Worst Clients and the Pay-to-Hassle Ratio

By Jake Poinier

I was on a Twitter chat this morning with the Editorial Freelancers Association, and the topic came up of “what if you have tons of work, but aren’t making much money: what to do if you’re charging too little for your time?”

Perhaps a bit flippantly, someone answered “Charge more!”, which I rejoined with “STAT!”

But upon further reflection, as much as a fast-moving Twitter chat allows, I added, “dump your worst client on an annual basis.” To which the moderator responded, “how do you choose your worst client?”

Ah, now we’re on to something. How do you identify your worst client? My gut reaction was that it’s your lowest paying one, but that’s not true. Your worst client is…drum roll please…the one with the least favorable pay-to-hassle ratio.

For example, your lowest paying client might offer interesting projects or pieces that look great in your portfolio, or they might offer a wellspring of referrals that make it a more lucrative relationship than shows up in Quickbooks. So, my equation includes the following factors:

  • Pay: Do they pay well? Do they pay promptly, or are you always chasing them?
  • Project quality: Is it work you enjoy? Is it stuff you’re proud to have in your portfolio to attract new clients?
  • Maintenance level: Is the client pleasant to work with or do they require lots of handholding/revisions/weekends?
  • Ancillary benefits: Do you get referrals from them? Discounts on their company’s products and services?

No two clients are the same, and some of the items may be more important to you than others. (Personally, pay rate weighs pretty heavily!) And while you may not necessarily want to dump your worst client, it’s worth having perspective in order to take corrective action.

Freelancers, what would you add to the equation? Which factors are most important to you?

Jake Poinier blogs regularly at DoctorFreelance.com. His most recent post was “3 ideas beyond the freelance echo chamber.” And he’s happy to swap Twitter follows at @drfreelance.

7 thoughts on “Worst Clients and the Pay-to-Hassle Ratio”

  1. To good clients, I’d add – people who are willing to give you testimonials and sing your praises on Twitter and LinkedIn. I asked one publisher for references and they said ‘we don’t do that’. They went to the bottom of my list. I think some people don’t like to admit that their work was a mess before the expert editors took over.

  2. Ali, that’s a great addition to the “ancillary benefits” part of the list. Thanks!

    And you’ve pointed out an interesting challenge for those freelancers who focus on the editing side of things. In a way, it’s like ghostwriting–there’s an measure of discretion that can sometimes prevent using your best work to promote your business.

  3. In addition to my regular musings throughout the year, I evaluate all of my clients on an annual basis, usually at tax time when I already have numbers in front of me. At the end of every project I complete, I keep track of things like the level of effort for the project, if the project suffered from scope creep, if my contact at the client company was pleasant and responsive, and if my contact explained the project well or if there were a lot of hidden surprises. I give each of these factors a numeric rating (just a quick 1-2-3 is enough), so at the end of the year it’s easy to sort my spreadsheet and see which clients had the least hassle factor, best pay, fastest pay, and generally played nice. Then I usually target one customer for replacement in the following year. Like Jake said, other things like project quality and ancillary benefits play a role, but because I keep my ear to the ground pretty carefully, it’s usually easy to single one out to cut from the herd.

    Even for a customer that I replace, I still maintain friendly contact with pleasant, competent people on a periodic basis. People switch jobs, and if I like the person and they move to another company that perhaps pays better, I want them to take me along.

  4. Fantastic additional points, Jeanne. “Generally played nice” is certainly a part of the equation! Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

    I heartily echo your sentiments, too, about the value of maintaining contacts with the people you work with best. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gotten new gigs from good folks who ended up elsewhere. It’s even better than a referral, because you already know you click.

  5. Yes, pay weighs heavily. But these other factors are important, too, and sometimes more so.
    Work isn’t as easy to come by as it was a few years ago so I almost never dump anyone. But the few I’ve purposefully let slip away were not due to low pay but the pay-to-hassle ratio.
    Enjoyed reading this. Don’t see it addressed much.

  6. Thanks for the comment, carolcdt, and glad you enjoyed it.

    And I agree, it’s prudent to inject external factors such as the economy at large into the overall equation. If business is going strong, it’s a little easier to release your weaker clients back into the wild.

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