6 Big Signs You Should Cut that Client Loose

When it comes to managing your writing career, you may think winning good clients is the most important thing you can do. And it is important. But almost as important is letting bad clients go.

Bad clients are a drain on your precious time. And you ain’t got time for that.

Of course, if you’re still in the “I’ll take a check from anyone willing to write one” stage, you may not think you’re ready for this. But the truth is, you should always have your eyes on which of your clients are the right ones, and which ones… are not.

Toward that end, here are six big signs to watch for that mean it’s time to say “bah bye.”

1. You get a terrible feeling in your gut every time you get an email from them

We’ve all had that client. At first, things are going great. But over time, there’s something about it that just drags you down. Maybe it’s the constant requests for extra input, or the fact that there are thirty people commenting on everything you do and bickering over what they hate about it, or some other je ne sais quoi that you can’t put your finger on.

Whatever it is, listen to your gut.

And not just because I said so. Do it because science says so. There is literally a network of neurons in your gut that is so important, scientists call it the “second brain.”

In some cases, if you’re able to put your finger on it, you may be able to resolve the issue directly with the client. But if your attempts to resolve it don’t work, or you can’t even figure out why you hate working with them, cut ’em loose. It’s not you, it’s them.

2. They don’t appreciate you

Appreciation can take many forms. It may be kudos or it may be more money. You know when someone appreciates your work, and you know when they don’t. If every time you get on the phone they pick pick pick at you, or question whether you’ve put in enough time on a project, or ask you whether this is your best work… well, you don’t need that kind of negativity.

Negativity will drag you down and affect all the rest of your work and life. Let it go.

3. They don’t pay on time

Okay, friends. This is one of my peeves, and it’s not petty, so listen up. It’s not for nothing we say, “time is money.” Rich people know this, right? It’s why they charge interest when you borrow a little of their money. Because they recognize that every minute that you have money that they don’t have, you are getting something from it that they’re not.

To put it in simpler terms, if you’re late on a payment because your client is late on their payment, who pays the late fee to your creditor? That’s right. And it’s wrong.

Now I’m not saying to cut somebody loose because one little payment is a few days late. But if you’re constantly chasing down payments and wondering when they’ll arrive; if you’re postponing grocery trips because the check they said would be there Monday still hasn’t arrived on Friday; well, if that’s the case, then it’s time for some real talk with that client. And if they don’t shape up? Ship ’em out.

4. They don’t give you what you need

Let me tell you a story. About the middle of last year, I started to have problems with my (at that time) best client. We had been rocking and rolling, get a lot done, and making real progress toward their business goals. They were paying me reliably, on time, and well. We worked together for over a year and then, the re-org.

It happens. Internal re-organization is often bad news for contractors. In this case, it seemed all right at first as the new person was friendly and smart and seemed to understand what we were doing. But then, he stopped coming to our meetings, and claimed he didn’t remember. Gradually, he stopped sharing outcomes and goals with me. I would ask what he wanted me to work on next and he would say, “I think we’re going to do X, so just wait and I’ll let you know when I’m sure.” And then he would never let me know.

Fortunately, my contracts are written such that when the client doesn’t deliver what I need, I’m not on the hook for delivering what they asked for. Nevertheless, the writing on the wall began to be clear. My new contact did not want me to be successful. He was trying to get rid of me without a fight.

And it worked–well, sort of. Not the “without a fight” bit, though.

Once I saw what he was doing, and also how badly he was tearing up everything else we had worked for, I went to his boss (who was my original contact and with whom I am friendly outside the work we were doing together) and let him know what was happening. What I didn’t do was ask him to fix it for me. I simply let him know what I was seeing, and told him that I couldn’t continue to take his money when I was being prevented from providing value.

Predictably, the job ended shortly thereafter. I don’t regret the engagement, and I don’t regret its ending. It was profitable and enjoyable for me while it lasted. And I feel good about my integrity and my reputation and the way I handled it at the end.

If you’ve got a client who consistently refuses to give you what you need in order to do your job, you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to accomplish much. Spinning wheels is not a good way to build a career. Look for better work and let that one go.

5. They ask you for something that is not… quite right

There’s a common perception among the public and even among many writers, that copywriting is somehow a “sell-out” profession. It’s not. In fact, the profession needs more, not fewer, ethical, kind, helpful people in it.

As you build your career, choose to work with companies and products and people you believe in, whose work provides a positive good to the world. And choose not to work with those who don’t.

Even within those boundaries, you will occasionally be faced with a client who asks you to do something that just doesn’t quite seem right. They may ask you to write an article “just like this one,” where they provide you a link and what they want you to do is paraphrase the other person’s work without giving that person credit. Or maybe they want you to lie to a client about something. A “little” white lie.

Maybe they want you to write copy that very subtly makes it clear that their organization only hires a certain “sort” of person with a certain sort of “cultural” background. (RED ALERT: “Cultural Fit” is code for “Whites Only.”)

Listen. When that happens? Walk away. There is no amount of money that is worth selling your soul for. Trust me. I’ve done a job here and there that I later deeply regretted not walking away from. I ignored the signals and I wish I could go back and undo it.

Besides the state of your own soul, when you know someone is treating others that way, it’s only a matter of time before they treat you the same way. Walk. Away.

6. You’ve outgrown them

This can take many forms. Maybe you’ve raised your rates so many times that the work you do for this client isn’t worth the time you spend with them. Maybe you’ve learned more about who you are and what you want to do, and they don’t fit your vision for your future any more. Maybe you used to offer services that you have since learned you don’t like to provide, and those are the only services they’re using.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve got clients that don’t fit anymore, let them go, and replace them with something better.

6.5 But don’t draw a hard line

One final point. Use #6 as a guideline, not a rule. In some cases, the client will be worth it to you despite not “fitting” anymore. For instance, I have a client here in Charlotte that I have worked with almost since the start of my career. They’re a large chauffeured transportation company and nothing about them fits my usual business model. Wrong industry. Wrong market (they’re B2C, and I focus on B2B). Wrong services (I do social media and crisis communications for them, two services I no longer offer). Low pay (comparatively).

But I love them. The owner is a dear personal friend and someone I admire to the moon and back. They appreciate me, and they don’t put unreasonable demands on me. They respect my work, speak highly of me, and they played an early role in my success. Plus, that dear, dear man used to somehow just know when I was hard up for cash, and he’d write me checks and then make up excuses for work he supposedly needed me to do. I don’t need hard-up cash any more, but I will never forget that kindness.

So, there you go. Five signs you need to let a client go. I know it’s scary, but you won’t be sorry. I never have been.

If you need help with making sure you can fill your client list back up after letting the bad ones go, download this free guide.

Fen Druadìn Head
Fen Druadìn Head is an award-winning freelance writer and coach. Her work can be found all over the internet in publications as diverse as Redshift Magazine and Grit. Fen's fiction is represented by Ethan Ellenberg.