Had to do this recently, a photographer that would never pay. Sent him a very kind email, a CD with all his files, and have walked away. Such a great feeling…
How to Know When to Walk Away
Remember when you first started as a freelancer? You were probably desperate for a gig–any gig–where you could show that you really could do this. You wanted to show the world that you were good. That you were worth hiring.
You needed money, sure, but the money mattered less than proving that you were a serious freelancer who should be paid money in the first place.
Your first client offered you an insultingly low rate, and you took the job–because it meant that you were a real freelancer.
Flash forward to present day. You wouldn’t accept low rates anymore. You’ve grown, you’re established and you know your own worth.
But, you still may be selling the value of your services short. It’s very easy to catch yourself accepting a rate lower than your ideal one–no matter how established a freelancer you are. You need to know when you should walk away. In this post, we list some three situations when you should refuse work. We also provide some tips to help you walk away from work when you need to.
1. When You Don’t Need the Money
No matter how hard freelancers try to stave off the feast-or-famine cycle, it still hits every one of you now and then. You need money, and you need it now. If that’s the case, don’t think. Do your best to get the rate you deserve, but if all you can manage is the lower rate, you may not have time to look around for a better client.
The problem is that a lot of freelancers behave this way even when they can afford to let the job go by. Often, freelancers become so used to needing to land every single client that they lower rates–sometimes drastically–to land the deal even if there’s money in the bank.
If you’re actually financially secure or if you can get by with a little belt-tightening, then don’t take the job. Your time is better spent looking around for a better project with a better rate–because you have the leisure of not needing money right this second.
2. When You Don’t Need the Grief
There are clients out there (an infinite number of them, too) who expect the sun and the stars, no matter how little they pay. These clients revision you to death when you’ve already put in hours of work. These clients constantly ask for last-minute deadlines. These clients always complain.
Walk away, every single time. If a client isn’t paying you to deal with the grief, you don’t need to hear it. It stresses you out, makes you less excited about new clients, and sucks up every minute of your time and energy. There is absolutely no upside to having one of these clients, so pick yourself up and walk away.
And, don’t look back.
3. When You Don’t Need the Mindset
Some freelancers accept low rates because they’ve decided that they’re only worth low rates. They’re not willing to ask for a larger figure because they’re afraid of turning off clients they’re quoting. They don’t think they deserve it.
You don’t need that mindset. You’re worth every penny of what you charge and probably more, if any of the articles posted lately about raising your prices are even halfway accurate. Don’t waffle about your prices, and don’t apologize for them either. Ask for what you want in a firm tone.
Even better–don’t ask. Just tell potential clients that these are your rates. If they aren’t willing to pay them, they should look elsewhere (don’t tell them that, of course; be diplomatic).
Confidence like that often gets you the job. People want to know you’re certain of your abilities. That’s a mindset you can take to the bank–instead of watching client after client wear you down to a fraction of your worth.
How to Walk Away
If you run into any of these scenarios and decide you’re walking way, be calm about turning the client down. Tell them, “I’m really sorry to hear that you won’t be able to fit my services into your budget. I wish you the best of luck in finding the right copywriter/designer/coder/whatever for you.”
Make it about them. You aren’t too expensive–they can’t find the money in the budget. Often, when they think about the problem that way, it turns out they do have the money in their budget after all.
And, that’s great for you.
Because the best part of walking away is when you hear that voice calling you back.
What Do You Think?
How do you decide when to turn a job down?
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May 3rd, 2010 at 8:39 am
May 3rd, 2010 at 9:20 am
I had the pleasure of walking away from a client that I was charging way too little but was sucking up so much time and energy. I stuck around as long as I did for convenience… only to realize it was to their convenience and not mine. The last straw was when they balked on an already super cheap quote and told me that they could do my job if they only had the software. Professionally I told them I could no longer compete with their other set of designers based on price and would not be quoting the project. They still don’t get why I refuse to quote on projects ever since. Unbelievable.
May 3rd, 2010 at 10:15 am
Great post. I like the last “How to…” section. When negotiating prices (or turning clients away), it’s advantageous to give yourself the higher ground and be confident.
