We may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post.
Over the last 10+ years, I've had a lot of clients. Hundreds, in fact. I do not, however, have hundreds of clients now. What that means, of course, is that over the course of my freelancing/consulting career, I've lost hundreds of clients.
Losing Clients is a Normal Part of Freelancing
Some people have better retention rates than others, but EVERYONE who does this will lose clients on a fairly regular basis. It's jut an unavoidable fact of this lifestyle. The richest, most successful consultants you know have lost clients – often more than the less successful ones.
It sucks to lose a client, especially when it's a big one. One day, you're cruising along, happily collecting $6500/month from a client. The next day, they're giving you 30 days' notice. If you have a stable, diversified business, it might not be a huge deal, but it's never fun. Often, you don't even get a good sense of the “why” behind their decision.
I've been badgering soon-to-be ex-clients about the “why” for a long time now, and I've learned there are a LOT of reasons clients end freelance relationships. A lot of them are completely out of your control, and it can help to be reminded of that. So – let's take a look at why clients leave, and what you can do about it.
Why Clients Leave – Things You CAN Influence
Results < Client Expectations
We'll start with the most obvious reason. If you're not getting the results your client expected, they're not going to keep you around. The important thing to note here is the “client expectations” part. It doesn't matter how well you're doing if the client expected more. Not only is it demoralizing to get great results for someone who constantly wants more and shows zero appreciation, it's an unstable arrangement.
Other times, you'll feel like you're doing a terrible job and the client is totally thrilled anyway. In that case, it buys you some time to make things work (or to figure out if you're just being too hard on yourself).
It's important to make sure expectations and reality are aligned early on. If you're concerned this is going to be an issue, either pass on the project or make sure you get very clear standards outlined up front. And of course, some people can't be pleased, and they'll always have a foot out the door.
The Client Doesn't Understand the Value
Sadly, there will be times when you're doing a great job, but the client doesn't understand the value you're creating for them. Most often, this is your fault for not picking up on it and figuring out a new way to show them the value. Occasionally, though, you'll find someone in a position way beyond their competence, with no real hope of grasping what you're doing for them.
I once worked with a client who couldn't understand that leads have value. It was mind-blowing. She complained repeatedly that I was just sending her leads and not sales – and no matter how much I explained that they were qualified leads, and many would turn into sales after her company's sales team talked with them, she didn't get it. She kept insisting that if she wanted “leads”, she could just get out a phone book for free. We parted ways soon after. Since it was her boss who brought me in, I didn't get the chance to qualify her in advance. I don't know how long she stayed employed with that company.
The Client Doesn't Trust You
Trust can be tough in client relationships, especially in notoriously opaque services like SEO. Obviously, agencies and consultants don't want to give away their secret sauce, but clients need to feel like they've hired someone capable who will deliver on their promises. Some people will never trust, but most can be greatly helped by clear explanations of results, if not the process. When trust can't be achieved, the relationship will nearly always come to a quick end.
It's Just Not a Good Fit
Sometimes, you find yourself working with someone and you just know it's not a good fit. Maybe the client is a phone person who calls all the time and gets frustrated when you're not available at the drop of a hat. Maybe the client hates excessive optimism and you're a ray of sunshine. Maybe the client likes to do work after hours and they get annoyed that you're not answering emails at 9pm when you're putting your kids to bed. Maybe you just annoy each other. Not everybody works well together, and while you can definitely get better at it, sometimes the differences are just too big for the two of you to reasonably fit together.
Remember – the goal is not to mold yourself to every client so that everyone loves you. The goal is to get better at reading potential clients so you can build a business with the kind of relationships that make it rewarding for you.
Apathy and Complacency Creep In
When you work with a client for a while, it can be easy to get complacent if you're not careful. You're getting good, stable results, the client doesn't have many questions after the first few months, and you can just coast. Right? Wrong – if you want to keep the client, anyway.
Every consultant or freelancer I know has been guilty of this at one time or another. It's not that you're not doing what you said you'd do, you're just not looking for ways to go above and beyond. You're not feeding the relationship. If you have an ongoing client who doesn't like to do regular review calls, I recommend setting a check-in reminder every 3-5 weeks. You don't necessarily have to get on a call, but you could ask a question about the company, send over an interesting report about the market, highlight an idea you had, etc. You just want to stay in their minds and let them see you're still thinking about them, even though it may not seem like it if they're not hearing from you as frequently as they did in the beginning.
