Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Chip Brookshaw writes for www.ework.com – a Ms.Money partner.
When you began eWorking, you were likely so intent on building a network of clients that the prospect of cutting one loose never crossed your mind. If you considered the possibility at all, you probably figured the whys and hows of ending a freelance relationship would be as dispassionate and cut-and-dried as canceling a magazine subscription.
At least 90% of independent/client relationships function smoothly. Expectations are clear, objectives are met, and everyone’s satisfied. But there is a darker side in that other 10%, and the signs can be subtle when a working relationship is souring.
The key word is “relationship.” By working independently, you’ve traded office politics for something resembling a mating dance. And like romance gone wrong, there’s a period of slow recognition before the die is cast. Dumping a steady client is harder than it sounds because you’re not really firing them—you’re breaking up.
Whether you’re still single and mingling or long since retired from the dating world, you probably know what a dead-end romance is like. Bad client relationships follow a similar pattern. They start out wonderfully, of course, but the warning signs are there—and soon a little voice in your head starts piping up. You can shut it out for only so long. Eventually, it’s time to face the music and end things.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, each unhappy working relationship is unhappy in its own way. But there are three all-too-common bad-news clients you should know about. As in the rules of attraction, it’s hard to spot them until you’re already involved. But the following pointers might help you get out sooner, rather than later.
The Jealous Type
How can you not be taken with the attention Jealous Types lavish on you at first? They pay you well. They shower your work with praise. They fill your calendar with gigs. What could possibly cause trouble in paradise?
Things begin to go wrong very simply. The client needs a rush job, or last-minute changes, which you handle with aplomb. The Jealous Type thanks you heartily, and all remains right with the world. Then there’s another rush job, which has several last-minute changes and additions of its own. The third forces some serious juggling with another client and rescheduling a weekend getaway. And then it happens. One day, you’re completely tied up with another client when The Jealous Type comes calling. You’d be glad to help them next week, but you’re booked solid for the next few days. You sense a hurt tone in The Jealous Type’s voice as the conversation ends quickly. The next week, you follow up once, then twice, but don’t get a return call. The silent treatment goes on for a few weeks, until you’ve nearly written them off. Then they call with another rush job. It might take several rounds of this pas de deux before you realize it’s a test. They aren’t crazy about you or your work, just the idea that you’d drop anything for them.
How to End It
If you recognize and can live with this co-dependent push/pull, there’s no need to call it off. But if the situation drives you crazy, there’s an easy way out. A rule of thumb for independents is to subtly imply how in demand you are to all of your clients, thus increasing your value in their eyes. It’s just the opposite with Jealous Types. If you want to be rid of them, flaunt your other gigs shamelessly. If things are a little slow and you still don’t want their work, just say, “I appreciate you considering me, but my calendar is already booked into the foreseeable future.”
Like wild biker boys and girls, Freewheelers have a swagger and sexy reputation in your world. Fellow independents have heard of them, but no one’s ever worked for one. So it’s a thrill when YOU climb on the back of the motorcycle. Hang on! And wear a helmet.
You might think startups—with their need to operate in hyperdrive—would be over represented in this category, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, startups with a high burn rate but no business plan should never be counted on as a steady. But it’s not speed that kills, it’s ego. Freewheelers often have a flashy leader and opulent offices—but pay below-market rates. Contact persons change regularly and without explanation; communication in general is erratic. More important, because Freewheelers believe they are above the fray of competition, the strategy and direction they provide seem flawed—but are served with a dollop of condescension nonetheless. You probably know more about your shared market than they do, but don’t trust yourself because of their reputation.
How To End It
When your slowly corroding self-respect hits the wall (or that charismatic CEO is embroiled in scandal), you’ll be surprised how easy it is to jump off the back of a chopper at 80 mph. With Freewheelers, you won’t have to give notice more than once—provided you can get them to notice at all.
Big Beige walks into your life, oh, usually about a week after you end things with a Freewheeler. Naturally, it’s the stability and security (not to mention the lure of a steady paycheck) that attracts you. There’s nothing extraordinary about Big Beige, and that’s just fine—for a while.
You’ll receive a full-time offer during your first week of work—sort of like a marriage proposal on a third date. Big Beiges think eWorking is just a slightly extended job interview. They are settled (very settled) and prefer everyone else to be settled too. Projects lack the challenges you’ve come to expect from working independently, failing to stimulate your intellect, imagination, or creativity. In a nutshell, the work is dull as dishwater. Worse, Big Beiges are slow and bureaucratic, which can lead to unexpected problems regarding that supposedly steady paycheck. There’s no doubt they’re good for it, but pushing through a Big Beige invoice often becomes trench warfare with an accounting department that keeps bringing in fresh troops.
How to End It
Remember how you steeled your nerve to quit your full-time job, rehearsing your speech and getting all your ducks in a row for that fateful day you walked into your boss’s office? It’s pretty much the same with Big Beige, except you might have to do it four or five times until the message gets through.
Here are some final words of advice for all your break-ups. Like any relationship, a clean break is best. Be polite, but firm. If you’ve been working full-time with a client, providing reasonable help with any transition (two or three weeks) is a professional courtesy. Otherwise, move on and don’t look back. Don’t get sucked into consulting here and there or providing “a little” advice. And resist the urge to fix up your dead-end client with another eWorker or freelancing friend. That’s a soap opera waiting to happen.