clients Might Become Less Reliable

Here are some things an otherwise reliable client might do to suddenly change your working relationship:

  • They might cancel projects at the last minute.
  • They might decrease their usual order size with no advance notice.
  • They might simply stop contacting you or responding to emails (or phone calls).

The worst can be when a long-time regular client tells you on a whim that they can’t order for a month or two, but then they plan to get back to a regular order schedule. On one hand, it could be a worthwhile relationship to preserve, so you might try to accommodate. But that isn’t always the right thing to do. After all, you are a business owner too, and you have to put your own business interests first. If your business isn’t surviving, you can’t do your best work for clients anyway.

How to Deal with Clients that Become Unreliable

How do you deal with these situations? Given my last example, you have a few options:

  • Tell the client it’s alright, and that you’ll be happy to take them on again when they’re ready;
  • Tell the client that you’ll pursue other regular contracts to fill that void as soon as possible, and that means you likely won’t have availability when they’re ready to come back if they give up their spot;
  • Combine the two — pursue only one-off projects in the interim with the expectation that the client will come back to their regular schedule after a month or two.

Personally, I go with the second option. I don’t leave my schedule open with some naïve hope that a client is going to come back. If their own business is struggling now and they can’t order any more (as budgets are usually the concern), there is no guarantee that’s going to change in the short-term. And it would be foolish to rest the future of my own business on those hopes. So I find someone else. If they come back before I’ve found another regular I want to stick with, that’s fine. If not, too bad. I’ll refer them to someone who can work with them moving forward. That’s not to say there’s any bitterness about it. It’s just business.

Because clients can become unreliable in different ways, there are also different ways you can handle the situations. Some examples include:

  • Letting them know you can’t reserve their time in the future if there’s a break in the contracted work;
  • Discussing their future plans with them in more depth — find out if there really is a very short-term problem at hand where it might be worth sticking it out for a month or so;
  • Offering to adjust project specs to meet their new requirements without undercutting your own earnings or losing the gig altogether;
  • Being firm, letting them know that commitments followed by last minute cancellations aren’t acceptable professionally (because once they committed, you had to turn down other prospects), and that if it happens again you won’t be able to continue working with them;
  • Moving on and not looking back — especially if a client becomes unresponsive for an extended period (that can’t be explained with a brief emergency taking them away from work).

Are these the only ways to deal with long-time clients who become unreliable? No. But they give you somewhere to start and some options to consider. It’s one thing to like our clients and want to work with them to overcome their problems. But we also have to know when to do that and when it’s best to part ways — temporarily or not.

No freelance writing job is a sure thing. From large content sites that shut down or change payment models to smaller independent clients who can’t sustain the workload, gigs come and go. And it’s a part of our job to be prepared. So be ready to handle the situations if they come up, even if hoping they don’t. And never stop marketing your services and building your visibility to attract new prospects. Then when a sudden opening does happen, you’ll already have interested prospects waiting for a call.

Jennifer Mattern

About Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and professional blogger who writes about freelance writing, social media, indie publishing, and small business. She also publishes e-books for freelance writers and is scheduled to publish her first nonfiction book, The Query-Free Freelancer, next year.

5 thoughts on “When Regular Clients Become Unreliable”

  1. Really enjoyed your virtual blog tour, JM!

    I’ve had a few of these in the past two years. One big client cut their biz in half, then went bankrupt six months later. Another had a mass exodus from the communications department and I lost all my contacts.

    The first one, obviously, I couldn’t do anything about. (And I got paid in full for everything, so it wasn’t a disaster from that perspective.) But, I met my primary contact for lunch a few weeks ago, and she’s starting a new job that should turn into future biz.

    In the second case, I made sure that I got a warm contact with the new guy before everyone left. In fact, I met with him this week and it looks good to return to a steady stream of projects in April. Plus, one of the comms people who left ended up in a great job, and I’ve already done some work for her.

    For exactly the reasons you state, I’m a huge advocate of diversification (both in industries and in companies/clients). And it’s a reminder that developing good, solid relationships is the most important business strategy for navigating the inevitable peaks and valleys.

  2. I hate it when this happens–and it does happen! Good coping strategies here–thanks for sharing them. It can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security with clients, but the truth is, at any time we can lose one out of the blue. As Jake underscored, diversification is so key!

  3. Jake – I’m so glad to hear that the issues you had worked out so well for you. 🙂 And you’re absolutely right. You can’t count on any single client to be around forever, and the best thing any writer can do to insulate themselves is to diversify.

  4. Catherine — “A false sense of security” is a great way to put it. When we get into long-time working relationships on some levels it can almost feel like an employee position. You just expect it to be there tomorrow or to at least be given reasonable notice. But clients aren’t always reasonable (although happily the vast majority I’ve dealt with are). It’s so important to remember that while we do have to answer to our clients, we need to answer to our own business needs first.

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