When to Walk Away from a Freelance Writing Client

Professionally, it can be one of the hardest things that you’ll ever do.

Once upon a time, you and your client were best buddies. She was one of your first clients, and you’re forever grateful.  But you’ve raised your rates considerably since you started working together – and you don’t know if you can afford to keep her on.

Or maybe your “great” client suddenly transformed into a client from hell. You’re not getting paid (or you’re getting slow paid.) The client is demanding free work. And you don’t enjoy the gig anymore.

It could be time to walk away.

Walking away from a client (or from an initially-tasty prospect) takes a lot of clarity, a whole bunch of soul-searching and some pretty big cojones. Just like with ending a romantic relationship, you’ll wonder if you “made the right decision” or if you “should have done something differently.”

But there are times when it’s better for all involved (including the client) if you walk away from the gig. Here are some of those times:

  • You’re not getting paid. Yes, this is a no-brainer – but who hasn’t held on just a little while longer thinking, “They said the check is in the mail. I’m going to trust them and keep working.” If you aren’t getting paid, stop work until you do (and make very few exceptions to this rule.) It’s not being “mean.” It’s smart business.
  • When the prospect introduces terms and conditions that make it impossible to sign.  I’ve had prospects tell me that they’d pay me six months out (true story.) I’ve had prospects slip in non-competes, clauses that demanded a refund if the client decided they didn’t want the copy after ordering and approving it…you name it, I’ve seen it. If you see things that make it impossible to sign (and ideally, you have an attorney point this out to you,) ask the prospect to remove it. If they won’t, let it go.
  • If it’s just not “clicking.” It happens. Nothing you write is quite right, no matter how much you try (and how much direction you get.) You try to work it out, but it’s a longstanding problem. Again, just like personal relationships, there are some folks who you just can’t click with. Not your fault. Not theirs. It’s just what is.
  • When your boundaries keep getting pushed. Ever have those clients who keep wanting a little bit more? If you find yourself cringing every time you see an email from them – or if  you’re continually meeting during your off hours, doing free work, etc – let them go. You can find another client who is a better fit.
  • Your client insists that you do something illegal or unethical. Walk away fast and don’t look back. Enough said.
  • When you’ve raised your rates so much that you can’t afford to keep them. This scenario can be especially hard if you’ve worked with your client for a number of years. Let your client know what your current rate is and see if there’s a way to work something out. If not, have some trusted folks lined up that your client can call. That way, at least you know that your client is being taken care of and you’re not leaving them in the lurch.
  • When you’re in over your head. Your client may have asked you to do a special project – and now that you’re two weeks in, you realize that you have no idea how to handle it. There is no shame in backing away, but there is shame in doing a half-assed job because you don’t know what you’re doing. Admit how you’re feeling to your client, fnd someone else for your client to work with and give away the gig.
  • When you’re already swamped. Are you already working 12+-hour days? Tell me – how much quality time can you provide a new client?  Know your limits and don’t be afraid to tell prospects, “I’m sorry, but I’m not available until X date.” If the client can’t wait, refer them out. It’s not fair to submit burned-out copy to a client just because you want to make a buck.
  • When the gig bores you. If you don’t want to do it, don’t. Period. Let the money go. You won’t do a good job if you dread having to do it.
  • When the client demands a too-low fee. Whether or not to lower fees is a personal choice – and everyone has their “too low” limit. If you honestly can’t take the gig for that amount, refer the client to a lower-priced copywriter.
  • Finally – and my favorite tip – when you have a bad feeling. Call it intuition. Call it years of business experience. I don’t care what you call it – but I always listen to it. If I get a bad feeling from a prospect, I don’t question it. I gracefully pass on the job.  (What about  the times I didn’t listen to that little voice inside my head? Let’s just say bad things happened. And the only person I could blame was myself.)

What about you? Under what circumstances do you walk away from a prospect or current client?

7 replies
  1. dcromwell says:

    I love your posts Heather, they’re always so well timed. You read your followers well and that’s a good model for those who pay attention (can be translated to something we should be doing for our clients).

    I know I and a few others in the SEO copywriting group had to deal with this recently. Mine specifically had to do with raising rates. I just couldn’t afford to keep producing for one client that’s been with me since I started. I felt terrible pushing prices up but at some point you just have to make a change. As I expected, he left and found someone new.

