How Your Biggest Client Can Almost Kill Your Business

November 21, 2012


Big clients can be awesome, if they don’t take your business down. That’s the brutal truth that Sophie, a freelance graphic designer, once learned.

A river of income

Sophie went freelance a few years ago, after getting laid off from a pharmaceutical giant. It was a tough struggle for the first ten months till Sophie reconnected with Jane, a former colleague who’d also been laid off. Jane, who had a new gig heading up the marketing team for a large health clinic, was looking for a freelance graphic designer for one of her projects. Sophie got the contract, and then another, and another. For a couple of years the work from the clinic kept flowing. It was a steady river of income, and Sophie figured it’d keep flowing, not just because the clinic was doing well, but because she and Jane had become close friends. But then, one night over spritzers, Jane dropped a big bomb.

The river stops flowing

Jane told Sophie she was leaving the clinic and moving across the country with her husband—bad news for their friendship, but, as it would turn out, worse news for Sophie’s business. The guy who took over Jane’s role—someone who’d been on Jane’s team for a few years—gave all new design projects to another designer. That chopped Sophie’s income in half, a blow that took more than two years to recover from.

Loss prevention: bond with your clients, not just your contacts

Sophie told me this story when we first started working together. Like a few other small business owners who have told me similar stories, she felt there wasn’t much she could have done. And yes, it’s true that you can never totally protect yourself from losing a client when your contact leaves. But you can minimize that risk. All you have to do is make sure you develop a relationship with the client, not just with your contact. Sophie’s mistake was that she was BFF with Jane, but not with the clinic. She even admitted she’d only ever been to the clinic’s offices a couple of times, and hadn’t really gotten to know anyone else there.

A better story

After Sophie told me her story, I told her another story. This one was about Elizabeth, also a designer with a big client, a dog clothes company, that accounted for nearly half her revenue. Knowing that losing her big client would hurt bad, Elizabeth took some preventative measures from the get-go. Instead of just focusing on her relationship with her contact, she made an effort to deepen her connection with the company, by doing things like:

Visiting the client’s offices—often

Even though Elizabeth could work out of her home office and phone in for meetings, she’d sometimes go into her client’s offices to work, and she’d often attend meetings in person. Even if there was no business reason to show up, she would drop by for a social visit, and made it a point to go in at least once a month.

Making friends with others at the company

Whenever Elizabeth visited the company, she introduced herself to as many people as possible—even if they were outside the marketing team that she worked with. If she was going for coffee or drinks with her contact, she’d invite others from the company along. Eventually Elizabeth was on a first name basis with everyone on the marketing team, and had developed strong relationships with a few of them. One even became a friend outside of work because of their shared interest in dragon boating.

Getting involved in company programs or events

When the dog clothes company would host or sponsor programs and events, like dog shows and animal shelter fundraisers, Elizabeth volunteered to help. People there started to feel that Elizabeth really cared about the company. It also gave Elizabeth a sense of what the company was all about outside the office, which she could apply to the work she did for them.

Working for other company teams

There were teams inside the company other than marketing that needed graphic work and Elizabeth put herself forward for every opportunity she could, eventually doing work for other teams.

The strategy pays off

If it sounds like a lot of extra effort, it is. And some of it is unbillable time. But Elizabeth felt it would pay off eventually—and it did. After her contact left for another company, the person who took over that role knew Elizabeth well and kept her on as the go-to graphic designer.

The difference between the two stories shows us that if the person taking over for your contact doesn’t know you, it’s easy for them to see you as just another freelance resource to choose from. But if they know you and you give them good vibes, they’re less likely to break the bond you have with them and the company. Obviously, if the company fills the contact’s role with someone from the outside, you’re less protected, but your overall deeper connection with the company could still work in your favor, as you’ll have lots of people at the company who can vouch for you.

Sometimes the stuff in your head can help

You can protect yourself in some cases by increasing your knowledge of the company and its intellectual capital. If you’re the one who knows how to do things, it’s probably easier and better for them to keep you than it is to bring on another freelancer who will have to start from scratch. But your intellectual capital might not protect you as much as you’d like. I’ve seen a bunch of freelancers lose clients because the person taking over for their contact didn’t know them and didn’t fully appreciate everything they knew. So making friends with as many people as you can at your client company always makes sense.

Different strokes for different folks

Not all freelancers have the same opportunities to build the kind of strong client relationship that Elizabeth had with the dog clothes company. You can’t swing by the client’s office if it’s hundreds or thousands of miles away. And sometimes the nature of the work doesn’t give you much chance to get to know others. But it’s important to do what you can. And you might have to get creative. If you’ve got ideas or your own story about losing, or almost losing, a big client, please let us know about it in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

The big takeaway: develop as strong and as deep a relationship as you can with your client company, not just your key contact there. That way, if your contact leaves, you stand the best chance of keeping that company as a client.

Author’s note: this post is based on some freelancers I’ve coached, but the names I’ve used aren’t their real ones.


about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.