Letting a client go
Aaah, clients. Without them, I wouldn’t be a very successful freelancer.
Some of them, though, they’re not a good fit for me. Over the years, I’ve parted ways with customers, and some have parted ways with me. Sometimes, we just faded away, sometimes our needs changed, and sometimes—much more rarely but still—there was a direct conversation about not working together anymore.
The one time I outright fired a client
This one brief relationship ended with an email that may not have successfully hidden my exasperation. It had started out nicely:
A potential customer was looking for someone to edit their Master’s thesis written in English. They were struggling with their in-text citations according to a specific stylebook. I sent over some external resources that explained the citation system with real examples showing the many options available. We agreed that I would do a paid trial of two pages, demonstrating the citation options and cleaning up the writing. So far, nothing felt off. After I delivered the edited pages, the customer said they were happy with the work and sent a down payment of 30% for me to edit their entire thesis. Then things went downhill.
To provide some background, the customer was German and studying at a German university. A common scenario for me. I’ve edited many a manuscript written by German speakers. I’ve also seen my fair share of feedback directly from researchers at universities whose English articles I’ve edited. It’s fair to say that I know my way around academic writing.
Unfortunately, the customer was suddenly less convinced. I received an email informing me that they had talked to their professor. Both agreed that the only way to cite was in one extremely unreadable way throughout the entire paper (150+ pages). The customer was wondering why I didn’t know that. So, I pointed them to the resources I’d sent them (all reputable, obviously) and reminded them that I’d been doing this work for over a decade. The customer insisted that I was misinformed and that they were the one with the superior understanding of the situation.
I spent a night thinking about fighting my way through 150 pages of editing, while debating every change with this customer. I did not sleep well. Even though work was scarce at the time, I fired the customer the very next day. In a polite email, I told them that our email exchanges and phone calls until now had shown that they had trouble accepting my expertise, making it difficult to work together over such a long paper. So, I would be returning the down payment and would not be able to continue the job. The customer was surprised and a little miffed.
What happened afterward
Nothing much, really. I felt a huge sense of relief. Life went on, new jobs came along. New jobs that I had the time to accept because I wasn’t slogging my way through that terrible editing job. A few years passed. There were some more close misses with tricky customers and some jobs where I realized too late what I was getting into.
And then I was recently approached by a potential client whose communication style just rubbed me the wrong way. They ignored basic questions in my emails while asking me for all kinds of quotes and trying to push me into chasing them down by phone. We just weren’t compatible and I know working with them would be difficult. So, having become a little wiser over the years, I wrote a nice email, sending them to the website of a translators association and telling them that I would not be available to work with them.
But, because I hadn’t become that much wiser, I immediately started questioning my decision and wondering whether I had been too stern or too quick to pull the plug. And then the never-quite-my-client client contacted me again and again and again, insisting that they wanted to work with only me and asking for explanations why I wasn’t taking them on as a client. My gut feeling was vindicated.
Over to you
What do you think? On their own, all of these things are minor, but they add up. We all know the frustration of trying to finish a translation or copy job and not being able to get the necessary information. Who needs these kinds of unpleasant working relationships?
When I was starting out, I still strongly believed that friendliness and patient explanations could turn trying clients into faithful ones. I may be more jaded now, but my efforts over the years never really paid off. Either clients get it or they don’t. Is that your experience too? Or have you been able to turn around a client relationship?
PS I took the irritation at this most recent non-client and channeled it into finally setting up email templates for all kinds of standard situations, which include different ways of saying that I am not available for a job. So, at least something good came of this situation 🙂