Suck it up! The harsh side of freelancing

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I know a lot of freelancers and, by contrast with their permanently employed counterparts, I would say almost all of them are happy. I’m a freelancer too, and it would take a lot for me to go back to permanent employment now. And I don’t mean because I get to sit around doing my first hour of work in my pyjamas with Frasier on the TV in the background. Because I definitely don’t do that. Definitely. (No, seriously – I really, really don’t do that.)

But freedom of scheduling aside (by and large), sometimes there’s a lot to be said for having a permanent job, particularly if you don’t have a thick skin. My friend Suzie found that out last week in a rather painful way. Here’s what happened; it may resonate with some of you.

More wine, darling?

All was going swimmingly with one of her clients – or so she thought. She liked the work, she had a good rapport with the client, and she even met him for lunch a few times, during which (based on the client’s lead) they barely talked about work at all apart from during the dessert course. It was nothing “like that”, if that’s what you’re thinking, simply because he’s gay, and therefore not interested in her.

Then, out of the blue, he sent her an email saying that he and his colleagues weren’t happy with her work, and hadn’t been for a few months. Taken aback, Suzie sent him an email asking why. She would admit, by the way, that it was overly apologetic in tone, given that she hadn’t been given any reasons at this point. But it did at least show she was keen to make amends.

Anyway, the client rang her back and, in a manner totally out of character with their previous relationship, told her that they just weren’t happy with her any more and had noticed a decline in quality. Shocked but staying calm, she asked for examples. And here’s where it gets weird.

The client refused to give any examples. He didn’t have time, apparently. She asked why he hadn’t said anything before now; “a few months” is a long time to be unhappy. Same answer. Quite fairly, I thought, she said that she couldn’t really improve her work if she wasn’t given any feedback or action points. For some reason, the client stood fast, saying that it wasn’t just him – other people had noticed the decline too. If things didn’t improve, they’d have to use someone else.

Sleepless in St Albans

This feedback kept Suzie awake for a few nights. What was wrong with her work? She’d checked back through email exchanges and nothing had been flagged up. The only feedback she’d ever received had been positive. What was going on?

I met with Suzie last week and we hashed through all this. (And yes, I have her permission to write this blog about it). What could she do about it? The change was inexplicable. The client wouldn’t give her any feedback and it was a massive shock to her, because she thought everything was going great.

The fact is this: there is nothing she can do about it. In the absence of feedback or examples or action points, there is no way Suzie can know what’s wrong or how to put it right. All she can do is continue to do her best – which she says she always does anyway. There might be something else going in the background that she doesn’t know about. Maybe her client’s boss is leaning on him and he’s kicking downwards. Who knows?

The one thing she HAS done wrong, in my opinion, is to put all her eggs in one basket. This has been her main client for about a year now, and she has not nurtured any other relationships or done any networking in the meantime. So if the worst comes to the worst and the client waves goodbye – which they’re perfectly entitled to do – then she is up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Of course, an employer would find it mightily difficult to treat a permanent employee in this way. You can’t just wait till an annual appraisal, for example, and tell someone to buck up their ideas of they’re fired. There are all sorts of hoops that employers – quite rightly – need to jump through, to give the employee every possible opportunity to improve their performance. Even if the employee doesn’t improve immediately, it’s not a case of “one strike and you’re out”, as can very easily be the case in the freelance world.

Several birds in the bush might be worth one in the hand

Over the past couple of weeks, Suzie has learnt something the hard way: never rely on just one client to keep you in business, and never take a stream of work for granted. There’s a broad rule of thumb that you should spend 20% of your time networking and trying to seek out new clients. That way, if your once best client shows you the door, you’ll never find yourself watching Jeremy Kyle on a Monday morning. Or worse still, being on it.

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a copywriter, blogger and editor


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