Mar 24 2011

When You Freelance, How Do You Know You’ve Been Fired?

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It’s easy to figure out you’ve been fired from a staff position. Either your boss or a human resources person has told you to your face, you are met at your desk and walked out, or security guards drag you out, one on each arm and leg. The hints are fairly obvious. When you freelance, it takes time to realize you have been fired and will no longer be working for that client. More often than not, there are no signs.
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Weeks turn into months and months turn into a year. Depending on how often you do work for that client, the realization that something is wrong can come quickly. Makes me yearn for the good ol’ method of the security guards on each limb!

The First Hint

If you are doing regular updates and trouble shooting for a client’s web site, the news will travel fast. Suddenly the monthly calls will stop. Naturally, being a businessperson, you will contact the client and ask if they need you to do the regular work you have been providing. Don’t expect a straight answer. Most people don’t like confrontation or being the bearer of bad news. Stay calm! If the client says, “we’ve been busy and will let you know,” that may be all there is to it. If you provide monthly work and you haven’t heard from them in three months, there may be a problem.

ScreenshotImage Credit: kthread

What Might Have Happened?

When you realize something is not quite right, the best action is to ask. Ask the client if there’s a problem and how can you solve it together. More often than not, budgets have gotten cut and you’re the one service they’ve let go. If this is the case, are you able to offer your service for less? Can you negotiate a lower fee for a period of time to save the client? Will the client pay you back for the discount when things get better?

Try approaching it this way; remind the client that you’ve had a long and pleasant working relationship and your service isn’t just to support their web and graphic needs, but to serve the needs of the company and its growth (if they were a start-up that begged a discount in return for “future work,” remind them very gently). By switching to a cheaper and often inferior service provider, they risk losing their consumers, web presence and operating revenue. In the long run, it will take more money and effort to repair that loss.

Tell them you understand things are rough and you would rather stick with them through the hard times rather than abandoning them (this will show them you consider yourself a good partner).

Perhaps there is a new contact person and they want to use people they know. This is a hard one to overcome. You need to convince them that no one will know that company more than you and the risks are very great, not only to the company but to their new position and you would rather build on your past relationship and strengthen their position.

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Usually people will be foolish enough to ignore this logic and will screw up everything. Fight the temptation to curse them out and threaten you will go to their competition and crush them like insects under your iron boot. Wish them luck and tell them you will be happy to offer any help they may need in the transition. If you know their supervisor, send them a note thanking them and also offering whatever help is needed in the transition.

Don’t push for the supervisor to negate the new person’s power or you will make an enemy. You may keep the client but it will become an uncomfortable situation you will not enjoy. Know when to cut your loses and run. Keep both people on your contact list with the same regular contact you give other clients and prospects. The new contact person may indeed not last long and you will give their supervisor a way to contact you to come back into the fold.

How Do You Approach The Client?

Whatever happens, stay calm and professional. You may not be able to save your position. You may not even get a response to emails or phone messages. Keep trying…for a while. After several attempts to reach the client, back off and check in once a month with a friendly, “hope you are well” and “we are here when you need us.”

Don’t rack your brain wondering what happened if they won’t tell you. There could be many reasons. Don’t take it personally. It is usually tied to finances and people don’t like to admit to money trouble. Be there for their future needs but don’t crowd them!

If you do regular mailings or e-marketing, just leave that client on the list and drop them a private message on special occasions. Refrain from crying or begging. I reserve that for the second year they have not contacted me!

Damage Control

We are known by the last job we did. If you screwed up and passed off something you knew was substandard, then you deserve to be fired. I had a boss who said, “it’s better to beg forgiveness then ignore a mistake that is made.”

He was always apologizing. It is, however, true and there were even times I was in the right but had to take the fall for a client contact who screwed up. In the long run, while it’s an ego bruise, it keeps the client.

Would you rather lose a client or admit a mistake? Pride has no place in business. It’s never personal. Apologize; return the fee for that job, work night and day to fix the problem.

Sometimes it was nothing you did and you are taking the fall for someone else. Back off and continue to do great work for other clients. Eventually the internal screw-up will be gone and someone else will notice your work and figure it out.

Never, ever get angry! People move from company to company and if you do great work, they will take you with them. The aforementioned passage about a new person at your client can work for you if YOU are the one replacing the regular vendor. Stings when you are being replaced but it sure feels good when you replace someone else. What a world!

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Sometimes You Have To Say “Goodbye!”

You have to be ready to let go. It hurts unless the client is a maniac. When you need money, you tend to put up with a lot. I had a regular client who I truly hated but they paid and I needed to pay the rent and eat. When the art director, who I had shown several layout techniques that her editor loved, thought she could do it with other freelancers, I had to accept I was done.

The weekly assignments were a considerable amount of money and the thought of losing that income hurt, as did the ungrateful art director who I had elevated in the eyes of her supervisor. But I also noticed that I stopped throwing up before the weekly meetings with her. The headaches and involuntary twitches also disappeared. Sometimes money doesn’t pay for the little things and endless psychological problems.

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In the freelance business, clients come and go for many reasons. If you don’t expect this as part of doing business, you need to learn it. I’ve fired clients, as the trouble is more than the money earned. A client who insists on a flat fee and creates weeks more work, lowering the fee to $1.78 and hour has to be corrected or dumped. If there is a lack of respect, there is no relationship. Makes it easy to say, “goodbye!”

Why You Should Expect It Will Eventually Happen To You

I’ve known too many people who hold on to several regular clients and never seek new clients. The math is simple — lose one client and you suddenly can’t make a living. It takes a long time to cultivate a new client and certainly a regular client.

