How to Handle Client Overload [in 3 Steps]

by Tom Ewer 5 Minutes

Client overloadUnless one is extraordinarily well organised, there will come a time in any successful freelancer’s career where they become overwhelmed with the amount of work they have on their plate.

While this is a happy problem, it is a problem nonetheless, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Client overload can lead to any number of unwanted outcomes such as a reduction in the quality of your work, the neglect of other parts of your business, and even the neglect of your family and other things that are important to you in life.

In an ideal world one would spot client overload from a distance and plan accordingly, but such an outcome is unlikely; especially if you have never experienced it before. After all, how can you spot and fully appreciate the ramifications of an impending situation that you do not fully understand? With that in mind, this post takes a “firefighting” approach and lays out what you should do to clear the decks in the event of client overload.

Step 1: Determine How Much Time You Want to Spend on Client Work

As a freelancer you are in control of your working hours, but this does not mean that you should work all hours of the day. On the contrary, you should choose to work as many hours as you please (within financial reason).

Therefore, the first step to establishing a level of balance in your client work is to assess how much time you would ideally spend on client work. The number of hours you would ideally choose to work should not be in any way affected by your current workload; consider it a future goal rather than a current reality.

The final number is typically shaped by three things:

  1. The number of hours you would like to work
  2. The amount of money you want/need to make
  3. The amount of time you want to set aside for other business endeavours

Take me for instance: in an ideal world my number would be three hours per day. I typically work six full hours per day (not including breaks and days off) and having three hours left aside for working on my blog and passive income streams (and allowing for time off) would be a suitable balance.

Once you have calculated this number it should be expressed in terms of the number of thirty-minute blocks required. So for instance, six hours per day would be twelve thirty-minute blocks.

Step 2: Determine How Much Time Your Client Work Currently Takes

The next step is to get a grasp on the disparity between the hours you would like to work and the hours that you do work. Accurately predicting the amount of work you do may seem nigh-on impossible but I find that by chunking your work into thirty minute blocks you can get a relatively accurate estimate of time spent.

How would you go about doing this? Well, it depends on what kind of clients you work with. If you work with a modest group (say 5-10) of long term clients you will probably be able to estimate to a good level of accuracy how much time your work takes. If on the other hand you work on short-term projects and have a high client turnover rate, the calculation will be more difficult and less accurate.

Nonetheless, any calculation is better than no calculation at all. I recommend that you start by listing your clients and the associated work based upon a fixed timespan. So for instance, I have some clients that I do work for once per week, and other clients that I do work for once every two weeks. Therefore, in order to calculate the time taken to do work I will base my estimate upon a full fortnightly cycle. For each client estimate the time taken on work to within the nearest thirty minutes.

Here’s my estimate:

Client Hours

It is likely that your final estimate will not represent your work in full. Unexpected work, extra client work and other factors are likely to boost the hours you put into your client work. As such, I recommend that you add a contingency to the total estimate hours in the region of 10-20%.

A 10% contingency would increase my total estimated hours in the spreadsheet above to 69 thirty-minute blocks, putting me 9 blocks (or 4 1/2 hours per fortnight) over budget.

Step 3: Cut Back

Once you have figured out where your time is going, it is time to figure out who should get the chop. That’s right — I am talking about letting clients go. It may seem like an extreme move, but you may find that doing so changes your business for the better. Why? Because we are going to figure out who your least valuable (and least enjoyable) clients are and get rid of them, thus giving you a chance to attract better clients in the future.

The primary (and perhaps easiest) consideration is generally financial. As such, you should expand the above spreadsheet to include the rates you receive for the work that you do. Because you already have the time estimates inserted, it only takes a simple formula to calculate your effective hourly rate per client:

Client Hours and Rates

You now have a relatively accurate overview of each client’s worth to you in terms of your equivalent hourly rate. As you can see, there are four clients that (on paper) earn me significantly less than the others. Having said that, I know that my estimates aren’t precise. For instance, the articles I write for Client 4 usually take me no more than 45 minutes and sometimes as little as 30 minutes, so the equivalent hourly rate is actually in the region of $100-$130.

Because of such discrepancies, you will need to double check your figures before making any big decisions. Furthermore, you should take into account non-financial considerations (such as the relationship you have with your clients, how much referral work they bring in, and so on). This spreadsheet is your sandbox with which you can change numbers in order to find a balance that will work for you.

Such decisions should ideally be made in tandem with time tracking data you have to hand. If you’re not tracking the time spent on each client then I would advise that you start now — it is absolutely invaluable in terms of estimating how much you really make per hour.

Knowledge is Power

The above three steps are designed to take you from ignorance to understanding. While it can be all too easy to panic under the weight of far too much client work, if you can plot a path to get your workload back on an even keel, the heavy lifting you’ll have to do in the meantime won’t seem so imposing.

As always, if you have any questions or comments I welcome them in the comments section below!

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by Tom Ewer
Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.