Every Client is Temporary
There are writers, and there are working writers. A working writer is someone who makes his living writing to specification, on contract, by assignment, and so forth. In other words, he or she writes for clients. Most working writers would gladly trade the day-to-day grind of word counts, painful edits, vague outlines, and rougher-than-rough preliminary input for the cushy life of an author. An author is somebody who writes stories. A writer is somebody who types out everything else, from blog posts to web copy to white papers to… other author’s works. A working writer is a ghost-writer, but he’s also a gunslinger, the kind of guy you bring in to write something you can’t or don’t want to write yourself. A working writer cannot live without clients, because it is his clients that pay his way. But every working writer must reconcile himself to one inevitable fact about those who pay his bills: every client is temporary.
My father ran his own technical writing business for twenty years. I remember vividly when he retired as the assistant plant manager at a factory, where he had worked his way up to management from engineering. He received the lion’s share of his “profit sharing” for his time at the company, taking a percentage loss by leaving early. With that money, he founded his company, buying a Tandy 1000SX (that’s an ancient home computer, if you’re under 30), a monochrome monitor, and a dot-matrix printer. In the early days of his company, he had many smaller clients. By the time I was in college and working for him as a draftsman and writer during the summers, he still had a few smaller jobs — but most of his work came from the same massive company, which was funneling him the lion’s share of his income. Times were good and his company prospered. At the height of his success, he was employing myself, my uncle, and various other family members in a rotating third employee slot.
You can see the inevitable problem, of course: Eventually, his major client started to have financial trouble. Management changes prompted different policies concerning how outsourced documentation was to be handled. The money dried up, and with it, the business. Suddenly, a thriving company found itself foundering for lack of work — purely because, for years, there had been no reason to find any. Work that is knocking at your door is always much more profitable than work you have to go find, if only because of the time factor. A freelancer, a working writer, lives and dies by cash flow. The more time it takes to develop a client and secure payment, the more bills go unpaid in the meantime.
In the course of your career as a working writer, clients will come and go. Each one of them lives out a client life cycle and, while some progress through the steps faster than others (and some skip most of the steps because they do not offer repeat business), I’m convinced that life cycle is unavoidable. That is to say that no matter who the client is, no matter how much business they give you, no matter how much money you make from them, eventually, the money’s going to stop.
The typical client life-cycle plays out like this:
- Working Together
- Repeat Business
- Friends or Coworkers
- Waning Phase
- Parting Ways
In the development phase. This is when you first start talking to the client: They found you through your website, they were referred to you by someone else, they hooked up with you on a freelance site like elance or Upwork, or whatever. This is when the client explains what he or she wants (or you pitch the client what you are offering). The two of you dance a little bit, both of you trying to get the other to offer a price first. Eventually, you agree on that price. Maybe you a sign a contract; maybe you let e-mail and PayPal serve as your contract.
The next step in the client life-cycle is the working together phase. You deliver on the job, and if the client isn’t happy or thinks he or she can do better, the cycle probably stops right there (although it’s not necessarily unrecoverable). In most cases, you deliver as promised and the client, satisfied, pays you. This may be the last you ever hear from that individual, but in some cases, the relationship moves on to the repeat business phase. The client gives you job after job, coming to rely on you for certain needs. For most freelancers and working writers, this is the best-case scenario. You’re regularly making money, the work is coming to you (so you don’t have to burn time and effort finding it), and you and the client have gotten to know each other well enough that you can skip some formalities. For many writers, this is the most profitable phase of the client life-cycle.
The step that follows is rarer, but still common enough: It’s the friends or coworkers stage. This is when you’ve worked with a given client long enough that you’ve come to consider them friend and peer, rather than simply an employer. You will find yourself doing favors for the client at this phase and, if the relationship is a legitimate one, they’ll return the favors. They might refer other business to you; they might advance you money when they know you’re in a bind; you find yourself discussing your personal lives. The “coworkers” component of this phase occurs when a client hires you on full-time or part-time, becoming a regular and predictable contributor to your wages.
When you’ve come to anticipate your income being a certain amount, it is difficult to adjust to losing it. The waning phase of the client life-cycle is a reminder that you can’t afford to become complacent where business development is concerned. In many cases, the waning phase occurs because the client is running out of money. When his or her business does not prosper, there is less money to hire you. There are other reasons business might dry up from a client, though. He or she may grow dissatisfied with your service (even if this is unreasonable), he or she may become entitled and expect more from you than you are willing to provide, the client’s business needs might evolve, or there could be any of countless other factors at play. In most cases, it isn’t personal; in some cases, it might be. Regardless, the money is drying up, and you have to understand that this will eventually happen with every client — no matter how long you’ve worked with that person or business.
The final stage of the client life-cycle is parting ways. You and the client agree that you will not be working together anymore. Some clients skip right to this step after a single job, because they don’t come back to you for more. Others come to this point after years of repeat business. You must do your best, at this stage, to end things on at least a neutral note. Your goal is to wrap things up with the client so you can stop spending time on his or her projects, while making sure that you and the client both understand your work together has ended.
Do not burn bridges if you can help it, and let the client know that you would be receptive to new work in the future if the two of you can come to an agreement. I usually say, simply, “I’ll be here the next time you need me,” and leave it at that. You never know when a client you thought was gone for good might start a new venture, or experience renewed success, and suddenly rediscover a need for your talents.
The time to develop new business is not the parting ways phase, when you’re scrambling to plug a gap in your cash flow. You should be developing new clients all the time, but especially when a client enters the waning phase, it’s time to find income to replace what you’re losing (and what you’ve still got left to lose). A working writer’s day-to-day life is a constant hustle for work followed by long hours of typing out assignments. It’s not glamorous. It’s not even fun, some days. But it is a living, and an honest one, which you can make off the sweat of your brain.