21 Times for a Freelancer to Say “No”

The ability to say “no” is vital to freelancers. While there are many good freelancing opportunities out there, there are also many bad gigs that every freelancer should turn down.

Sadly, I read about a freelancer trapped working for a bad client on social media nearly every day. But, we freelancers often accept jobs that we really shouldn’t take. We need to learn to say “no.”

In this post, I list twenty-one situations where a freelancer might need to say “no” to a prospective client. I also provide a sample response (as well as some discussion) for each situation. At the end of the post, add your own tips on how to say “no.”


What to Say When You Need to Say “No”

Here are twenty-one ways to say “no” to a prospect or client:

  1. The prospect asks you to work at a rate far below your normal rate. In this case, state your rate and don’t spend too much time on the inquiry. They may be asking about work, but realistically they aren’t a prospect for you. Try saying, “I never work for less than $X.XX”
  2. The prospect asks you to work for slightly less your normal rate. Negotiate with this prospect. First, decide what to negotiate. Can you be flexible on price? Do you want more time? Do you want to reduce the scope? Then, respond by addressing that area. A sample response could be, “That’s a little less than what I normally charge, but I could do it if you could let me have an extra week.”
  3. The prospect asks you to work outside of your specialty. Are you interested in learning about this new specialty? If you’re not interested, be up front about that. If you can, refer the client to another freelancer. For example, say, “I never write about medical topics, but I know that Jane Doe freelancer specializes in that area.”
  4. The prospect asks for a deadline that you cannot meet. Prospects often throw deadlines out without understanding the true effort required. Again, try negotiation. Say something like, “I know that the project seems simple, but there’s more work here than meets the eye. I think that project would actually take x days to complete.”
  5. You researched the prospect and they have a bad reputation. Run, don’t walk, away from this prospect. You don’t need to send out a detailed response. Your answer can be something like, “I’m not interested in this project, but thank-you for thinking of me.”
  6. The prospect is excessively critical. Usually, you wouldn’t know this about a new prospect, but you might know it if you’ve worked with them before. Respond the same way as you would to a client with a bad reputation. If you want to make a point you could say, “I didn’t enjoy our last project together and for that reason I don’t wish to accept another project from you.”
  7. A client asks you to do additional work that you didn’t agree to do. Most freelancers face this problem sooner or later. When it happens to you, estimate how long the additional work is going to take. If it won’t take long, most freelancers choose to just do the work. However, if the new work requires substantial effort, let the client know that additional work means a higher bill. Here’s a sample response, “Our contract specified six articles, but now you are asking for eight. The additional articles will add $X.00 to the cost of the project. Please let me know if you want me to proceed.”
  8. The prospect uses foul language or obscenities. Some freelancers don’t mind foul language or obscenities. If you do mind, don’t feel that you have to take that sort of treatment (which can actually be a form of disrespect). Let the prospect know that their language bothers you. I say something like this, “I work from home and my children can easily overhear what is said in my office. I would appreciate it if you would keep your language clean when you deal with me.”
  9. You are too busy to take on new work right now. Being busy can be a good thing. It means that you’re in demand. When I am too busy to take on a new project right away, I usually say something like, “my time is completely booked for the next two weeks, but after that I could get started on your project.”
  10. The client wants you to do more work when they haven’t paid for the last project. Be frank. If the client is seriously late with an earlier payment, don’t start another project with them. Say something like, “You’ll have to bring your account with me up to date before I can start another project. Invoice #xx is 30 days overdue and you owe $xxx.00.”
  11. The prospect has more work for you than you can realistically handle. See if the prospect will let you subcontract some of the work. Say something like, “That’s a lot of work, but I know that my team can handle it.” That way the client should understand that it won’t be just you doing the work. Be sure that you write your agreement in such a way that subcontractors can be used.
  12. The prospect stands for something you don’t agree with. This is tricky. Be careful not to discriminate against anyone based on race, religion, or national origin since this would be a violation of the Federal Civil Rights Act. (Leanne Phillips has published a great article on this topic at LegalZoom.)
  13. The prospect asks you to come in to the office and work. I face this a lot since many technical writing jobs require on-site work. I prefer to work at home so I always negotiate this by suggesting that I only come in occasionally or offering to be available during certain business hours. I say something like, “I’ve found that I get a lot more done when I work at home, but I’m willing to come in on Fridays to attend the weekly meeting.”
  14. You suspect the prospect is lying to you. This is another tricky situation. While you can’t accuse your prospect of lying without proof, your gut feeling is probably right. When in doubt, it’s usually best to trust your intuition. You can say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable taking this project,” or “I don’t think this project is for me.”
  15. You can’t find any information about the prospect. A lack of information could mean the client is a fly-by-night scam artist, or it could mean that he or she is simply very new to business. In this situation you can ask questions such as, “how long have you been in business” and “who are some of the companies that you do business with?” Be sure to charge a healthy percentage of your fee up front.
  16. The prospect asks you to do something illegal or unethical. As a freelancer, never get involved with anything illegal. If asked to do this, refuse the prospect’s request and explain why. Stand your ground. You could say something like, “no, you can’t use that copyrighted image on your website without permission–that’s against the law.” It’s always possible your prospect doesn’t realize what they are doing is not allowed.
  17. The prospect asks for something that’s not possible. Many freelancers eventually meet the prospect who wants something that just can’t be done. For example, consider the client who says something like “I want the audience to be able to smell the perfume that my website sells while they are sitting at home.” Again, it’s best to be straightforward with your client. Say something like, “the technology to do what you are asking doesn’t exist yet. Instead, I suggest that you offer a free sample instead.”
  18. The prospect wants to barter for your services. Some freelancers don’t mind bartering their services. If that’s you, great! However, many freelancers prefer to be paid in cash. Try saying, “my policy is to accept only cash for my work.”
  19. The prospect wants to pay you a portion of their profits. Since the prospect’s project may not be profitable, this arrangement can be bad news for a freelancer. Once again, fall back on your policy. Say, “my policy is to charge a fee for my services, due when the work is complete.”
  20. The prospect is a friend or family member. Working for a friend or family member can be stressful. Many freelancers don’t like to do it, but it can be hard to say “no” to someone you’re friends with or related to. Try saying, “I value our relationship too much to mix it with business.” Or, you could simply say, “I think (another freelancer) would do a much better job for you.”
  21. A charity asks you to volunteer your services. Don’t let anyone “guilt” you into doing work for free. If you love the charity and you want to volunteer, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re not committed to the charity or if volunteering will set you back, say so. Try saying, “I can’t afford to do charity work at this time.”