May 3rd, 2010 at 10:55 am
Great piece. Always worth a reminder that selling your services short is just not good all the way around. I have one of these clients in the works as I write this. It started out great, paid 50% upfront then another 25% when the design work was essentially done and we were just waiting for a printer to come back with some specs about die cuts. The client decides while we’re waiting to change the logo, change the color scheme and just a few other tweaks as he calls them. In fact this is a major revision and goes way beyond scope creep. I explain politely that this is well beyond minor revisions which are covered in the contract and if he wishes to make these changes I will charge him at the going hourly rate. That was the last I’ve heard from him. Good news is I’ve got paid enough to justify my time and if the client wants the final files he’ll need to pay the remaining 25%. It’s funny sometime that as soon as you set some limits some clients get pissy and decide to go elsewhere. At any rate it’s an invigorating exercise and it will set you free. I’d recommend it to anyone. Just be sure you have a contract.
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:00 am
SO true! That’s why it’s critical to do the following:
* ABM: Always Be Marketing, even when you’re super-busy with work.
* Know your fee ranges: Specifically, keep a master fee schedule with fee ranges for professional-level work. And DON’T go under those levels.
* Become a GREAT qualifier: Get really good at determining the quality/fit of a prospect early on (preferably during that initial conversation). How? Have a list of questions ready that will help you determine the prospect’s “quality” and willingness to pay your fees.
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:02 am
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:17 am
Outstanding post….very nice to read..highly informational..thanks for post…
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:28 am
‘Walk away, every single time’ – I liked it very much. I couldn’t humanly convince my clients and associates to increase the rates. Hence the way out is only to walk away. And never to look back – as you rightly said.
Thanks for the wonderful post!
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:32 am
I have never had the chance to walk away, yet. There have been a few clients that I would have because of whining, complaining, and consistent scope creep, but I’ve needed the cash too badly. Looking forward to putting these principles into play, though!
May 3rd, 2010 at 11:44 am
I read this article and have to agree with every single point of it, but I especially liked number 3. Personally I had a few Outsourcing Agenciens all contacting me for a contract with a client, but they didn’t want to do business with me because ‘my rates are too high’, in other words, they would have to lower their margins.
In the end they send another candidate to the client because that one had lower rates. The big difference was the candidate they proposed had 3 years of experience on the subject and I had about 10 years. The actual client requested someone with at least 5 years of experience.
So, they got what they payed for actually. 1.5 year later they contacted me again, since they needed someone to go do some debugging and fix some problems with the code. And that’s when I said : sorry, your rates are too low !
Miss BoomMay 3rd, 2010 at 11:48 am
I had to walk away from a project that I got handed to me by a friend. His rate was already a “friend’ rate, so I charged even less than he did (why? I have no idea.) This client not only demanded more than her fair share of work, but she would literally talk down to me like I were a two year old. After 8 months of trying to get her to send me images, text, etc, all while enduring her abuse, I realized that this project was never going to end and I told her I was done. I’ve never felt so liberated! Buh bye!
May 3rd, 2010 at 12:04 pm
Very nice read. I admit I’ve been burned once and it’s not a good feeling. I should have followed my “women’s intuition” and that knew he wasn’t trying to pay. Live and learn, right? So, I recently had a potential client who really loved my work but said that he was working off bartering free space on his website for services provided. I simply told him that I understand how that is and to let me know when he gets everything situated to contact me again for consultation. Now my intuition is saying that he’ll be calling when he’s ready. I just keep on marketing from there.
I like what Ed Gandia said about becoming a great qualifier. The first client, I should have had those questions ready. But the second one, I did. And I didn’t lower my price to convenience him. (Yay me!) :)
May 3rd, 2010 at 12:11 pm
excellent stuff. really enjoyed reading this.keep up the good work
May 3rd, 2010 at 12:27 pm
I figured out the hard way that when lowering rates you’re only making it harder for yourself. Mostly you have to do more work for less money. That results in doing the job with an irritated feeling and the whole project wont give you any satisfaction at all. I can’t say I always stand by my rates but it definitely has it’s limits.
Nice article and somehow it comforts me that a lot of us freelancers have to deal with the same issues.
May 3rd, 2010 at 12:38 pm
It’s scary to walk away, but once you do it a few times, and experience the sheer relief of “dodging the bullet” it becomes much easier. Over time, you become better at qualifying prospects early so this can becomes less of an issue.
