Danger signs: How to know when a client is going under

Feb 3, 2016

Most freelancers have experienced it once or twice. You’re whizzing along, working consistently, and everything seems stable! You’ve got this freelancing race down, and it’s looking like smooth running, as far as the eye can see!

And then – BAM – you hit a major stumble. A foundational client goes under, leaving you scrambling. You’re left dazed and bleeding on the side of the road – what just happened? How did you miss the danger signs?

It can be hard to know when or if a client is faltering; freelancers often work independently, and it’s easy to miss subtle clues about a company’s health. But almost all struggling companies evince a few reliable warning signals – and knowing them can help you avoid major pitfalls.

Dropped communication

It’s not uncommon to have an email or two go unnoticed; people get busy, and there’s no need to think IMMINENT CLIENT BANKRUPTCY every time a message goes unanswered.

But if something seems really wonky – if a once-busy stream of assignments has suddenly petered out, if you’re unable to reach contacts (or get any messages returned), or if you’re getting a lot of evasive answers to questions – beware. This is, of course, doubly true if your check has started coming late. Significant delays in ordinary systems may be a sign of a big shake-up, and it’s very unusual for a client’s communication style to change overnight, unless they’re practicing major damage control.

If you’re continually facing a wall of silence – or even consistently curt replies – start asking questions. You may be encountering the quiet before the storm.


Maybe you’ve noticed people whispering in the halls whenever you’re onsite. Maybe your supervisor is noticeably tense or irritable – or noticeably absent-minded. Maybe there’s just an indefinable thickness in the air; all those little hairs on the back of your neck are standing up.

Instincts are powerful things. They were designed to keep us from being eaten by big, toothy creatures, and they work on an almost unfathomably deep level – affecting our blood pressure, our body rhythms, even our most unconscious perceptions.

All of which is to say that if you feel like something’s up… it probably is.

Your co-workers may be preoccupied with personal matters. Your supervisor may just be consumed by a big project. But if the entire company suddenly seems infected with a whomping case of the Bad Vibes, trust your gut. A faltering company can sometimes successfully hide a real crisis, but that’s the exception to the rule. Most of the time, there’s a bit of anxiety in the air.

Again, do a little research. Poke around the Internet; heck, ask a co-worker directly about what’s going on. You’d be surprised what a little gentle inquiry can turn up.

Join Freelancers Union (it's free!)

Become a member

Lay-offs and missing parties

Suddenly, a whole swathe of your colleagues have been let go (or have mysteriously resigned). Desks are emptying out. Cardboard boxes are filling up. Emails are bouncing back as incorrect addresses. At this point, you feel like the Harried Last Survivor in a Horror Movie – your friends are all being picked off one by one, and you’re just waiting for somebody to pounce from a closet.

Yes, lay-offs and mass employee exoduses are a pretty obvious sign of dysfunction or major transition, but don’t panic just yet. Many freelancers have survived rounds of lay-offs before, and lived to tell the tale.

But take precautions now, while you still have a gig. Start polishing up your resume and portfolio. Update your social media profiles and arrange meetings with old networking buddies. Brainstorm contacts and connections – and build a little nest egg, if you possibly can. Be meticulous about your freelance housekeeping; make sure that all your invoices are going out on time and in good order. It’s MUCH more onerous to get a check processed after your shaky client has collapsed.

Get as much done now as you can. If you retain your gig and all this effort was for naught, so much the better – you’ll have updated materials and connections. If your company lets you go, you’ll hit the ground running!

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.