surprised man

This year, I’ve found myself with more prospective freelance clients than I really expected. I know, I know—I sound like that friend in high school who complained that two cute boys asked her to the upcoming dance. But it has put me in a challenging position: wondering whether I should break up with clients who are more trouble than they’re worth.

If you started freelancing because you believe in your personal brand, it can feel confusing, even upsetting, to work with someone who makes you want to pull your hair out. And I’m not talking about a little eccentricity—I’m talking about the kind of work relationship that would make you consider leaving your 9-to-5.

Yes, I want everyone to have a positive impression of working with me—and the extra cash is definitely nice—so it’s hard to consider breaking up with a client. But, after a few months of working with someone who drives me crazy, I’ve learned I have to draw a line in the sand. If you’re in the same position, try asking yourself these deal-breaker questions.

1. Do They Respect Your Time?

Don’t get me wrong: Compensation—especially when you’re starting out—is an important consideration. However, think twice before accepting a client who thinks paying you well means she should always be able to reach you, even at unusual times or on a moment’s notice (like calling repeatedly about a non-urgent issue over a holiday weekend). This is the client equivalent of the person who feels a cold coming on all week but waits to call the doctor until Friday at 4 PM (and, naturally, demands to be seen immediately).

Maybe some people don’t mind being on-call 24-7. But I work best when I take weekends off (with the obvious exception for emergency emails). So I need clients who allow me to operate during normal business hours. Therefore I no longer feel guilty about ending relationships with clients who insist upon my attention when they know I’m unavailable.

2. Do They Respect Your Work?

I’m all for high expectations. I also believe a client has the right to change her mind. But I don’t think she can treat you like your work is the worst. (After all, she hired you.)

Now, I’m not talking about the people who just don’t take time to compliment your work. Would you prefer clients who heap on the praise? Totally, but it shouldn't be a deal-breaker if someone doesn’t. As long as he regularly sends you assignments, pays you on time, and treats you with respect, odds are he values your work. And, you can certainly look for validation outside of his (lack of) praise—for example, how your ideas have translated to growth for his company.

Unfortunately, there’s a second group of critics: People who emote and hit send. I’ve learned that, regardless of how much someone pays me, if I could add “you idiot” to the end of her comments and the tone would read pretty much the same, I don’t want to work with her—and that’s OK.

3. Do They Respect Your Feedback?

Often times, being a consultant means helping people optimize their processes and procedures. Yes, you’re working with clients, and that entails a certain amount of patronage and flexibility, but you should also be able to ask questions and share your ideas for how to make your working relationship run smoothly.

Per the other deal-breakers, you’ll want to differentiate between the people who are a little difficult and the people who make you dread opening your inbox. For example, maybe you ask a client who sends emails one line at a time if it might be easier to compile her thoughts in one message. She disagrees, and you shake your head behind your computer screen and let it go. (Another comical email story for your next happy hour!)

Conversely, let’s say someone changes your ideas and still sends it around as your original work, which makes you uncomfortable. You broach the subject, but he keeps doing it, brushing off your concerns as nonsense. In this case, if you feel like someone blows off questions about the use and integrity of your work, you shouldn’t feel guilty about cutting ties. Your name is your brand, and sacrificing your reputation for a client’s feelings doesn’t really make sense.

Breaking up with clients is hard to do. But I’m hopeful that by using the questions above to gain clarity on my deal-breakers, I’ll be confident in my decisions. Not to mention, I won’t have as many clients who drive me up a wall. And a little less stress in your work relationships is always a good thing.

Updated 6/19/2020