How and When to Say No to a Client

When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, it can be difficult to find those first few gigs. Many freelancers develop the habit of accepting nearly every project with work that remotely resembles their chosen specialty.

For the brand new freelancer, taking what work you can find is a matter of survival (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Before long, however, you may find yourself overwhelmed with too much work to do and too little time to do it in. When this happens, you know that it is time to start to refuse projects. However, you probably don’t have a refusal strategy in place.

In this post, we’ll discuss when and how to say no to a potential client.

When to Say No

We’ve discussed saying no to potential clients before, but the post was focused on how to recognize bad clients and/or bad projects and deadbeats. While it’s definitely important to pay attention to the red flags that may be telling you that a prospect or a project is a dud, there are other times you may find yourself refusing work.

Here are some instances when you may decide to turn a project down:

  • Quality concerns. Sometimes there is no way that you can possibly do a quality job on the project in the time allotted due to your existing heavy workload. The quality of your work affects your reputation. If you turn out poor work due to tight time constraints and your client is dissatisfied with the job that you did, the client’s dissatisfaction could turn out to haunt you later.
  • Wrong type of work. As a more experienced freelancer, you’ve probably chosen a specialty. From time to time, you will be approached by clients who have work that doesn’t fit into your specialty. It is up to you to decide if you will continue to accept these projects that are out of your expertise.
  • Wrong skillset. If you don’t have the ability to do the project and don’t think you’ll be able to learn it then you may turn it down. If a project comes with a steep learning curve and very little time to master it, you may be setting yourself up for failure (and a dissatisfied client) if you attempt to do the project anyway.
  • Ethical concerns. Once in while, you may be offered work that goes against what you believe. Of course, every freelancer has a different stance on when to draw the line on this issue. However, if you have strong negative feelings about your client’s project, it’s probably best to turn the work down since your feelings may subconsciously affect your work.

When You May Not Need to Say No

For some situations, there are alternatives to saying no. Here are a few of those alternatives:

  • If the deadline is too tight, you should try to negotiate more time for yourself before turning the project down.
  • If your client agrees, you can also outsource some of your projects to other freelancers.
  • Another option that your client may agree to, particularly on a large project, is collaboration. You may be able to bring a colleague in to work on the pieces of the project where you are weak.

Of course, sometimes even these alternatives to saying no aren’t enough. In those cases, it’s best to learn how to refuse a project in as professional a fashion as you can.

How to Say No

Here are a few simple guidelines for saying no as professionally as possible:

  1. Be honest with the client. If you know that this is a project you would never consider working on because it is outside of your specialty (or for some other reason), gently tell the client that you don’t believe that you are a good fit for the work. You don’t want them coming back at a later date because they believed that you were simply too busy.
  2. Give the client options. However, if time and a too heavy workload are the main issues you may wish to give the client some options. You can let the client know when you expect to complete your current project and when you will be available for more work. Sometimes, the client will agree to a later start and finish date.
  3. Develop a referral arrangement with a colleague. Another way to give the client options is to develop a referral agreement with a trusted colleague in the same field. In this type of agreement, each of you agrees to refer clients to the other when they are too busy.
  4. Be firm, but polite. Once your mind is made up, don’t apologize or make it sound like you aren’t really sure whether or not you’ll be available. Above all, don’t feel guilty for saying no. It is perfectly all right to set boundaries as to your availability and how much work you can handle.

How About You?

What do you do about projects you don’t want to take? Do you take them anyway and suffer through, or do you have a strategy for refusing unwanted work?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image by Horia Varlan