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It’s never ‘just business’ – why being burned by a client hurts more than your finances

“It’s just business” is a phrase that bandied around occasional. Usually by people trying to justify a certain way of behaving or doing business.

I’m of the view that really it’s never ‘just business’, because business permeates into every area of our life. It affects our society, our environment, what we buy, how we work and ultimately our lives. But lately I’ve become even more acutely aware than when you’re a freelancer, being burned by a client affects so much more than your finances.

I’m lucky in that in the six/seven years of being freelance, I had only experience one occasion when a client didn’t cough up the money they owed. A formal letter threatening the small claims court and they promptly did. We curtailed our arrangement and off I went. Apart from that, I have worked with clients who I have built strong relationships with, and who pay what they owe, pretty much on top.

Until October 2022.

After months of thinking I was building a relationship with a client, forgiving their late payments because they had spoken to me extensively about their ‘values’, their respect for people, and the importance they put on doing business the right way, I realised I was about to be burned.

First was the call asking me to cease all work, despite the terms of our contract and notice periods. Then was the promise that I would be paid, just not quite yet. Then there was the ghosting. Eventually, after my attempts to recover the money through the proper channels, I found out the directors had quietly wound up their company, making it virtually impossible for me to get what I was owed.

I should consider myself lucky. It appears they left staff members jobless, customers who had paid deposits were left high and dry, and no doubt suppliers have been left with monies owed too. So the fact I was able to find new clients and push on leaves me grateful.

Someone told me that in situations like this there are ‘no losses, just learnings’. With which I disagree. There are tangible losses that are quite clear to see in the ‘bad debts’ column of my accounts. There are also the losses of what was a retainer projected to be a long-term arrangement that was curtailed without warning.

But what I’ve learned is that the losses don’t stop there. Because when you’re a one-man band and a client you thought you had built a relationship with not only leaves you out of pocket, but is less than transparent with you, lies to you, and acts in a way entirely contrary to what values they claimed to have, the losses go deeper.

I don’t want to be melodramatic. There are far worse situations to be in. But in a world where we talk about wins, about being hard-nosed, and about ‘business’, it doesn’t do us any harm to remember that ultimately we are people, and business relationships are still relationships. So when one party in that relationship shafts the other, it cuts deep.

With that in mind, it’s important we’re aware of the other losses that come when business is done badly, and when people treat each other badly. Whether that’s employer to employee, client to employer, or vice versa.

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You lose your trust in clients and colleagues

It’s sad but true. Call me naive, but I have always approached businesses from a place of mutual respect and trust. And for the most part, it’s not a bad way to go. That kind of approach builds strong, long-term relationships that are beneficial for both parties.

But when you get burned, it doesn’t just destroy your trust in the person involved – it affects the your trust in everyone you work with. If you didn’t see it coming with them, or somehow ‘know’ that they weren’t going to operate in the way they said they would, how do you know others won’t do the same?

That loss of trust might be small to some companies, and some might say you’re naive to ever have it in the first place. But I’ll wager lots of freelancers and small businesses do. You’ve almost got no choice. You trust that people will work the way they said they would, that they’ll stick to the terms of the contract, and that they won’t cleverly manoeuvre their way out of a situation and leave you negatively affected.

But when someone reminds you how precarious that all is, it’s inevitable that you’ll struggle to continue with that tone of trust. It’s a frightening place to be, and a sad one when you feel relationships you worked so hard to build suffer as the result of one unscrupulous client.

You lose your time and energy

‘Just take them to the small claims court’.

If only it were that simple. Such a step is only part of a long, exhausting process of discovering that somebody is about to do you over.

There are the emails and conversations where you have an inkling something’s going on, but are being told it will all be okay.

There’s the chasing of invoices and vain attempts to find out if what you think is going to happen is really going to happen.

There’s the small claims court process itself (and money). The forms, the letters, the dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to check you’ve done it right.

And then, if you’re in the lucky position I was, there’s the letters and forms for the Insolvency Service to try (which you know is pointless) to recover some of the money you’re owed.

All that is before the time and energy you lose going over the whole sorry tale in your head. Pondering on what you could have done differently. Talking about it, thinking about it, worrying about.

The time and energy you lose from waking up in the night wondering how you’re going to recoup the money you’re owed, where else you’re going to earn it, and how you’re going to plug the gap of not only losing a client, but being left out of pocket by them.

You lose faith in your own abilities

Is this the worst? Possibly. Most of us – freelancers especially in some ways – suffer from a degree of what’s often termed ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

We wonder if we’re good enough. Not just at our craft and our profession, but at running a business.

Being burned by a client calls everything into question. Did they treat you like this because they deem you unworthy of being treated in the way a professional should be treated? Did your lack of business acumen or wisdom facilitate them in treating this way? Should you even be running a business anyway if you’re so easy to shaft?

Those doubts were there anyway, but being left out of pocket by someone you thought you had an agreement with, not to mention a working relationship, helps them all rise to the top, vying for attention from your already busy brain.

It’s another loss to chalk up and has a far-reaching effect, whether that’s on your confidence in your work and the way you run your business, to your confidence in going out and getting new clients when you need to be doing that the most.

Are there any gains?

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With all that in mind, I speak from experience when I say it can feel like a tough old journey to navigate.

But the good news is that while the losses are clear to see, there are some gains. It’s probably what the ‘no losses just learnings’ person meant – that like anything we can take some good out of shitty situations.

So yes, there are gains. There’s the valuable experience of remembering how tenuous freelance life can be, and how important it is to be prepared for anything.

There’s the reflection on your own practices – how you do business, how you vet clients, and how you manage your relationships.

And there’s the fact that one wonderful reality of freelance life is that often when one door closes, others open where you least expect them, and there are often silver linings, as hard as that might be to see at the time.

This isn’t a pity party, or a motivational speech from anyone with any vast experience or knowledge other than having been on such a journey and come out of the other side. But if it helps one person who has just discovered that someone wasn’t who they thought they were, or are feeling the pain of realising they’ve just been burned, then hooray for that.