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When and how to say no to clients
Thursday, July 16, 2015 (All day)

With the ebbs and flows of freelance work, saying no to clients can make many freelancers nervous, but it can also be extremely liberating or just plain necessary. Learning to do it well, doesn’t just close doors, it opens them.

Let’s be frank. There will always be clients who ask for the moon for the price of a bus token. But you don’t have to work for them.

There will always be self-defeating freelancers who undervalue themselves and limit their own potential with a “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. You don’t have to be one of them.

Successful freelancers need to get comfortable with “no”. Turning down work may always be a little fraught with what ifs, but the clearer you get about your business, your goals and your limits, the easier it gets.

Here are the top 4 reasons freelancers should reject work and the exit strategies I use to do it gracefully.

Timing isn’t a fit
Great clients can show up at the wrong time.

The most common reason I turn down work is because my slate is full. But if my primary objection to a project is timing, I make sure to do a quick and dirty estimate before I say no outright.

I’ll ask for some details on the scope and the timeline so that I can think through what it would take and what, if anything, I would need to juggle. I’m always upfront, “My slate is pretty full, but let me see what I can do. When do you need my answer?”

Assuming I’ve looked at the project from a few angles and I just can’t do it, I let the client know ASAP. It can be tempting to sit on a “no” for a few extra days, hoping something will shift, but the client will appreciate your quick reply and they’re more likely to come to you down the road if you don’t leave them hanging.

The elements of a good Timing-Doesn’t-fit-No:

  1. Thank the client for thinking of you. Don’t ever take for granted that someone wanted to give you work.
  2. Explain that you can’t fit the project in right now. It’s good for clients to know you are busy.
  3. Let them know when you expect your slate to open up. This tells the client that you are open to working with them in the future and plants the seed that they should check in with you again.

Suggested response: “Thanks so much for thinking of me but my slate is full until the end of August. If you have another project coming up, or if you have flexibility on the deadline for this project, I’d love to work with you this fall.”

Client Isn’t a Good Fit
Some clients don’t pay well. Some are relics of a previous business path. And some make you squint and clench your tummy when you see their emails in your inbox. There are a lot of valid reasons to decide a past, current or potential client isn’t right for you. In this situation, you need to be direct, but courteous.

The elements of a good Client-Doesn’t-fit-No:

  1. Thank the client for thinking of you.
  2. Be unequivocal that you think they should work with someone else. If you waffle or say you’re just too busy you might find yourself having to say no over and over and potentially annoying someone who might not have been a good client, but could have been a good referrer.

Project Isn’t a Good Fit
Freelancers often get asked to do things that are sideways on to our core competencies. And that can be great. Journalists can write video scripts. Bloggers can advise on SEO. Newsletter editors can manage integrated social media campaigns. We are nimble professionals. But it’s also OK to set limits. 

I had a potential client ask if I could write story outlines for a preschool-level educational game. I would have loved to say yes, but: I don’t play story-driven games; I’ve never seen a pre-school video game; I don’t have kids and I don’t write fiction. My odds of delivering what the client needed were extremely low.  As much as I would have loved to work with the company, I opted to hold out for opportunity where I had better odds of success.

It’s also OK to decide that you just plain don’t like certain types of work. I turn down B2C marketing collateral because I don’t find it satisfying. Simple as that. 

The elements of a good Project-Doesn’t-fit-No:

  1. Thank the client for thinking of you.
  2. Explain why you don’t think you are a good fit for the project. Lead with your positives – what you can do (or want to do) – and only touch lightly on what skills you think you are lacking.

Suggested response: “Thanks for thinking of me but I specialize in B2B web content and strategy. I’m happy to work on newsletters and integrated campaign collateral too, but I think you’d be better off with a B2C copywriter for this project. Would you like me to ask some colleagues if they have availability?”  

The beauty of this “no thank you” is that gives the client the opportunity to tell you why they want you. It’s possible they see the project requirements differently than you do and have a good reason for picking you. Worst case, it helps the client better understand what you do, which increases the odds of them sending you a project or a referral that’s a good fit in the future.

Budget Isn’t a Good Fit
I’ve always found that it serves me well to be fair and firm about my rate. 
Over the years, my experience, my confidence and my understanding of what the market can bare has increased. So has my rate. Sure, I’ll make concessions for long-term clients and of course I have a not-for-profit rate, but otherwise, if someone isn’t willing to pay the fee I think is fair, I say no.

I’d rather put my time into skills or business development so that I can keep working with clients with reasonable budgets.

The elements of a good Budget-Doesn’t-fit-No:

  1. Thank the client for thinking of you.
  2. Explain briefly why the budget doesn’t fit – there’s no need to rant about how writers are undervalued but there’s nothing wrong with telling a client that their budget isn’t a fit for you.

When I first started out, I met a web designer at a networking event. We hit it off and I asked if he’d like to build my website. I’ll never forget his reply, “Our studio doesn’t take projects that are less than $10k. You’re a freelance writer, you don’t need us, you need Wordpress. I however, need a writer.”

He was upfront and unapologetic that I couldn’t afford him. And I admired that. He also helped point me in the right direction. I’ve taken that same approach in my business ever since.

(Side note:  I’ve enjoyed collaborating with that studio on meaty website projects for nearly 10 years now.)

The Bottom Line

It might sound like I turn down a lot of work. The reality is I should probably turn down more. But saying “no”, or even, “not quite so much!” is scary and sometimes I put up with things a little too long or fret, I mean deliberate, a little too much.

The thing I ultimately come back to – the thing I know in my gut to be true – is that when you know the answer is no, you just have to say it and move forward. Then, good things happen.

Kim Lear is a freelance writer, web content specialist and project manager, campaign strategist based in Toronto serving clients ranging from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, to Covenant House BC, to the architecture and engineering sector.

- Kim Lear


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