They Get a Better Offer (Or They THINK They've Gotten a Better Offer)
The more high-profile the client you get, the more likely it is that other companies will be trying to poach them. Unfortunately, it can be tough to compete when it's your real results up against the overly optimistic and unproven claims from another company. They've got your rate, and they can promise to beat it. They've seen your results, and they can promise to improve upon them. Often, they'll offer a “free” audit and use it to tell the client what a terrible job you're doing, and how they'll easily do much, much better. Whether it's true or not, it's really hard to put your REAL results against someone else's promised-but-not-yet-delivered results.
While you can't stop these things from happening, you can definitely minimize the impact if you check in with your clients regularly and do your best to keep them happy. If it's a large client, you may even want to go so far as to encourage them to get a quarterly or annual independent audit from a company that is notified in advance that they won't be given a contract for ongoing services. Why? Two reasons. It shows that you're willing to be monitored AND take suggestions from a second set of eyes, and it helps them avoid the conflict of interest baked into any audit from a company that wants their business.
You (Or Someone On Your Team) Screwed Up
No matter how good you are, there will be times when you don't get things right. Maybe the tone of your copy is off, maybe you can't make a PPC campaign work, or maybe the designer you partnered with re-builds the client's page and now nothing converts like it used to. It happens. Sometimes the client is patient and gives you time to fix it, and other times they're not.
This won't happen very often, especially once you have experience – but it can definitely be rough when it does.
Why Clients Leave – Things You Just CAN'T Control
Personnel Changes at the Company
For me, the number one sign that I'm about to lose a client is that my point of contact has changed. When someone finds themselves promoted or hired into a new position, they feel a lot of pressure to change and improve things – and that very often means they start hunting around for new service providers who are either cheaper, or who promise bigger results.
It's especially likely you'll lose the contract if there was any bad blood between your old contact and the new one. Often, the new contact will be eager to get rid of any remnants of the old contact's presence.
They Bring the Work In-House
When companies realize they're spending a lot on an ongoing service, it's not uncommon for them to eventually take it in-house. I find this happens most often with high-maintenance, high-dollar clients. If you notice your client is calling and emailing you daily (or even more, in some cases), that's a pretty good indication that what they need is an employee – not outsourced expertise. If they also happen to be paying you $8-10k+/month, there's a pretty good chance they could actually get an in-house person to be completely dedicated to their needs – so just be aware of that risk and don't let yourself get too comfortable with those big, cushy retainers.
Your Point of Contact Isn't Doing a Good Job
Sometimes, your point of contact just isn't very good at what they do. In most cases, they're managing a lot of different things, and if more than a few of those things are going poorly, someone else at the company may decide it all needs to get wiped clean. In those cases, it doesn't matter how well you're doing. You'll be fighting an uphill battle to get them to reconsider.
Your Client Has Been Purchased
Businesses are bought and sold all the time. Unfortunately, when that happens, the buying company often puts a stop to any outsourced work – opting to either switch to their own providers, bring the task in-house, or re-evaluate whether the service is needed at all.
Office Politics & Other Corporate Dysfunction
When you don't work inside an office, you can easily be the victim of office politics without ever knowing it. Maybe your contact loves you and the work you do, but your contact's boss wants to make things extra hard on your contact just to make her look bad. Maybe your contact's boss just doesn't trust her judgment, so the project gets cut. Or maybe (and something like this happened to me once) your contact has a nephew who is totally learning to do what you do, so he can definitely take over the project and do just as well at a tenth of your fee (right).
Even if you're doing a great job, you'll find that sometimes, clients just don't have the funds to keep you around. You can try to explain that you're making them money (if you are), or even work out more favorable payment terms for them if you trust it's just a phase and you really like working with them – but most of the time, you're just out of luck.
Sometimes, companies move in a different direction and there's nothing you can do about it. I've done lead generation for companies that decided not to take any new leads for a time, and I've worked with companies that went bankrupt (not because of me) and no longer needed my services. One company I worked with decided to discontinue sales to consumers and focus on wholesale, so they no longer needed the campaign I was running. Luckily, these situations are pretty rare.
Ideally, you'll always have new leads working their way through the pipeline, so you won't have to worry too much about losing the occasional client. If you don't, the best thing you can do is give yourself a day to be frustrated/angry/upset, then get back to pitching and networking. And remember – losing a client means you had a client to lose in the first place, and that's a win. You can always find more where that one came from.