How to Decide Which Jobs to Take and When to Say No

yes-noWhen I first started freelancing, I took on any project that came my way, regardless of payment, type of work, or anything else. I was just happy to get the jobs, and my thought process was that at some point I would be able to be more discerning (and hopefully less hungry.)

Of course, countless variables come into play when a new job or project comes your way, but for freelancers it is wise to weigh some of the more common ones with each new opportunity. Believe it or not, there are some jobs you just should not take. This post will share some of the guidelines I use for identifying them before it’s too late.

In the beginning stages of a project there are some tell-tale signs that generally translate to problems once the project begins. If you are new at this, it can be difficult to detect these warning signs. Here is a list of a few warning signs that I’ve run into.

1. Unclear Details of the Final Goal

One warning signal is when the client is not completely sure what they want to include in the project, its ultimate purpose, and/or all of its functions. Usually this means somewhere along the way they will think of something else and ask why you couldn’t just add that in because they think it shouldn’t take long at all.

2. Extremely Specific and Unwavering Details

Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the previous point, but I have found that when I have been presented with a precise description of what the client wants down to very specific details it can often translate into drawing out the creation process to inefficient, time-consuming and therefore costly extremes. An example would be an elaborate description of a website design that does not translate well within the limitations of the medium. This can lead to an unreasonable amount of mockup revisions and explanations as to why their original concept cannot be carried out to the letter. I would not balk at a project based solely on this, but it becomes a consideration to be weighed.

3. Price Haggling

Everyone wants the most for their money, but when a client persistently tries to talk you down from your quoted estimate, there comes a time to walk away. I tend to try to be flexible with my pricing to a point, depending on the type of project, who it’s for, and the manner with which the potential client approaches the discussion of price. Still, it is important to have a firm grasp on the value of your services and have clear lines drawn for yourself that you do not cross. Obviously, when you need work it is more difficult to draw those lines, but usually you will only be hurting yourself in the long run if you devalue yourself and your work by allowing the client to pay you something less than what you believe you are worth. I have had clients legitimately appalled that I would not build them a website for a third of the price I quoted, at which point I suggested they find someone else. The way I see it, if I really wanted to work for minimum wage, why would I be taking on all of the responsibilities of freelancing?

4. Promises of the “Residual Benefits”

Sooner or later a project will be offered to you with promises of how it will benefit your business in ways that should, in the client’s mind, sweeten the deal: connections, referrals, a great addition to your portfolio and so on. While these are great additional perks of certain projects, often the client will bring this up to avoid paying what they normally should, implying they are in essence doing you a favor by allowing you the opportunity to work for them. As long as they are willing to pay full price, this is a non-issue, but promises of residual benefits when offered as a part of the compensation is never a good reason to take a project.

5. No Deposit or Payment Up Front

Regardless of how much someone agrees or promises to pay, if they are unwilling to provide some portion of the project price up front the odds are high that they will not come through with full payment upon completion. This is a critical point for most freelancers and should be an immediate warning sign. Personally, I do not take on new clients without at least a 50% upfront payment on their project.

6. Hints of Micro-Management

In early discussions I watch for hints that the client might be a micro-manager, which can greatly add to the amount of time spent on the project without compensation. An unreasonable amount of phone calls and emails, checking in and dictating next moves could turn what appeared to be an exciting new project into a costly nightmare. It is always an excellent idea to promote good communication, but establishing boundaries will help to identify when a potential client will ignore and cross them at will.

Which Jobs SHOULD You Take?

With all of the reasons listed above, combined with other negative experiences you may have had or heard about, you could be wondering if there are any jobs you SHOULD take, especially in the early stages of freelancing. Rest assured there are many positive signs that a potential project is going to be an enjoyable and profitable experience. Here are some that I look for and usually latch onto as a sure sign that I should take the job:

  • Client presents a clear understanding of what the project involves as well as the final goal
  • Client asks for and involves my input into the development of the final project proposal
  • Client clearly understands the value of my services and the reasonable pricing of them
  • Client does not haggle on pricing or look for “shortcuts” to reduce costs
  • Client pays at least 50% up front quickly and without any issues
  • Client agrees upon my proposed timeline
  • Client returns a signed contract and demonstrates enthusiasm for the project without impatience

What Are Your Guidelines?

Obviously, the guidelines I have presented are not exhaustive and are derived from my own experiences. I am sure there are many more that you can share as well as others we will learn along the way. Please be sure to contribute your own guidelines and experiences in the comments below.

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