Every freelance consultant feels gutted when they lose a client. Sometimes the dreaded call or email letting you know you’ve been fired can seem like a bolt from the blue. But even though you may have not seen it coming, your client may have been giving off vibes for some time that they weren’t happy with you, but you simply may not have picked up on them. Here are five types of behaviour that could tell you your client may be looking to move on:

• Your ideas are met with a flat “no”

It isn’t that the client doesn’t like all your ideas. Every freelance consultant soon learns that not every idea they pitch to their clients will be accepted. So a negative response shouldn’t necessarily make you worried, it’s how that “no” is delivered that should ring alarm bells. Clients that are, on the whole, happy with you and enjoy working with you will be keen to share their opinions of your ideas: “this isn’t right for us for these reasons…” or “you’re on the right lines, but it needs more work in these areas…” But if they simply reply with a deadpan “no”, then you could be in trouble. It shows they aren’t interested in guiding you so you can come back with a better idea, possibly because they intend to dispense with your services.

• Your client comes to you with ideas

If one of your clients keeps knocking back your suggestions then that can be a sign of dissatisfaction. If a client that hasn’t previously taken a very hands-on approach starts presenting new ideas to you then they could be unhappy with your performance. It might mean they don’t feel you’re doing your job properly, and it could be that the ideas they bring are the product of meetings they already had with your competitors.

• “Don’t call us, we’ll call you…”

Judging how much contact to have with clients can be tricky: if you call them too much you risk irritating them, but if you don’t contact them regularly enough then they might start to feel unloved. Get some sense of how regularly they want to hear from you when you begin working for them, as every client has a different view on how much service they expect. But if your calls start to go unreturned without explanation, then that should be a cause for concern. If the client stalls on setting up meetings to discuss future projects then you could be on rocky ground.

• They become impossible to please

Many clients won’t simply come out with it and tell you you’re fired. It can be a gradual process during which they become increasingly critical of you. Work that would have earned you a pat on the back a couple of months ago is suddenly not good enough. Clients may use their increasingly offhand behaviour to justify their decision to drop you: “we’ve been telling you for some time that your performance hasn’t been up to the mark…”. If they start to refer to some of your competitors, it’s a sign they are thinking of moving elsewhere, and may even have begun discussions with your rivals. That’s why it’s important to try to get to the bottom of what’s really getting on their nerves. Don’t be too defensive or get angry: you need to take criticism on the chin and see if there’s a way you can meet the client’s expectations in future.

Your invoices start to go unpaid for longer

For self-employed people there’s nothing worse than a client that pays you late, because it plays havoc with your own cash flow. But if one of your clients turns into a persistent late payer it can mean one of two things: either they are suffering from their own money problems (and are delaying paying their suppliers to slow down their own cash outflows) or that you have fallen down their list of priorities. Companies may have a shortlist of business partners whose bills they pay promptly, because they intend to work with them in future, and everyone else, whose invoices will get paid when they get round to it. Either way, it’s not good for you.

Don’t be afraid to stand your ground and insist on being paid for previous work before embarking on new projects. Many small businesses are anxious about chasing up unpaid bills, fearing they might not get further work in future. But the truth is the client might already be moving on; anyway, a persistent late payer is the kind of client who’s probably more hassle than they’re worth.

Most of these problems are likely to have arisen because there’s been a breakdown in communication with your client. You can try to avoid the situation getting this far by booking regular social meetings with your client, where you simply catch up with them rather than discussing specific projects you’re working on. These get-togethers can be very useful for you to take the temperature of the relationship, and to encourage the client to get any issues they have off their chest. At least that way you can try to repair the relationship, rather than just being told that your services are no longer required