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

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve said no to some clients, when the work was unethical or they seemed abusive. I’ve fired some clients who became abusive too. Sometimes it’s better to just part ways or not even get involved, instead of just sucking it up and becoming a punching bag or, worse, do something illegal.

  2. says

    Good stuff from you as usual, Laura. Much appreciate is the shift in focus from saying “no” to bad prospects to saying “no” to the ones you just can’t accommodate.

  3. says

    This is a must read for all consultants and owners of design firms. A focus and knowing what projects to work on is very important to success in business. I’ve also found that honesty and passing on projects that are not the best fit can actual result in more work because people appreciate honesty and that leads to trust which can build a strong relationship.

  4. says

    Sometimes saying “no” to a prospect or client is easy, like when I was approached recently by a marketer of adult products.

    On the other hand, sometimes it’s very difficult. For example, what if a long-time, regular client approached me with an urgent assignment? By following your guidelines, I’d be able to say “no” gently and even help them get their problem solved by referring somebody else.

    Thanks for the tips, Laura!

  5. says

    Laura, another great post! I have actually been going through this a lot lately. With work starting to pile up and more leads coming in, I just have to say no. I say that we are already over booked, but if there is a chance that the time frame can be altered, then I could help them out. I also leave the door open for the future. I say if they can’t find anyone to work with to please let me know and I would either help them or maybe by then my schedule has opened up a little and I can take on the work.

    By agreeing to work with a new client you are entering to a relationship. If you are already getting beat up and abused in the honeymoon (lead/proposal) stage, what do you think the marriage (actual project) is going to be like? The client is not going to change now that you are working with them…it can only get worse. Some people are just not happy with anything, it has nothing to do with you. Say no initially, or get out now. One bad client will effect you and your good clients.

    -Chris

  6. says

    Ramona, That’s so right, but I know a lot of freelancers are afraid to say no to a client.

    Paul Jacobs–I think a lot of the time our instincts can be trusted. :)

    TheAL, Thanks. If you can’t do the job properly, then you’re not doing yourself or the client any favors. Even worse, you could damage your reputation…

    Michael (MN Web Designer), I’m glad you found the post helpful.

    Lexi Rodrigo–There are many reasons why it might be necessary to say no to a client, and not all of them are obvious. Sometimes the no really means not now, and that’s okay too.

  7. says

    I recently had a situation where I just had to say no. The client had one of those infamous “I want to build something like Facebook, just better” ideas and I just knew that the project had no chance of succeeding. He would’ve been willing to hire me, but I had to turn him down because I didn’t want to take on a project that I saw no chance to succeed for.

  8. says

    Wow! Great insights Chris @ SyracuseCS. The client freelancer relationship is definitely worth protecting.

    Bastian Heist–“I want to build something like Facebook, just better” –I had to chuckle when I read that. I’m betting, the client probably wanted to pay next to nothing for it too… LOL.

  9. says

    Actually, he was going to pay pretty well. However I still didn’t take it since I expected him to be disappointed in the end, which never is a desirable situation.

    Completely off topic: Where do I register my name for these comments here so I can have an avatar? I seem to be unable to find the respective link. Help appreciated ;)

  10. says

    Hi Bastian,

    Thanks for the gravatar question. Try registering at http://en.gravatar.com/

    Not only will your avatar appear with your comments here at Freelance Folder, it will also appear with your comments on many other sites (contributing further to your branding).

    I hope that helps. Looking forward to seeing your avatar.

  11. says

    Great article – I’ve had a tough time with this myself. My main problem is when clients ask me to write about topics I’ve found questionable from a moral or ethical standpoint. Once in a while I’ll admit to myself that I’m simply afraid of a far-fetched topic and try it anyway. Other times I’m incredibly comfortable with simply saying NO!

  12. says

    Saying “no” is easy compared to saying “yes” now and later wishing you’d said “no.” It becomes another nice mess you’ve gotten yourself into, to paraphrase my business mentor, Oliver Hardy (who assured me he didn’t really say that anyway).

    When I was new to freelancing, I took on an engagement with a new client and found that, of everything I had to work on at that time, it was hardest for me to get around to his stuff. I mentioned it to my dad, who had been self-employed for decades.

    “Oh, yeah. That’s known as the customer you don’t want,” he said offhandedly.

    I’ve thought about that hundreds of times since then. Once you know what it feels like when it doesn’t feel right (@Paul Jacobs above), it becomes easier to avoid these clients and the near occasions of working with them.

    In a down economy you don’t always have a choice, but remember the lesson for when the good times come back.

  13. says

    Nice post Laura! I’ve learned to say no to clients who ask me for services I don’t normally offer. It’s just a waste of both our times if I say yes to a project that I’m not interested in at all. If on the other hand a regular client asks me to do a project that I either am not interested or have no experience of, I usually say so upfront and maybe refer him/her to someone else.

  14. says

    Just had to turn down work last week because I’m simply too swamped. Also gave a proposal to a prospective client that was less than enthusiastic, shall we say, because they’re trying to build a Web site that will take an enormous amount of work to maintain, but they have no staff or budget for it.

    One of my favorite quotes: A “no” uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a “yes” merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.” — Mahatma Gandhi

  15. says

    Saying no to a client is the hardest thing to do, specially when you are just starting out in your freelancing career. But I must say, it is better to set your standards early in the game. This way, you won’t get sidetracked into a project that is destined to fail.

    When my heart isn’t completely at peace with a proposed project, I politely decline and tell my client that I find the project is not inline with my professional/personal goals.

    Great post.

  16. says

    Excellent points, Laura!

    Getting a backbone and saying “no” is like building muscle. It might take a while, but it gets stronger over time. In order to draw the line, we have to be clear about what we’re willing to accept and what we must reject.

    As a freelance voice-over professional, I get a lot of practice saying “no” to low rates, especially since the arrival of online voice casting sites.

    Some freelancers are having a hard time, saying “no,” especially in this economy. For starters, they’re uncertain how much they should charge. Secondly, they’re so desperate to get the gig, that they put in a lowball bid. It’s a strategy based on fear and not on confidence.

    I discovered early on that it’s professional suicide to compete with bargain basement prices. Once you’re down that sliding slope, it’s almost impossible to climb back up. Thankfully, we can count on sites like Freelance Folder to be our resourceful tour guide.

    As far as I am concerned, the word “NO” is the one word that saved my freelance career. In fact, I blogged about it a while ago, and it clearly hit a nerve because it has become my most popular post. Here’s a link:

    http://www.nethervoice.com/nethervoice/2010/06/07/word-saved-freelance-career/

  17. Owais Siddiqui says

    Laura, you missed out one important reason to say no. That is with a long term client who somehow finds a cheaper worker and decides to switch. You have to spot the signs which are:
    >delayed payments
    >unhappy with performance for no reason
    >trying to lower the rates or tries to bargain in the middle of the project.
    In such cases it is better to drop the client with a little loss than to continue and end up with a bigger loss.

  18. says

    Fantastic post! It can be so hard to say “no” to a potential client these days, but sometimes it’s absolutely necessary. Thanks for writing this post and letting others know that it’s “okay” to turn someone down–even if you really need the money.

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