When to walk away

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?