Knowing When to Drop a Client

What’s on the iPod: Lego House by Ed Sheeran

It’s been a fantastic week. I finished all my projects by late Tuesday, had one small revision Wednesday morning, and I’ve spent two solid days doing what I damn well please. That included working on two longer-term projects and some poetry.

But that’s not what made it fantastic. It helped, but fantastic was something else.

It came in the form of an email from a journal I follow (one of my poems was published in their journal). I nearly deleted the email, thinking I’ll just go online and read it, but something made me open it. I’m glad I did.

It was an announcement saying my poem was one of five that were nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Totally unexpected and something I highly doubt I’ll win, but it felt so great to have the editors choose my work to nominate. At first, I thought, “Huh?”

Then I closed the email.

Then I opened it again.

I reread. Yes, they meant me.

Then I sat and let it sink in. Wow. Cool.

As the day progressed, it really sank in. Very cool.

By evening, I was so tickled I couldn’t concentrate on anything.

Beyond that, it’s been a slow, enjoyable week. I’ve more than made my earnings goals for this month, so I allowed myself the time to not market (I know, breaking my own rule for a few days) and just do what I wanted.

Such a far cry from a number of years ago when I had a client relationship that was so toxic, I thought I’d never recover.

It was a while ago — 2009. I was coming up on my fifth year of working for the company, a resume-writing service. Yet there was something really wrong.

I had been working with an excellent manager (and a woman I’m both friends with and have worked for since), and she’d built a wonderful rapport with me, and with all her writers.

Then she quit to have a baby.

Enter the new manager, who was gung-ho. With her Brooklyn attitude intact, she commenced her relationship with her writers by cracking the whip hard and often. The gigs that were entirely voluntary to accept were suddenly mandatory, even though we were still being told we could accept or reject whatever work we liked. Writers who did reject assignments never saw another.

She shortened deadlines. She lengthened requirements. Then the pay dropped significantly. Then the Sh*t hit the fan if you turned down a project. And if you decided not to be in your own office that day, the hammer would come down harder.

Actually, that was my breaking point. I’d put up an away notice and had sent her an email telling her I wasn’t going to be in the next day (my mom and dad were visiting). Her response was to chastise me. I needed to be available every week day, she said, and my being absent wasn’t professional. In fact, she added, she was beginning to get requests for weekend work and they’d pay me $5 more per project to work the weekends, too. A whole $5. Gee. Where do I sign?

That, my writing friends, is when you know the client doesn’t fit.

Fact is, that client had stopped fitting about a year prior. I’d hung on because the money was steady. I’d hung on after the project rates were cut in half. Easy work, I figured. Mind-achingly dull, but easy. I’d even hung on when Little Miss Thang cracked the whip.

It was too long. She’d already crossed too many of my boundaries, and the company owner was thrilled to have such a task master pushing these no-good writers so hard. There was no way that job was getting any better. It had become a full-time, employee-like nightmare — the very thing I didn’t want in my freelance business career.

I can write about it now because I’ve learned that creating your own work negates any need for unacceptable terms or work situations. But it wasn’t easy. It took strong words that were clearly out of line to move me.

We’ve all taken gigs like this, especially early in the career. Maybe you’re still stuck in a similar situation, or perhaps your client is so likable that you suffer through the abysmal pay just so you don’t have to go through the break up.

Here’s when you know that client needs to go:

When the work far outpaces the pay. When a small project blossoms into one where you’re spending the better part of your day doing work for one client and the pay hasn’t increased at all, it’s time.

When promises are broken or forgotten. Those first two months in which you’d agreed to discount your fee are long gone, yet you’re still being paid crap, aren’t you? If reminders haven’t nudged that figure up, it’s time.

When you no longer like the work. Do your shoulders drop when you see that email? Do you exhale when that calendar reminder pops up? Do you avoid the ringing phone because you just don’t have the energy to talk to that client one more time? It’s time.

When the respect disappears. Are you being treated like an employee or worse, a servant? Is the client saying one thing but expecting much, much more from you? Are you regularly fending off attacks on your own business decisions or skills? It’s time.

When the client is abusive. No one has the right to call you names, to treat you like a sub-human life form, or talk trash about you or your work. If the client rants on you ever or makes you question your own talent or your value as a person, it’s time.

When your life is no longer your own. Clients cannot demand you give up evenings, weekends, or days off, nor can they demand your constant availability. While it’s common courtesy to let regular clients know when you’ll be unavailable, it should never be a condition of your business relationship. If it is, it’s time.

Writers, when do you know it’s time to drop a client?
Have you ever stuck with a client for too long? What were the circumstances and what was your wake-up call?

About the author




  • Anne Wayman October 23, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    I've got the same list more or less… timing is key for me. A cut in pay would probably have been the end… or maybe just the attitude. OTOH, I know I can get stuck just because the pay is steady. It's happened.

  • Lori October 23, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Agreed, Anne. I hung in there way too long. I should have cut the cord the second the pay dropped and the bitching started.

  • Paula Hendrickson October 23, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Wow. They're paying five whole dollars in exchanged for your weekend? How generous! I work on weekends for two reasons: by choice (so I can fit in another great assignment or one on a tight deadline), or because I goofed off so much during the week that I need to catch up.

