When is it ok to say “no” to a client?

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It happened to me.

I wanted to say no to a project badly.

I was running through a list of excuses in my mind, even having slight nightmares about this project. There was just something inside me that kept me from wanting to take part in this project. It was a feeling of dread and foreboding.

It’s the feeling when you know that you and your client are not going to see eye-to-eye in significant measures down the road.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

The problem was, I had already done some work for this client. I had completed an assessment for this client, even though after the first complimentary meeting I already had bad feelings.

That’s where I had gone wrong, and that was my fault.

For some of us, it goes even further than that. We’re deep into a project with a client and we just don’t want to be a part of it anymore.

You can call it “creative differences” or whatever you want, but I’m going to give you a few steps for avoiding having to find a desperate way to cut the cord from a project you no longer want or need.

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1. Determine the value of the project.

Is the profit worth the stress? Oftentimes, if we’re dreading a project, it’s because we don’t know when things are going to get to be too much for being compensated too little.

As creatives, a lot of us often undersell ourselves in the first place – but the first thing we should be asking ourselves before we even consider signing onto a project is “Does this amount truly make sense?”

2. Decide if you and the client are on the same page.

We all know those clients. The type that don’t seem to really understand anything we are saying; or do understand but don’t really want to understand because they already consider themselves the true expert at hand.

My advice: abort mission. These people always end up a lot more trouble than they are worth!

If you simply have to work with them, make sure you’re charging much more than you normally would on a project. This will help you still make the profit you need to on the project despite it not being the most enjoyable.

3. Select pieces for your portfolio.

Your client should be happy with the final outcome, but at the end of the day we still have to do our jobs in a way that we feel is correct.

Best case scenario: we’d like to proudly put the work in our portfolios.

Envision this project going into your portfolio. If you don’t immediately get excited, you may want to reconsider.

4. Listen to how your client talks about other creatives.

This could, of course, mean they have had really bad luck and hired some really incompetent designers or creatives.

But, it could also mean that the problem isn’t with the hires – it’s with the client themselves.

This type of client might just possess every dread rolled into one, and what’s worse, when something won’t work out right and you’ve warned them but they insist you do it anyway, guess who they’re going to blame?

Yep, you.

To Sum it Up

So we try to use our best judgments, or maybe sometimes we don’t.

Maybe something about the project really captivated us anyway so we took it.

Or maybe we just really needed the cash.

How do you know?

Well, there’s no easy answer to that question.

One good tactic if you feel you do need to say no is to say that your schedule is becoming more and more packed (which could and should be true if you’re networking for better projects) and that you’re unsure if you’re able to provide the same high-quality standard of services.

If they insist that you stay on, you could even boldly ask for more compensation, if there’s any fiscal amount that will match the stress of the project.

Otherwise? You know what to do for next time.

Scrutinize every single thing about that client and project.

You’re hiring the client as much as they are hiring you.

Oh, and make sure you have a great contract with a fantastic exit clause if you seem to get stuck in these situations a lot.

Have you ever had to say no to a client? Tells us your experience in the comments.

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About Sabrina Hutchings

Sabrina is a freelance graphic and web designer from Buffalo, New York. She also excels at social media strategy and content creation. She works with many agencies big and small, and her own clients on a day-to-day basis.

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Comments

  1. Great post, Sabrina. Thanks!

  2. In this environment where businesses are being sued for discrimination, do you just take on a client that you sense will be a hassle if they are under a “protected class”?

    • As long as you aren’t rejecting a client based on anything that could be perceived as discriminatory and you have an actual work-based reason for saying no – or as I said you’re truly too busy (even if it’s just looking for other opportunities) – then I don’t think that you can be in trouble for that.

      Religion, race, sexual orientation, disability, age and all of those other personal factors should never factor into your choice to work with someone and therefore should never become an issue if you keep that in mind with honesty and integrity.

      Best regards!

      Sabrina

  3. I think it’s okay to say no to a potential client. If the project is not a good fit, then say no. It may mean a bit more time between jobs but it’s better to be happy with a client then miserable.

  4. Margie M says:

    I would suggest that it’s always a good idea to tell the truth — at least in some form — whenever you turn down a project. Don’t blame your schedule if that has nothing to do with it. You run the risk of the prospect simply asking when you will be free and then you’re stuck making up another fib. It’s so much better to say something like, “I don’t think I’m a good fit for this project and therefore respectfully withdraw myself from consideration.”

    If you’ve already done work for the client, then it’s a bit trickier, but still better to be honest. Saying “We don’t seem to have compatible work styles, and I think we would both be better off if you were to find someone who better suits your needs” might still feel awkward, but it’s respectful and truthful.

    • Oh, I whole-heartedly agree. Sometimes however, there are certain personas out there where all you can really do is compromise with what you’re going to tell them. No need to say anything that might offend… and as I said, you should be looking for other work!

      Thanks for reading, Margie!

      Sabrina

  5. Oscarphone says:

    After 35 years as a freelancer you can put money on a couple of things. Not every job can be portfolio stuff, Clients. for some stupid reason, think that they are the only ones you are working for. And you need to keep your prices up because in the business world compensation is respect.

    You can tell a client “no” in two ways. Simply telling them that in a nice way. You don’t need to give an in depth reason, just say: “I sorry to have to tell you this but I’m not able to take on your assignment at this time. Maybe some other time or project?” This type of response lays good ground work for you if they decide that they need you in the future. Or by price. Give them a number that makes sense for you to handle the hassle you foresee (.see: “lays good ground work for you if they decide that they need you in the future” above). Charge for what you do, as was told to me one time by a guy who got chiseled by clients all the time: “Well, I’ll pass, I can go broke all by myself. I don’t need your help.”

    If you are working on a project and things go bad you are obligated to see it through to completion. You can move the exit along easier by letting them control the process and design. Give ’em what they want, git ‘er done and move on and don’t come back unless you can work to your standard for pay you deem proper.

    But always remember: Don’t get a fat head.

    • Pretty sound advice there, and I agree. I always finish the project if I’m deep into it, no matter what my personal feelings are!

      Sabrina

  6. Constantly the case 🙂 I just usually price filter. I charge a fair bit more than what I anticipate they’re expecting, hoping that they say no. If they say yes, then it’s a good paying ‘job’. Not a ‘project’.

  7. Great post! Just yesterday I was asked to deliver a presentation for a clients business meeting for this Saturday. He wanted to know if I would be able to do the creation plus have it printed in two days! I told my wife, who acts as my agent, to tell the client no. I knew I’d be pressed for time and from experience I know that type of work is never worth the stress. And that comes at a time when we could use the money. All work isn’t good work, so I’ve learned to “just say no.” Thanks again for this very useful article.

    • I really hate being put under last minute pressure and feeling obligated to say yes! Sometimes, it’s worth it but more often than not that just leads to a rush job anyway and a rush job is never the best for anyone!

      Thanks for reading Antwon!

      Sabrina

  8. Sometimes, even the most valuable client that I have when I find something is wrong what they want or with the instructions on the project, rather than having this headaches in the future I would rather say NO to them.

    • I hear you there! It’s wise to not attach yourself if you don’t have any emotional connection and only sense frustration down the line.

      Sabrina

  9. This is the best way to prevent from creating an enemy instead of partners. From the very beginning of project details, if you received a logo that is pasted on Microsoft Word, let the client go.

    • This made me laugh, because I’ve definitely been there. I try to be understanding to a certain point, but beyond that sometimes it’s impossible!

      Thanks for commenting!

      Sabrina

  10. Really enjoyed reading.
    Thanks.