Having a client (or two) who make up a large portion of your income is a blessing and a curse. They keep you busy, but you lose focus on your freelance business. Find out if you have any gorilla clients, or high client concentration, and what to do about it.
If you haven’t heard the term “gorilla client” before, it’s not a badly behaving client, although it might sound like they came straight out of the zoo. It’s a client who makes up at least 25% to 50% of your income. Some experts say 25%, others say 50%.
They can be small or large companies. They don’t have to be considered “big” in terms of size. When I say “big client,” I just mean a client that makes up a large part of your income. But they can be any size.
I have had several gorilla clients. I had several for 10 years or more who were a good chunk of my monthly income. So much of what I am going to share with you today is from those experiences. There are a lot of positives and negatives.
The Benefits of a Gorilla Client
Gorilla clients usually continually throw work your way. They may not bid it out to other designers. Sometimes they don’t even ask for an estimate.
You think you’re saving so much time not having to market yourself looking for potential new clients.
You do so much work for them, you don’t need to look elsewhere for work, which is great, because you hate doing that anyway. I did for quite some time. Plus, it’s always easier to get new work from existing clients than it is from new clients.
You become familiar with this client by doing so much work for them. You may even do work for multiple contacts there.
You think it feels like a dream situation. I know.
You’re like an extension of their staff but with the perks of being a business owner.
But all of this puts you in a vulnerable position.
The Problem With Having on One (or Two) Big Clients: High Customer Concentration
Lack of control
Your business is dependent on that client. You are at their mercy. Your business is partly out of your control.
The client’s business could suffer financially and start cutting costs. They could get acquired by another company.
Your contact may get promoted to another department or laid off. They may move on to another place of work and then their replacement hires a graphic designer they’ve worked with before.
You can get cut out at any time. You will be the last to know, and there likely won’t be any notice.
When that happens, your business will lose most of its revenue.
You’re in a reactive position most of the time—just taking the work as it comes. It may or may not be work that you want, because you’re not in control of it.
Being taken for granted
Another problem with having a gorilla client is that they may think they own you. They may come to expect you to be at their beck and call or treat you like an employee, but without the benefits such as health insurance, retirement plan, etc.
When you feel like you’re being taken for granted, it doesn’t foster a good client relationship.
You may become a bit snarky in your tone—written and verbal. At least, I did.
A client that I did work for every month for 10 years started paying my invoices late—so late, in fact, that there were three invoices outstanding at one time. One invoice was six months past due.
I called and emailed my contact there and then the accounting person there after not getting an answer.
After several unreturned calls, emails and even letters in the mail asking where my payments were (and much more polite than I should have been), I found something online called a Dun’s Demand Letter service.
I think I paid about $40 for Dun and Bradstreet to send a demand letter for the amount and saying I would be stopping work until I got paid.
I got the nastiest phone call back from their accounting person, screaming at me (some nerve!), telling me I should have known I would “eventually” have gotten paid.
Yeah, right! So they just expected me to keep on working while they kept falling behind in invoices!
We’re talking about 5 figures here that they were behind paying. That was crazy! So that was also the end of that relationship.
Asking for too much
They may even use as leverage the fact that they give you so much work. They may try to get discounts. They may start asking for rush work without paying extra. They’re bestowing work upon you, so you should just be grateful.
I had a client like this. I fired them after working with them for 13 years. They just came to expect that I should prioritize them over other clients. They treated me like I didn’t have any other clients.
Every job became a rush job. They were never willing to pay extra for rush work though. They were always nickeling and diming me.
They called me an “expert” but, really, they treated me like an order taker.
When I got into accessibility and showed them all the ways I could help them after building them a brand new accessible website for dirt cheap, they weren’t interested. They just wanted the same lower-cost, high-quality, rush work that I’d been doing, and I was so done with that.
They didn’t want to pay my higher rates. My rates have changed since I started working with them. My focus had changed. They weren’t interested in paying for that.
Like the saying: “You can get it fast, cheap or good. Pick two.” They constantly were asking for all three.
To top off all that, they even paid my invoices late! Talk about some nerve!
You get really, really comfortable. You become complacent.
You’re often so busy doing work for them that you don’t market yourself and look for other clients. You stop working on your business because you’re so busy working on theirs.
Fear of losing big clients
You fear losing big clients, because they are such a large part of your business.
That’s the worst, because you’re much more likely to put up with bad behavior from the client because they give you so much work or because they make up such a large portion of your income.
I had a gorilla client for 10 years, as I mentioned earlier. It was great monthly income, and it was in addition to my full-time job. This was freelance work.
I put up with being called by the client at my full-time job (she had used to work there, but it was so inappropriate for her to do that). I remember feeling my heart pounding from all the stress.
She was constantly poking and prodding me, but then she would sing my praises to everyone else and say how wonderful it was that the monthly work was finally getting done on time after years of other contractors not getting it done on time or well.
