How you know it's time to dump a client

The client isn't always right, says Jonathan Walton - sometimes you have to pull the plug on a broken relationship.

We all need to pay the bills, but there are times when dumping a client is the least bad choice. Image credit: Sam Howzit @

Working in creative industries has many upsides. Being a video editor specialising in live music performance shows, I've been lucky enough to work on many projects I would have happily paid to watch as a fan. On some of those projects, I'm also able to express my creativity during my day-to-day work. Knowing how many people would love the same opportunity, I try not to take that for granted.

However, there is one side of my work that I've often struggled with - the client/freelancer relationship.

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The first date

Despite my age (38) and experience, that first day with a new client is always a daunting, uneasy step into the unfamiliar. Will you click on a personal level? Will the work be interesting? Will you be good enough? These are just a few of the questions that flit though my mind before starting to work with a new client.

But like seasoned performers who still get anxious before going on stage, I've always thought a little dose of pre-show nerves is no bad thing. Keeps you on your toes.

What I pride myself on is that once over that awkward first date with a new client, where you're building trust and proving yourself, most of my clients come back for a second date. So nowadays around 80 per cent of my annual work is for repeat clients, with 20 per cent of new work coming in to me via my agency and other sources.

Bad behaviour

Thankfully, I've worked with many directors who are calm, supportive and giving to the people around them, because they recognise the truth in the old on-set adage that a director is only as good as the crew they command. But in seven years of freelancing I've also experienced the negative side of client behaviour.

We've all experienced late payers or those who refuse to pay, as this Clients from Hell video parodies with painful accuracy. Then there are the clients who double the workload without adjusting your fee. People who misspell your name in credits or don't credit your work at all. And generally those clients who treat experienced editors like monkeys pushing buttons.

This last category of client, by far the most common, would do well to watch Joy Moeller's excellent guide to edit suite etiquette, EditQuette, which urges clients to treat freelancers as colleagues, not minions:

It's meant to be fun

We all know work in the creative industries can be high pressured. In TV, multiple projects running at any one time, long hours and looming deadlines means the stress of the production environment is no place for the faint hearted.

However if you ask most people why they get involved in a creative field it's because they think it will be a fun and fulfilling industry to work in. Hard work, yes, but rewarding and enjoyable too. Unfortunately that's not always the case.

No excuse for rudeness

I was once on a job with a client whose unreasonable and rude behaviour forced me to walk off a project mid-edit, forfeiting my fee and any hope of potentially lucrative future work with the company. Why did I take such drastic action? Because I didn't get in to this industry to be subjected to rudeness, disrespected or bullied. Being the paymaster does not entitle anyone to treat their staff like something they'd find on the sole of their shoe.

The occasional bad client experience comes with the territory, as adroitly documents

Unfortunately, while permanent employees have human resources departments to fight their corner, freelancers do not have the same protection. Every day in this job is a learning process and you can only do what feels right to you in any given situation. When the relationship with one client breaks down irretrievably, you have to trust in yourself. If you're good enough there will be other clients who appreciate your work and treat you accordingly.

And the ones who don't? Well, who needs clients like that anyway?

Help and advice

Finally, here are some useful sources of advice on how to go about dumping a client. They're written by people in a variety of different professions, but the advice holds fast whatever your creative discipline.

5 questions to ask for deciding when to fire a client

If you’ve got a client you can’t stand, run through the questions below to you help decide whether or not you can ditch them successfully (and whether you should).

8 dos and don’ts for breaking up with a client

Advice for copywriters from the American Writers & Artists Inc on the best way to ditch clients who don't pay, want things you can't deliver or are just too high-maintenance.

How to tactfully get rid of a bad client

This forum thread on the SitePoint web design blog discusses the issue of dumping clients when they can no longer afford your rates.

Breaking up with bad clients: it’s not you…it’s me

This slightly tongue-in-cheek article translates the classic relationship break-up lines ("I think we should see other people") into phrases more suited to a designer-client relationship ("You would be better served by another company").

Words: Jonathan Walton

Jonathan Walton is director at My Little Eye TV.

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