Freelancer. The very word conjures images of a rogue living on the edge of excitement. The freelancer sets their own hours, works from where they wish and whom they wish. They prosper by the sweat of their brow and soar where eagles dare upon their self-made wings.

Many choose to begin careers in freelancing for the freedom and opportunities it provides. They hit the market with a well thought out plan, arrange for a period of providing their own insurance, self-marketing, tools, and workspace – and if properly strategized, they already have eager clients lined up just to use their services. For individuals whom pursue freelancing as a calculated and pre-meditated choice, this article does not apply.

I’m writing this for those who find themselves freelancing as a desperate means for survival due to unexpected circumstances in their careers. For many people, the choice to freelance is the last resort to avoid joblessness and economic death. In more extreme cases, freelancing is simply a way to survive.

Resorting to freelance as a survival option carries with it all the same requirements as a properly prepared start-up business but with the disadvantage of having no start-up capital. Some freelancers start with less than nothing and work from public internet hotspots and coffee shops.

When freelancing becomes vital to your survival, a good or bad client can sometimes mean the difference between homelessness or a foundation for success. Finding clients in the first place can be a Herculean task, but finding a good client is even harder. A single mistake or critical failure on your part can result not only in a very unhappy client, but it can cost you your home, car, or worst, your reputation as a professional freelancer.

A critical failure can happen from any one of a million reasons. Your laptop or PC dies with a blue-screen-of-death perfect timing. Your equipment or client materials become lost or stolen. Someone at your coffee house “office” spills their latte on your original artwork. The homeless shelter has no internet service. All of these things add up to failing a client and crippling your chances of getting further work.

What happens when the vicissitudes of working freelance create a situation of critical failure? Is there any hope of salvaging that client relationship and your own freelancing reputation?

Here are some strategies for preventing a critical fail:

  1. Keep up-to-date backups of all your software and projects
  2. Don’t over-commit yourself in the first place out of an eagerness for work, any work, just to be working
  3. Find a reliable work space (coffee shops, bars, the library) where you know you’ll be able to work productively
  4. Most importantly, keep communication open. The client may not care that you’ve lost your car or computer, but that knowledge will allow them to make other arrangements and minimize the damage of non-communication. Most clients aren’t heartless inhuman machines. A client must be presumed human until actual evidence is presented to the contrary.

But let’s assume the worst. For some unexpected, unavoidable reason, you’ve failed to deliver. The deposit has been spent and the client is angry and disappointed. How is it possible to fix things and make them right – or at the very least, keep the client from lurking behind the bushes with a baseball bat?

First, fix the problem on your end. If the failure was due to losing access to software or a machine to work on, replace it. Whatever it takes, identify why you failed, and make a plan to overcome it. Of equal importance is communicating this to the client. Even if you’ve crashed and burned beyond repair, try to communicate with the client. Silence can be damning.

In a worst case scenario, where the failure has resulted in a complete shutdown of your ability to move forward in any significant way and you fail to communicate with the client, respond immediately if they should contact you. Whatever the tone and manner of contact, you must remember that you failed the client to begin with and now must do any and everything to make things right.

Salvaging the client might be impossible. Perhaps they wish repayment of money you no longer have. This is the moment that will set apart a real freelancer from a total failure. If you can’t repay the deposit or salvage the original project, take stock of the situation. If you have any office equipment or other skills that may be offered in lieu of cash, offer them. Don’t shower your client with excuses. Instead, offer realistic options to atone your critical failure to provide the work you promised to do.

You may be surprised how many clients understand and work with you to turn an unintended catastrophe into something far less devastating. At the very least, you’ll have tried your best to be the professional you aspire to be, in spite of adversity. At the very best, you’ll possibly salvage a relationship with the client and earn another chance to prove yourself capable with future projects.

Using freelance skills to bootstrap yourself from economic failure can be daunting, especially when circumstances force you to miss a deadline or completely fail a client. You’ve tried to soar out of the mud, but like Icarus, you reached higher than your wings could sustain. However, it’s not necessary to fall back deeper into the mud. All it takes is the professional maturity to confront the consequences of your mistakes with honesty and a plan to overcome them. It also helps if the client is an amazingly exceptional person who’s willing to work with you on fixing the problem. Such a client will help you do more than make things right on the failed project. They’ll also provide the opportunity for you to restore your own self-respect.