Estimating how much work a project will require can be difficult not only for you as the contractor, but also for your client. Just like you, a client can overestimate or underestimate the amount of work available. Even so, it isn’t easy to hear your client tell you that the project is ending early because, well, there just isn’t as much to do as he or she thought there would be.

If this happens to you, your next move will be determined largely by the terms of your contract; in particular, whether the client is compensating you on a per-project, flat fee or an hourly basis. In a three-part series, I’ll discuss:

  • How you might be able to extend the project to its original scope.
  • What you can do if that isn’t possible.
  • How to handle early termination on either an hourly rate or per-project fee.
  • How to take full advantage of your opportunities at that client before you leave.

To start off, I’ll take a look at how to address the issue of what to do first when a client’s work well prematurely runs dry.
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When you bill by the hour and the hours dry up
Obviously, this situation is much more likely to occur when, for whatever reason, you’ve negotiated a rate based on your hours worked or some other unit of time. That’s because contractors usually negotiate time-based payment when the scope of the project cannot be clearly defined. The hours required to complete less-defined projects can be far from your or the client’s estimate.

This situation leaves you with the most to risk financially if a work shortage occurs. For example, if you took on a project assuming that the work would take you four to six months to complete, but two months into it the work is winding down and there are no additional projects, your bottom line is going to come up short.

The biggest influence on how to handle this will be your contract: Did you negotiate a set number of hours? How about a kill fee if the client terminates the project before you complete it? Did you specify a time period in which you would work for the client? (If so, there should be a minimum notice of termination in that and, if you did it right, a minimum payment during that time.)

Those issues aside, the bottom line when you negotiate time-based compensation is this: You implicitly accept that if you end up working more hours than estimated, you earn more money, while if the job takes less time, you make less money. It’s also why experienced contractors prefer to work on a flat-fee basis whenever possible. Your options are either to attempt to extend the scope of the project or to find additional work at that client (which we’ll discuss in the third part of this series).

Identify the cause of the problem
Regardless of how you’re being compensated, your first step should be to pinpoint the reason why there isn’t as much work as you thought. There are lots of possibilities, and only by knowing the cause of the work shortage will you know what to do next. Here are several possibilities and how you can respond.

You brought the project in ahead of schedule
You’ve done all the work set out between you and the client, but you did it faster than you or the client expected: In this case, good for you! You exceeded your client’s expectations, and—as long as your work is top-notch—your client will undoubtedly be impressed, and you now have one more great reference. You’re probably near the top of this client’s preferred vendor list as well. Without bragging, be sure to point out when you leave this client how much money you saved them and how you look forward to working with them again. Then stay in touch.

The work just isn’t there
Sometimes, work just disappears. For example, I took on a documentation project composed of more than a dozen documents, some of which I scoped at ten pages or less while others I estimated at nearly seventy pages—making up the bulk of the project (in other words, most of my billable hours). Soon after I began, the manager told me that they didn’t need me to write one of the longest documents after all because they were going to be able to obtain suitable documentation from the vendor. Good for them, bad for me.

I couldn’t expect them to pay me for something they could get less expensively from the vendor, so there wasn’t much I could do. My contract wasn’t specific about what I would do if they cancelled just one or two documents, and I don’t think it should have been. To some extent, you accept the possibility of variable income as a contractor.

However, if a substantial part of your work is cancelled—say, more than half—and your contract has a provision to cover this, you should by all means follow up on that. They’ve engaged your time to complete these tasks, and you set aside time to perform them.

The client doesn’t want you to do the work
Another possibility is that the work is there but the client doesn’t want you to do it. Again, get to the bottom of this by asking why. Did they just hire someone who will be taking over your role? If so, you could offer to fulfill the rest of your contract term by bringing the new hire up to speed.

Did some higher-up decide that the company is spending too much money on you and assign your work to someone else? If so, go to the appropriate person and plead your case, reminding them of the reason they brought you on in the first place: Their own staff was either overworked or lacked the skill set necessary to do the job. Point out that reassigning the job in-house is likely to mean that it never gets completed or isn’t done the way it should be.

Is it performance-related?
A more disturbing possibility could be that the client is not very impressed with your work and is trying to get you off the project without confronting you directly. Don’t rule this out—unfortunately, some clients are uncommunicative and would rather get rid of you than attempt to resolve the issue. The reality here is that if you aren’t doing a satisfactory job because of something that’s the client’s fault, not yours, the client is going to be even less likely to want to ‘fess up and help you out.

Here are some clues that your client may be dissing you for performance-related reasons:

  • You’ve received absolutely no feedback when you’ve submitted work for review.
  • You know there’s more work to do and the client won’t give you a specific reason why you aren’t needed to complete it.
  • You just feel like you’re getting the cold shoulder.

If this seems to be the case, really push your client to tell you what’s going on. Ask directly, “Is there a problem with my performance on this project?” Tell him or her that you want to complete the project and ask if there is an obstacle that you can work together to remove.

If that doesn’t get you anywhere, try to find other people who know what the problem is. You don’t want to place them in a difficult position, so be discreet. But you can ask appropriate employees if they have any feedback about your work—they may actually pass on their boss’ opinion.

If you still can’t get anywhere and it looks like you’re on the way out the door, ask the client if you could use him or her as a reference for future projects. A refusal or a lukewarm answer could tip you off to their dissatisfaction.

You’ve probably figured out by now that contracting requires you to be a bit thick-skinned, so don’t take it personally if you feel your client is dissatisfied and you can’t find out why. Some corporate cultures take an attitude of getting rid of the “problem” immediately without trying to fix it, or they make a habit of scapegoating contractors to higher-ups. However, if you really have not fulfilled your obligations, you should do everything possible to correct that.

Up next: What if you’re billing a set fee?
Next week’s article will discuss the implications of completing a project early when you’re charging on a fixed-fee basis. In part three, I’ll look at the best action to take when leaving any client—especially when your contract is ending ahead of schedule.

Meredith Little has worn many hats as a self-employed writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer.

What do you do when the client tells you there’s less work than promised? Have you found a way to extend the time, or at least get a callback later for another project? To share your story, post a comment below or send us a note.