How to handle clients who keep setting fires you have to put out?

emdash had a retainer client last year. He kept us on retainer to do all and sundry work in content / marketing / website management. The only regular thing we did was a blog — we published weekly and distributed on social media. We continued that for about a year, I think. My team was learning a lot — content management, SEO, distribution, scheduling. We used this project as a testing ground.

As we grew, new clients came onboard. Some of them were extremely demanding. We spent a lot of time talking to these new clients every day and working on their projects. We also ended up regularly putting out their fires.

"Make this title case""No no, make it CaMEl C@se""This blue is not our brand blue""You say it is, but it looks different to me""Why is it taking 30 minutes to add a full stop and send it to me""I'm speaking to other agencies, I feel like you're not up to the task" 

You know the kind of stuff that add no significant value to the work we’re doing except make the client feel like they own us. During this time, the retainer client’s blog dwindled. After a few weeks of sporadically publishing the blog, we entirely lost track of it. The retainer client never followed up because the blog wasn’t top priority for him. More new clients came, and we stayed super busy.

A couple of months later, the retainer client called. You know where this is going, right? He said his auditors were questioning what returns they’re getting on the retainer they’re paying us. He offered to keep us on retainer but cut it in half. I lost a good client, who paid regularly, gave decent work, allowed us to learn and was reasonable — only because I was busy tending to the cry-baby-clients.

When you’re a freelancer / small business owner, this is bound to happen to you at some point or another. You will end up prioritising the client who sends feedback on WhatsApp, then calls, then emails and then calls again, for edits that you warned them about on the very first day.

My only advice: Don’t.

I’ll tell you what will happen if you do. You’ll be exhausted, never have time to cherish your own work, and in retrospect, your work will feel mediocre.

Some of this is unavoidable. But you can certainly break the fall. Here’s what I do:

  • Spend some time each week looking back at the week gone by. Identify how much time you spent putting-out-fires and how much in long-term meaningful projects.

  • Keep a list of clients who keep setting fire around you. When you need to let go of some projects in the future, fire them first.

  • Monitor your anxiety levels. Being mindful will help differentiate real fires from fake ones. I’ve noticed that even email exacerbates my anxiety levels, even if it’s the inanest.

  • When you feel overwhelmed, re-evaluate the urgency. For instance, a client asked, “can you send it to me on Monday?” I panicked in the moment. 30 mins later, I asked, “can I do it on Friday, please?” and they accepted without a word.

Clients have a tendency to think that you’ll make time to do their work. They have their urgencies which they will most certainly transfer to you. Some clients will be worth it. Some not. Grow an intuition to tell the difference. Thank me later.