    Those gut feelings are big as well and I’ll rally on that point all day and night. Before most of my business started coming through my site I did a lot of gig hunting on Elance. Sometimes I’d read a job, nod, jump into make a proposal and then… I’d suddenly stop typing after a few words and just pause. That twinge would pop up and I’d just say “nope”. Hit the back button, and find a new gig.

    And because I love to share experiences – I finally had to stop pushing myself so hard and start telling clients to take a number. It was right around the time you gave me the virtual slap actually (i love your unsolicited advice). I keep a steady 2 week waiting period now as new clients come in and I don’t feel anywhere near as stressed. Those that aren’t willing to wait move on and I’m OK with that.

    Can’t save em all :)

    Again, great post – thanks for taking the time.

  2. Amy C. Teeple says:

    Hi Heather! I agree with Derek – another timely post!

    Last week – after months of debate with myself – I finally “fired” a client. I was very open as to why (paying less than half of my current rate and too many layers between me and their clients making for some major miscommunication, among other things). It was not easy because I really liked the people at the company, but our working relationship was no longer benefiting me and I was afraid that it would eventually show in my work (and that wasn’t fair to them).

    I have to echo what you said about “a whole bunch of soul-searching and some pretty big cojones.” About a year ago I had a client who was my bread and butter. However, they began to change what they wanted me to do – they wanted me to change from an SEO analyst and copywriter to a “$10/article content mill writer – and were less than timely with payments. I realized that I would be walking away from the comfort of knowing that I had steady income, but I needed to make the break. I found myself with another client who could make up most of the lost income, so I went ahead and (professionally) walked away. Unfortunately, about 4-5 months later, that new client had to freeze all copywriting projects because the corporate office wanted to rebrand the company. Six months later and I am still waiting for them to work through the red tape of rebranding a corporate identity.

    So, my advice is to have many backup plans when you walk away from that client … and to make sure you diversify your client base. The freeing feeling of walking away can be dampened if you find yourself without another client. Thankfully, the void has since been filled, but it was a bit scary for a couple of months.

    Thanks again for the timely article.

  3. emanns says:

    Great post- I’ve run into this myself and that was just doing content mill type work. I had a woman I worked with who, at first, was timely with payments. Her terms even said that she’d pay every Friday once she approved the project. Suddenly, the payment stopped and she had the “woe is me” story about how her client still had to go through all the articles and that she’d pay when they paid. Well, over four weeks went by and when I followed up (only twice mind you) she snapped at all her writers on her forum and said we were being impatient and unreasonable.

    Needless to say, I told her that I’d no longer write until I got paid for the project. Within a week, she ponied up the cash (even though she had claimed she didn’t have the money). I decided to end the relationship there as it had really stressed me out- and she got VERY nasty about it (I was asking Derek for advice at the time so he can back me up on this one).

    So, pretty much all I’m really saying here is like your post said, don’t ignore the flags and trust your gut.

  4. Amy C. Teeple says:

    Quick follow-up. The recently fired client wants another chance. This is like a breakup. I got an email asking me to find a way to continue working together … except they couldn’t pay me any more money. (Did I mention they were paying less than half of what I get from other clients?) Like, I said, I like these people, but if they can’t even budge a little of my biggest issue, they really don’t want to work with me. Oh well.

  5. Jeffrey Gross says:

    I agree that the points you have made are the hardest things to do professionally! its really important to judge and back away from something that really isnt working for any reason, share it openly and put your foot down.

  6. Courtney says:

    Glad I found this post! I just went through the process of “shedding” a few clients that weren’t right. One was prompted by me and the other was one that needed to be dropped but I drug my feet. They weren’t happy with the project and neither was I.

    Any tips for broaching the subject via email or on the phone when you know it’s not the right project for you?

  7. Louise Desmarais says:

    I like #4. We’ve all had the high maintenance client who always seems to want more out of you than the work you were hired to do.

    This is an awesome post. There really is nothing wrong with having to “fire” a client if the fit isn’t right. It can be tough to do, but at the end of the day, it’s better for everyone concerned.


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