I’ve found the most successful method for filtering prospects in my business is a pre-qualifying questionnaire (less than 20 questions) focused on project goals. It provides a great assessment of their level of engagement and willingness to invest in the project. Those that take the time to fill it out and return it are serious about what they’re trying to accomplish and usually become very good clients. Those that aren’t serious don’t bother to return the questionnaire, saving me a lot of wasted time and energy.
May 3rd, 2010 at 12:42 pm
i think its better not to think about money in first and after getting some work we can demand for money,,,,,
May 3rd, 2010 at 1:22 pm
I guess every freelancer needs to meet those Darth Vader clients just to know how to stand up for ourselves.
I had one like that once, my very first too! Asking me to do things ASAP, kept telling me to “…do just this one more article and then ‘the client’ would pay…” It was satisfying to walk away.
I needed the money but when it’s not coming anyway, I figured there was no need sticking around.
May 3rd, 2010 at 2:42 pm
I have found that properly setting up expectations from the very beginning gives me a clear answer on whether to move forward with a client or thank them and walk away with a smile.
When we know with reasonable certainty what we are looking in a client and how our unique services benefit them, it will be easy to see if we are a good fit to work together.
This takes some work on our end. We must clearly explain the following to the client:
1) What exactly we do and how we feel our services can assist their goals
2) How we do it (what is our work flow, when will we be contacting them next, what steps can they take if they have an issue or question. If we take control of even the fussiest client UPFRONT and set the guidelines, usually there will not be any problems.)
3) What expectations we have for ourselves
4) What expectations we have for the client
5) What we charge for the exact service we are providing and when exactly we expect to be paid (assuming we did an awesome job of course!).
From the start, we must set up expectations for our clients, and then over deliver on the work we are doing. Essentially, we are creating leverage. Whoever holds the leverage calls the shots. Make sure you hold the leverage!
May 3rd, 2010 at 2:45 pm
@Jordan – No pay, no party. Good on you for being kind and simply ending it with no fuss. Job well done.
@Carlos – There are many freelancers who start out with low rates and then eventually realize that these clients hold them back from better things. I’ve posted on some solutions to that situation here:
@Chris – Hey, no one was born knowing how to gracefully make good decisions and walk away, so I like giving some how-to tips that people can use to solve their problems quickly!
@Gerry – It’s important to have milestone payments like that so you can always pause and revisit the agreement with clients when necessary. Also, as you say, no one’s ever left empty handed.
@Ed – I like that “qualifier” suggestion. It’s really important to have a good fit, and we do triage ourselves to select clients that we know appreciate what we do and will be helpful within their own process of obtaining a killer site. I think eliminating the ones that don’t feel right from the start is important to a healthy business.
@Grun and Rachel – Thanks!
@Solomon – No regrets, ever. And the best way to have that feeling is to make sure you’ve held up your end of the obligation and been diplomatic when it’s time to move on.
@Matt – Sometimes walking away even when you need the cash is the best gift you could give yourself. You open up a huge window of opportunity, and usually someone better for you steps right through it into your life.
@Stefaan – Sounds like you and that client wouldn’t have worked well together even had you said yes, so I think you made a good choice, there!
@Miss Boom – Ooh, that sounds like one of those “I’m really trying to be nice” situations where we all end up getting walked all over and putting up with a lot before finally thinking, “…the hell?” Good for you.
@Danielle – It sounds like you handled that one very gracefully indeed – and I’m sure you’re better off for it. Sometimes barter can be a good deal, but it always has to be a win-win.
@Kelly – Thanks!
@Jerome – It’s funny you mention that – you’d be amazed at how many freelancers all suffer the same problems and worry about the same things, no matter what level you’re at in the game. I’m glad that helped reassure you that you’re not alone. (Because you never are!)
@Wendy – Ha, practice makes perfect, yessir indeed. The first walk-away can be tough, but it’s like ripping off a bandaid – the pain’s gone quickly and all for the better. (Except for that sticky glue stuff. That’s always a bitch to get off, eh?) But once you walk away a few times, you feel more confident about it, learn your personal boundaries better, and figure out more easily what you should keep and what you shouldn’t.
@Treuemax – I hope you’re not suggesting we work for free. That would be bad. Very bad. Up with money.
@Shirley – Like I’ve mentioned above, when you’ve fulfilled your obligations as freelancer, that’s where your responsibility ends. Work relationships are a mutual give and take, not a “freelancer give, client take” situation.
