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.

Image by Shutterstock


  1. says

    It is not everyday that you find the golden client. My philosophy on the matter, is that for every one golden client their are at least 3 – 4 clients that need a little more work. Those clients test and consume every resource you have, including patience. I figure the more you get the thicker your skin becomes and the easier it is to deal and work with them. Optimistic I suppose.

  2. Jackie says

    Great article!

    Creating your own company policy and process is very important.

    I’ve walked away from clients a few times. If your first instinct is that this client will lead to a lot of stress (unless paid huge amounts of money) it’s not always worth it. Let them go.

    However, if you lay down the laws ahead of time and have your clients agree to it, there’s no way around them. They simply have to work your way.

    If you are good at what you do, honest to your customers, and always strive to bring them the best you will always have clients. Laying down a policy and process is key.

    Once clients know you have these standards they cannot take you for a ride.

  3. says

    When a client takes forever to get started, can’t decide on what specifically they want to do, or constantly change their minds in the proposal stage, you can count on more of that during the project. If you’re up for that, great…if not, watch out.

    Also, if they take forever to get back to you in the initial stages, same thing will happen when you’re waiting for content or approvals.

    And go with your gut. I can tell within the first minute of talking to a client how they are going to be to work with. Trust that instinct!

  4. says

    Very awesome article! I think the most important point made is the fact that freelancers need to set a value for themselves, and be steadfast about not going below that. Many times not-so-good clients will try to take advantage of freelance professional if they know you’re open to more work. Know what you’re worth, and stick to it!

  5. says

    This is a great article. The haggling issue is a tough one for me because I always haggle myself. I think there needs to come a point when you just tell your client “Look, this is what I can do i for, there’s really no need to continue to try to change the price.” If they don’t listen to your concerns, then yeah, it’s time to consider dropping them.

  6. says

    One of the things I watch out for is technical literacy. As a web developer / designer I often find it’s my natural role to be more “tech-savvy” than my clients. However when a customer is completely clueless about the most basic elements of the internet or using a computer, then the alarm bells start wringing. This often means they don’t understand what they are paying for which leads to future problems. This can also potentially mean spending a lot more time on the project explaining the most basic of functions, rather than just getting on with the job.

    Often I don’t mind if they are willing to learn and are excited about learning, but when they seem to be proud of the fact that they cannot switch on a computer then I run for the hills.

    I wonder how this applies to other industries?

  7. says

    You give some great signs to help someone determine whether or not to take a job. One thing I would add is that how you turn down the job is just as important. Example: Last summer, I turned down an ongoing copywriting job because they couldn’t give me enough details and just wanted to go straight into an interview. My gut said “no.” As soon as I made that decision, I got a dream gig from another company. So, when I declined the potential client, I was extremely nice and thanked them for considering me and told them I wasn’t available to fit their project needs. Nine months later, that potential client contacted me again and all the signs seemed right. This one turned out to be a matter of timing.

    My point: follow your gut and just be sure you don’t burn bridges.

  8. says

    Amen. I’ve been getting quite a bit of business over the last year but have had a couple projects go south. Each one was a client who didn’t know exactly what they wanted and despite their “seeking my expertise” they would ignore my recommendations and go another route. Sooner or later, things would be too hectic to salvage.

    Clients who have a clear understanding of what they want are a DREAM to work for.

  9. says

    Thanks for all the advice upon this important matter! After long years of being employed in project work, I am just starting my own business. Also very much thanks to Jesaka for her really helpful comment – something like this is just happening and your comment gave me just the right impulse how to say “no”.

    Greets from Hamburg

  10. says

    Great advice. I wish I knew these guidelines years ago: it would save me from seriously undesired clients. Jesaka is right: it’s all about ability to politely decline the job.

  11. says

    Great points here. I promise myself to adhere to several of them in the future.

    My biggest pet-peeve is the “it shouldn’t be that hard to do, right?” remark. Questions like “is that hard to do” feel like trick questions. No, for me it’s not hard. It takes time though, and time is money. Or no, it’s not hard, but it took years of practice for it to come this easy for me – that time spent is worth money.

    Just sayin’…

  12. says

    Your article offers some great tips.

    As an independent designer for most of the past 32 years, my “gut instincts” have always been one of my best business advisers in accepting or rejecting a potential client. If something doesn’t “feel right” about the situation, I have no problem in politely declining a possible project.

    My own business guidelines also allow me to decline working with businesses who may be selling products I would not personally promote – or causes I do not support. If it might bother, or embarrass, me to have the finished work in my portfolio, I won’t take on the effort.

    I’ve always been a follower of rule number one from Milton Glaser’s “Ten Things I Have Learned.” It is:

    “YOU CAN ONLY WORK FOR PEOPLE THAT YOU LIKE. This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle.”

    I don’t want to do work for people I don’t like…

  13. says

    Thanks for the great article! I think your guidelines can apply to a wide variety of industries in which freelancers work.

    I think personal ethics can come in to play, too. Unfortunately, I receive frequent inquiries from students who want me to write their term papers and/or do their research for them (and they often try to disguise the project as something non-academic). Sometimes they will offer a lot of money. I know there are people who will take this kind of work, but I won’t help perpetuate academic fraud. If a project goes against my personal ethics, I won’t take it, no matter how well it might pay.

    Sometimes the jobs we don’t take teach us more about ourselves than the jobs we do take.

  14. says

    Thanks everyone for sharing your tips and adding to the list! Hopefully this discussion will be helpful for all of us in the future as we work (or choose not to work) with our various clients.

  15. says

    I’ve read a lot of posts like these but I really likes yours. My own experience with not so good clients is that the ones who try to bargain with you are also always the ones who want the most extra things added later on (we do webdesign). A good contract helps and shows what will be included in a website. However, one is never able to mention everything that will be excluded in the project. For instance, we once had a client who was surprised by the fact there wasn’t a blog included in the website because we ‘didn’t say in the contract that it would NOT be included’, anyways you get my point.

    One thing that has helped us avoiding potential micro managers in the past has been literally breaking down to the client in the very first sit down that we do what we do best and they do what they do best and proposing to use and respect each others expertise in order to make a project a great project.

  16. says

    The number of people that just assume you’ll work for them for 50% – 80% of the profits of their “untested” business amazes me. I’m not going to spend hundreds of hours of my time when I could be making real cash on something with no business plan and no hope of survival.

  17. confused says

    Great article… actually wondering the same thing right now… I just had a potential client offer to pay with stock for a start up company… Red flags?


  1. […] How to Decide Which Jobs to Take and When to Say No – I’ve become better at determining this. Often, I can tell from the very first email that I don’t want the job. For example, I am not going to build and design a WordPress site in 5 days – that’s just not going to happen. […]

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