Your Turn

What freelancing situations have you faced where you’ve had to say “no?” Share your stories in the comments.

Image by smlp.co.uk

Comments

  1. says

    All except for the last two points. Honestly, where we come from, it’s a small country, we don’t mind doing work for friends or family, it’s a small community so the right amount of networking is important, as long as they don’t expect the heavens and the moon. We’ll probably do it for a token fee.

    Same thing with charity organizatiosn, we’re all okay doing some sort of local ‘contribution’ but our terms would be, it’s got to be just one time thing. We set them up with the basics, they start walking on their own. Anything else, if they insist, we would charge our usual rates.

  2. says

    Great No ideas, I have to book mark this. I think being overly nice to prospects has its drawbacks. However I will go the extra mile for committed clients that value my work and there is mutual respect.

  3. Deborah says

    When a prospect seems to question your ability and asks for too much backup information. Also, when a prospect has unrealistic expectations –that you will write/create a silver-bullet piece.

  4. Bruce says

    Laura, thanks for the excellent advice! My only recommendation is, when the client asks for a bit more work, make it clear to them that they have to pay for it, regardless of how little it is. Otherwise, it sets a bad precedent and starts down a slippery slope.

  5. says

    Fantastic article, as usual, Laura!

    Sadly, I have run into nearly ALL of these situations (Most recently, the one where a client asks you to do something illegal! I said no, of course… After I got over the initial shock!). I’m sure I’ll run into the remaining situations before I retire. haha.

    Great list and great advice. Keep it up! :)

    –Lauren*

  6. says

    as far as working for a friend or family member , my advice is that you do it for free or not at all. If you do the job for free, they will love whatever you do. If you charge, they will want changes, revisions, display dissatisfaction etc.

    Never charge a friend or family member.

    So it goes…

    -dp

  7. says

    Comprehensive list, Laura. I consider myself fortunate that I haven’t run into many of them, or at least not too often.

    Count me in the free-or-not-at-all camp on friends and family. I’m now wary of friends of family, too, after getting burned on a project last year. It was awkward and painful, kind of outside my area of specialty, and I feel foolish for not having recognized the warning signs. I’m happiest doing work for third parties…though, as you say, YMMV!

  8. says

    The prospect insists on working without a contract when that’s against your business’s protocol. This is not to say you can’t get burned with a contract, but the likelihood of having someone stiff you with a contract is not as great.

  9. says

    Great comments!

    Thanks Lauren!

    Great advice David,

    You are fortunate Jake. :). It is possible to avoid problems if you are careful about who you work for.

    Good addition Stacey.

  10. says

    Very good article, Laura! I always run into some of those situations! And, as for working for friends and family, I agree with free or not at all! It can be very tricky and they can always find another way to compensate if they want (a friend of mine sent me a very nice present when I refused to take money from him and another one didn’t let me pay when I bought something from their shop).

    Thanks for the useful advice once again!
    Foteini

  11. Jason says

    The moment we stop doing things for our friends and family, what are we? seriously, what are we without friends and family? who the hell cares about business, if you love business so much start a company… or a bank

  12. says

    All of these make sense except for your additional reasoning in #12. A freelancer can choose not to work for someone for any of those reason if they want to. All they have to say is “I don’t want to do work for you”. It’s as simple as that. The article you link to is a completely different situation than a freelancer. Public, open, businesses are completely different than freelancers (or consulting firms, or anything else like that). We already pick and choose which customers we want to provide service to. Something like a restaurant or a department store doesn’t.

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  14. says

    12. The prospect stands for something you don’t agree with. – I agree its a bit tricky, especially when you really need the job and you have to cross some of the invisible lines that you have set for yourself.

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  1. [...] The ability to say “no” is vital to freelancers. While there are many good freelancing opportunities out there, there are also many bad gigs that every freelancer should turn down. Sadly, I read about a freelancer trapped working for a bad client on social media nearly every day. But, we freelancers often accept jobs that we really shouldn’t take. Direct Link [...]

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