May 3rd, 2010 at 4:36 pm
Great post and spot on.
You live and learn. Actually going through these issues is a big learning curve.
Great to read a supportive article on the subject.
J.J.May 3rd, 2010 at 6:03 pm
I’ve just gotten into freelancing and still need to get more experience before I feel I can start raising my rates, but I still have run into problems with a client wanting me to charge less. Just by mathematics alone, when I determine the number of hours it’ll take me to get the job done, I’d almost burden myself to lower my rates anymore.
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve yet to get a lot of experience, but I’m not terrible and am worth more than what the client’s asking. Oy, people!
May 3rd, 2010 at 6:04 pm
Great post, and thanks! FWIW, I have a simple test for determining whether a project is worthwhile or not. I remember it with a simple acronym: M.R.E.
(And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with poor-tasting, freeze-dried food in cans.)
Is it MEANINGFUL? This can be expanded to a broad range of interpretations, but for me, it simply means that the project is significant in some way, both for me and the client.
Is it REWARDING? Again, there are many ways to measure the rewards, and they’re not strictly financial in nature.
Is it EXPEDIENT? Is the timeframe suitable for achieving the particular goal for this project?
If a potential project doesn’t satisfy all three of these criteria, then I’ll pass.
Again, thanks for your article, which adds even more to my own process.
May 3rd, 2010 at 7:12 pm
To be perfectly honest…..I turn down much more work than I actually take on. I’ve learned the hard way that you don’t have to land every single client that contacts you.
I also learned to tell people they have to wait…..and it actually boosted business for me. Now, when potential clients hear that I am booked for the next 6-7 weeks, they are often more likely to choose me and wait.
Finally, I would say that you really should base projects on more than money. I typically look at three things….Is this project going to help both me and the client, can the project be completed in reasonable time as expected, and can I get what I am worth to do the project.
May 3rd, 2010 at 7:46 pm
My number one reason to walk away is definitely number 2…. When You Don’t Need the Grief. On the flip side, I have taken on jobs at lower rates for clients that have been really good to work with and the project was something I wanted to work on. It paid off because they referred me to other clients who did pay my rates.
Freelancing is not about money, although that is important. What’s more important is the relationships you build with your clients, even if they are few, and how you feel about your self-worth as a freelancer.
May 4th, 2010 at 1:52 am
I love this line you wrote: “I’m really sorry to hear that you won’t be able to fit my services into your budget. I wish you the best of luck in finding the right copywriter/designer/coder/whatever for you.” I think I will be using it for future queries I will receive. It’s hard to turn a project down but I think, if the rates offered are not worth my time and skills — I will have to let go. There’s just no pretending that a lower rate can make me feel good about a job. Nice sharing.
May 4th, 2010 at 2:34 am
“Make it about them. You aren’t too expensive–they can’t find the money in the budget.”
Wow thats a great advice.
Thx for this great article :)
May 4th, 2010 at 9:55 am
Great Article, in the 6th month of my freelance business, I think i am finally starting to get the hang of ‘qualifying’ potential clients and once a potential rings my warning bells I am out of there no matter how much I need the money.
Money might pay the bills but the extra 100 unbillable hours that come with clients like that with their unending revisions and late requests means that it costs you more than you are getting.
You have to have the confidence to value yourself and charge what you are worth. If a potential client can’t find room for you in their budget, they are going to end up with a bad site (or whatever end product you offer) which is only worth what they paid for it and well below the level of quality you could have brought to the job.
JakeMay 4th, 2010 at 10:09 am
Before changing careers, I sold capital equipment (no product less than $1 million) and I learned then that clients who balked at price were the same clients with inflated expectations for post-sale service and were not a good long-term fit. They balk at everything-from the cost of post-warranty service to the cost of parts, to delivery times and drain the time of everyone who has to work with them long-term. They don’t “get better”.
The same is true of design clients. Those that moan about initial price will whine about everything else-from the cost of revisions to how long those last-minute revisions take.
Keep in mind: as soon as you cave on price you are telling these folks that you won’t stand by your convictions and they can walk all over you. And they will. (I believe they actively seek freelancers on whom they can run rough-shod.)