Singular freelancers can only take on so much. Finding new clients creates an increased workload and that forces business growth. If you can’t handle it, then find someone you trust to subcontract. If you lose a client, you can always stop subcontracting. The big studios always started the same way. Eventually you will need to subcontract more and more.

If you are just in business to do all the work yourself, then you need a plan for those times when one of your regular clients stops giving you work. For many reasons, it will happen. Nothing is permanent.

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If you don’t wish to expand your business into creating an actual studio (I’ve known people who expand within their own home studios with one or two part-time people), think in terms of a virtual studio and farming work out to others. Always understand that clients will come and go and plan ahead.

What Does The Future Hold?

When I was laid off from a long-time job from which I was convinced I would eventually retire, I knew other corporations were doing the same. The pool of freelancers was being used for fill in work and that seemed to be a good substitute for a full-time position. As time went on, companies started piling the extra work on their remaining staff members, straining them to the breaking point, but the economy kept people in their positions and doing the work. For freelancers, this left few options for work. Crowdsourcing may be considered a viable option to companies and smaller firms at this moment in time but it’s a solution that cannot continue for many obvious reasons.

I love my regular clients! They haven’t had too much work off lately but I know they are not screwing me nor are they displeased with my work. Some are not happy I have been forced to accept work with competitors but I have to live. One must keep pushing forward and always remember, although we do what we love, it’s a business and never personal. Treat it like a business and not a personal affront from a lover you can’t live without.

(ik)
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About the Author

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.

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Comments and Discussions
  • Vivek Parmar, 24 March 2011

    That’s a great article. Recently being hired by a company would be of great help and prepare for myself for this word.
    Thanks a lot

  • Thanks Speider, interesting stuff here. Unfortunately, by definition a freelancer can not be fired. If you want to be fired then get a staff position. Otherwise, freelancing services should be considered on demand and always subject to change. That is, the client bears no responsibility, legal or otherwise, to employ you.

    I realize I might be parsing words in a way you did not intended. None the less, if this artcle had other intentions than it might be best to make those clear.

    There are difference between being employed and doing freelance. Fired is one of the big difference. To imply otherwise only perpetuates a myth.

    • Jenni, 24 March 2011

      I think you’re taking it far too literally. It was pretty obvious that the title could have been ‘When you freelance, how do you know a client has dumped you?’ or whatever.

      • Speider, 24 March 2011

        I didn’t want to say it, Jenni, but yes — he’s being a little too literal. The title brings you in and the article explains it. I don’t think it’s a big deal…except for the three typos in the article, which no one seemed to have noticed. Two more typos and this could have appeared in any mainstream news source. ;)

    • Speider, 24 March 2011

      See my response to Free Frog, below.

  • Debbie, 24 March 2011

    Nice article. I especially like Hellmark’s greeting card…

  • FreeFrog, 24 March 2011

    Simchock’s right about the technical definition, so “loosing a project/client” would be the better terminology. Regardless, an interesting article. My one strong opinion is that if you’re a freelancer who’s on top of things and staying in good contact with clients it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they want to drop you. It’s business after all, and no client/project is a 100% guarantee. I always give a client an “opt out” talk if I think they’re wanting to jump ship. Quite often, it’s just a miscommunication they haven’t voiced (passive schmucks), so suddenly everything’s fine again once we clear the air.

    • Speider, 24 March 2011

      FF, this has nothing to do with “opting out” mid-project. It has to do with financial loss when you count on regular clients for your income and they end up, without warning, stop calling. “Opting out” is an immediate and clear message. The problem is clients who either don’t want to hurt your feelings because they respect your professional talent and work or who are embarrassed by their own internal mismanagement.

      The lesson intended by this article is to constantly move forward and keep seeking out clients — not to become comfortable with a steady stable of a few clients as the loss of one can mean devastating consequences for a freelancer. It’s a wake up call. My inspiration for this is the misery stories I hear from my contemporaries and personal experience. It’s easy to get comfortable but not so easy to scramble to replace a client and that income stream.

      As for the “technical definition,” you will find the dictionary, along with explosive definitions, says, “to discharge from a position; dismiss.”

      One is discharged or dismissed as a regular contributor to a firm or company just as a staff member would be. The term, “fired,” as with many words in the English language, having double and triple-meanings, IS appropriate to the title and gist of the article.

  • Erik, 24 March 2011

    How do you know when you’ve been fired as a freelancer? When the cheques stop coming in and you have a lot more time to hang out in the park.

    Nothing like getting fired in the summer time :)

  • Jana Yngland, 24 March 2011

    It´s very funny, wow – i like it very much. I never think about it like this. Nice. Thank you. I AM FREE !!!!

  • Jeff Langr, 24 March 2011

    This is in line with what Weinberg says in the Secrets of Consulting. The client’s not going to tell you why, and in some cases it may well be something that they didn’t like that you did. You’ll probably never know, as the article mentions. Best thinking, also as suggested above, that it’s about the budget.

  • Noel Proulx, 27 March 2011

    What I have run into more since current economic troubles is seeming to be last on the list of people to get paid. You work for years with a client and send out a monthly bill and all of a sudden they get 2 or 3 months behind and eventually decide they just can’t afford the service anymore.

  • Ted Thompson, 28 March 2011

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing, Ted.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall, 29 March 2011

    It’s good to keep a spread of clients in case this happens. Of course, sometimes you think you’ve been fired and it turns out you haven’t. In the last six months, I had three clients come back to me, one of them after a break of nearly a year. Turned out she simply hadn’t been working on her web projects so she didn’t need my writing services. When she did, I was first on her list.

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