    This weekend? The latter.

    Remember the Late Payer? I fired that client. At first I was willing to put up with the publication's controlling ways because it was simple work, and while it didn't pay well, it paid enough to be good fill-in work.

    With every assignment came the marching orders: "Here's a list of sources. You MUST contact all double-starred sources. You MUST have at least X-number of these sources, plus a minimum of TWO retailers. And you MUCH send a progress report every Friday."

    You got it. All of those "sources" were advertisers. Oh, and the retailers? With your first assignment they provided an outdated list of retailers (I always Googled names before calling, often the contacts no longer worked there, and a couple times the contacts had died a few years earlier) none of whom ever wanted to be interviewed, since the focus wasn't on their stores.

    I hated the monitoring too. I'd understand doing that the first time or two someone works for you, but once you know they always deliver good work on time, take the training wheels off.

    They always had excuses not to pay on time (they stated 45 days after acceptance…but to them meant "acceptance" meant the day they decide to put your invoice in for processing, which could be a month after publication). After the owner had blown through all remotely possible excuses and tried using the flu as a reason not to sign checks for three weeks, I threatened legal action. Funny how he was suddenly able to reply to email AND use a pen despite his flu-stricken state. As soon as I cashed the check I severed ties. Oh, and their top two editors got sick of working that way and quit, too!

  • KeriLynn Engel October 23, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Ugh, I'm sorry you had to deal with all that. It can be tempting to just hang in there if the work is easy and the money's good, but the stress is never worth it.

    I have a hard time deciding to let go of clients who aren't necessarily bad clients, but just aren't a good fit for me. I've had a few of clients who were great on paper, but…

    * our communications styles didn't mesh and it was stressing me out every time I had to talk with them because I had to work hard to figure out what they were really saying
    * they always requested lots of tiny minor revisions and it stressed me out submitting anything because I knew there would always be something "wrong" with it, even if I couldn't see it no matter how much I pored over it looking for "errors"

    These aren't terrible things, and other writers would probably love these clients. But, the common thread was, it stressed me out too much to work with them.

    I've realized that even if *on paper* the client looks great, if working with them stresses me out all the time, we're not a good fit to work together!

    Sounds simple, but it took me a while to realize it's okay to break up with a client for such a "minor" reason like that šŸ˜€

  • Lori Widmer October 26, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Paula, let me guess– they billed themselves as a magazine, but were actually using the paid advertisement format. I worked for one of these in the past. Drove me nuts. I thought I was writing an article on the best grill options, so I contacted a household-name chef. Nope. Had to be the advertisers ONLY.

    Luckily, that job didn't last.

    I am SO glad you fired that client! They were holding you down.

    KeriLynn, that's the only reason I hung in there. I had three really good years. Then this manager came on board. What a piece of work she was! And I was over them when I realized the owner was pushing that sort of behavior.

    You could use Jake Poinier's advice. For clients who always find fault, he builds a minor mistake into the content. šŸ™‚

  • Krista October 28, 2015 at 11:20 am

    First of all, congratulations on your poem!! That is an amazing accomplishment. I am approaching my ninth year of freelancing (wow) and I definitely held on to several gigs for far too long. Here were a few final straws for me: demanding I do something right away and refusing to take no for an answer (in one case, literally hours before I was signing off for a vacation to Cuba), trying to make me sign a contract saying work for one company would take priority over everything else despite having no guarantee or work or a retainer, many emails about potential projects that never came through requiring me to provide information, increased work load and more requirements with no increase in pay, scheduling phone calls for inconvenient times and then not answering, excessive late payments and no responses to emails inquiring about them (sometimes for weeks or even months). Wow, they've added up over the years. However, I do need to say that most of the clients I've worked with are wonderful, and I've been with some for years. On an even more positive note, a couple of years ago I let go of my low payers, am working part time to be with my 15-month-old more while he's small, and am about to have my best-paying year ever by far. Not sure how that happened, but I'll take it.

  • Lori Widmer October 28, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you, Krista! Sorry for the short delay in getting your comment posted — I get a ton of spam comments, so until I move this blog, I have to filter manually. šŸ™‚

    Thanks for the kudos. Still pinching myself. šŸ™‚

    Wow, hours before leaving? That's insane! I've had clients ask and I've accommodated in a few cases like that, but it was never a demand. Tempting, I bet, to pretend you didn't see the email. šŸ˜‰ But one person's lack of manners doesn't mean we have to go there (though it sure is tempting).

    You've brought up many situations that are talking points by themselves! Wow, they really have thrown it all at you. Smart of you to recognize the unfairness of those demands, especially the "our work takes precedence" one. If they want that, they pay for that.

    Nine years in, you must feel much smarter having faced all that, though. Even if you said yes to it the first time (understandable), I bet you don't now!

  • Krista October 28, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    It took me a long time to get out of the mindset of being thankful for having any paying work and saying yes to everything because of that. Eventually you come to this wonderful place where you realize you don't have to any more!

  • Lori Widmer October 28, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Amen! šŸ™‚