As most freelancers know getting clients is harder than keeping clients. So why accept a client that will be a PITA and one that, eventually, you will loathe? Spend your (valuable) time finding a good client instead.
You will have more time to find OTHER good clients with the time you save.
May 4th, 2010 at 12:47 pm
I often walk away from writing jobs just because I know that I would only be taking to just to add to my work list. When I turn away a job I always give a recommendation for a different writer or pass it directly to a colleague.
May 4th, 2010 at 4:36 pm
Great advice on a hard topic to grapple with. Knowing when, and actually doing are different and difficult distinctions that this post helps prepare people for. Thanks for posting.
May 5th, 2010 at 3:34 am
Timing of this post is perfect, I’m just about to walk away from a client because it’s just not worth my time…
May 5th, 2010 at 3:37 am
I had to walk away from a project when i was doing internship.. they completely sucked my effort, and didn’t pay even a single penny.. but now i am completely independent.
KennyhMay 5th, 2010 at 7:15 am
I walked away from one client who wasn’t willing to pay my going rates even though he expected the world of it. Also I had to walk away from a client who was very indecisive and kept on changing the term every time the project was nearly finished.
I told the first client (the one who wasn’t willing to pay my going rates) that it was better for him to find a designer he could fit in his budget although I was sure I could’ve made a succes of his wishes.
The second client it started to get on my nerves that every time I nearly finished the project he changed his mind about how he wanted it. Finally I charged him for the work I had done, gave him all the files and told him kindly that it would be better to find another designer to finish the project. After I told him that and charged him, he looked around for a few weeks to find another designer but wasn’t succesful in it so I received a call of him in which he told me exactly what he wanted and thought that I was the only one able to accomplish that. We made an agreement, made it official in a contract, finished the project and got a satisfied client in return.
May 5th, 2010 at 8:31 am
If it costs you $7,000 in time (your hourly rate x the amount of time to do the writing job) and the pay is $5,000, you have not made $5,000, you have lost $2,000. As simple as this math is, it’s very hard to use it to turn down a job. But it’s absolutely worth practicing, or you will be in financial trouble and muttering “writing doesn’t pay.” Writing doesn’t pay when a good writer doesn’t demand what they are worth. Excellent article, thank you!
JakeMay 5th, 2010 at 12:08 pm
Minor hijack of the comment, but tied to Logo
In almost ALL instances, internships violate the DOL requirements. If you worked an internship in which you were not compensated you may have a labor claim against your former “employer”.
Requirements for an internship:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
#4 is the key in most cases and the understanding mentioned in #6 is normally only recognized by the court if spelled out in writing BEFORE the internship starts.
JVMay 6th, 2010 at 8:56 pm
It is indeed difficult for a freelancer to convince a client on his/her true worth. Especially at a time such as this with the number of freelancers at unprecedented numbers. Personally, I prefer to let my work speak for itself. That is why I am a regular at sites like Skillocracy.com where I see a project, provide the solution and walk away with the money. No hassles and no unnecessary long-drawn negotiation with good pay for the work required.
May 8th, 2010 at 4:54 pm
After 16 years of freelancing, I walk away when my “gut” says so. It truly has become an instinct. Whether it be by email, skype or phone, I can generally get a “read” on whether the project is one I should pursue, or not.
May 9th, 2010 at 2:07 am
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May 9th, 2010 at 11:46 pm
Woww nice article and i loved your tip at the end of how to walk away. but i’d like to add something good.
some clients we meet don’t know exactly what they want. wasting your time to educate them is useless because no matter what you speak they won’t understand you.
TahaMay 18th, 2010 at 3:03 am
very nice article. I really enjoyed it reading.
January 21st, 2011 at 5:55 am
You are always fight their environment with their open mind.
April 4th, 2011 at 3:42 pm
Totally agree with this article, i found that when i had more confidence i was able to walk away from projects….
June 22nd, 2011 at 1:49 pm
Great Article. Its hard to walk away from projects when you start out as you want to build your name and do everything you can. But with time you learn the right time to walk away! Always stick to your principals!
JakeJune 22nd, 2011 at 1:52 pm
You mean “stick to your principles”, right?
October 25th, 2011 at 6:02 am
thanks for sharing.nice blog
November 10th, 2011 at 12:28 pm
Lol “when you don’t need the grief”. I have turned down projects for that exact reason.
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