But yet she still felt the need to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough. And, unfortunately, that was a feeling I was used to, so I just continued to put up with it, especially because asking friends and family for advice just got me, “Well, but they’re paying you.”
Financial dependence on a gorilla client
You become financially dependent on the gorilla client either to pay yourself, a subcontractor or a team.
If the client doesn’t pay their invoices on time—or at all—how much will that affect your business?
This becomes much more than a financial problem though.
You might even bend over backward for them just to keep them happy, even when it doesn’t feel right to do that, even when they treat you badly, even if they don’t pay your invoices on time, etc.
You may even prioritize their work above other clients, not because they’re asking but because you feel like you have to do that. So it’s like people pleasing.
Lack of planning
You don’t plan for the future—the potential lost work. If you get 50% of your income from that client, what will happen if they leave? Would you be able to pay the rent or mortgage? Would you need to start looking for a part-time job?
You might think you’d just need to replace them with another big client. But it can take some time to find another client.
But that also just puts you right back into the same vulnerable position, perpetuating the issue.
I know, for me at the time, years ago, I thought I was in charge and being the business owner. But, really, I just had another job.
Clients were running my business. I was busy working on projects but not on the health of my business. At that time, I thought the health of my business was a good income.
I wasn’t as concerned with bad clients who disrespected me. I wasn’t as concerned with getting more clients. I mean, I didn’t want to work with clients who disrespected me, and I wanted more and better clients. But I accepted a lot of this as normal and hesitated to do what I needed to do to get myself out of those situations.
I was always busy, but I wasn’t looking for new clients. My income was stagnant for years.
That’s the other thing to think about—rates. It’s always easier to raise your rates with new clients. They are none the wiser about your past rates and what other clients have been paying.
But existing clients may balk or leave. If they balk at your higher rates and refuse to pay them and continue to work with you, you will feel resentful toward them, and that hurts the client relationship.
So you might hesitate to raise your rates with gorilla clients, and that leaves your business stuck.
You’re stuck with many of the same clients paying the same old rates. You’re not getting the respect you deserve. You continue to take on work you don’t like doing. You start doubting yourself, so you’re not confident, and that can hurt your chances of getting new clients.
Trust me. I know this feeling. It’s awful.
You may also want to focus on a certain type of work but you decide against it because you get so much of other types of work from a big client.
You also may hesitate to step up as the business owner, always working in the business instead of on it. It gives you the excuse you need not to do that or to procrastinate because that’s not what you want to be doing. You might just want to sit back and do the work.
But a lot of being a business owner is getting out of your comfort zone.
You may not get out of your comfort zone until a client forces you to by going elsewhere.
Please don’t do that. Then you’re in panic mode—reactive mode—looking for new clients and more work and wishing you had paid more attention to marketing sooner.
I get it! I’ve totally been there. It’s hard work, but it’s also rewarding.
These are all things you have to do as the business owner if you want to control the direction of your business.
Identifying a Gorilla Client
To find out if you have any gorilla clients, look back at your records. Find out what percentage of your annual income each of your clients makes up. Create a spreadsheet with the numbers right in front of you.
Do you make more than 50% of your income from any of them? If so, you may want to consider taking some steps to protect your business from gorilla clients.
You can even track this over time to check if you have a good balance or not.
Avoiding High Client Concentration/Gorilla Clients
The first thing to do to protect your business from gorilla clients is to get into the mindset of a business owner. Businesses always need to attract new clients.
They don’t have to get tons of clients all the time but they need to get new clients. They need to make money to stay in business to serve their clients.
Marketing to offset a gorilla client
You’ve got to continually market yourself, so that you are reminding people what you do, letting prospects know who you are and what you do, and staying top of mind. That way, when they need someone with your expertise, they will reach out to you.
Remember: marketing is a long game. You have to continually do it.
Future proof your business by aiming to have multiple clients and a good mix of smaller and larger ones to offset a single client making up a huge portion of your income.
Consider retainer agreements for some clients that include a cancellation policy. That way, they can’t just cancel without notice, or maybe they can, but there is a financial penalty for it. That would give you some lead time in case a client—any client, not just a gorilla client—ups and leaves.
Also be sure your positioning in the marketplace is strong. In other words, how are you different from every other designer out there, and why should a client work with you?
How easily replaceable are you? Rather, how easily replaceable do clients think you are?
If they don’t think you’re easily replaceable, because of your work ethic, your niche, your service or another factor, then you are less likely to be replaced.
Any way that you can set yourself apart from all the other designers out there—and that clients also see that for themselves, which is based on your marketing and positioning—the less replaceable you will be.
If you want to find out one way you can set yourself apart, start asking the questions that most designers aren’t asking. Get the free guide, 17 Questions You Must Ask During a Design Consultation.