How to say “no” when a client isn’t respecting your boundaries

When I ask my two-year-old daughter to do something she doesn’t want to do, she has no problem telling me no. When I say, “Please put your shoes on,” she says, “No!” When I say, “Stop eating that crayon,” she yells, “NO!”

Why am I telling you this?

You got into this freelancing thing because you wanted to be your own boss. When a client wants you to do something you don’t want to do, be a two-year-old. Well, not exactly, but do say, “No.”

In my 15+ years as a freelancer, I’ve learned to say no—and I am so much happier for it. I work the hours I want to. I do work I love. And I work with some very amazing clients who respect my talents and my boundaries. But it wasn’t always that way.

I have had my fair share of not-so-amazing clients who didn’t respect my boundaries or were an all-around pain in the ass. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Want to have amazing clients who respect your boundaries too? Then you’ve got to start saying no and set expectations moving forward. Here’s how to do it (with a far more professional approach than my daughter’s):

Set boundaries in the first place

[Tweet “Prevent yourself from having to tell a client, “No” by setting clear boundaries from the beginning. “]

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It is sooooo much harder to re-establish boundaries (or to break up with a client) than it is to set boundaries when you first work together. Prevent having to say ‘no’ by defining expectations up-front. List the specifics about how you work on your website and in your contract.

  • I will work these hours.
  • I will only work on these types of projects.
  • I take this long to complete a project.

For example, I don’t do rush work anymore. When a client asks for a rush on something, I simply respond with when I can reasonably get the work done and say, “I can’t do my best work when rushed and I can’t let my other clients down. Rushing on this would make me miss other deadlines.”

Sometimes you lose the project and that’s okay. Most of the time the client respects your transparency.

Re-establish boundaries with existing clients

Have things already gotten out of hand? Get the situation back under control with an email like this:

SUBJECT: Working Together Going Forward

Hey (client first name)!

(Introduction with positive aspects of working together)

So excited to start thinking about (project) coming up soon! And, of course, all the other projects we work on together.

(Segue into main point of email listing actions and benefits of the change)

With all this great activity in our businesses, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about future workflow and project turnaround lead-ins and expectations.

As both our businesses continue to grow, having tighter timeframe expectations in place will help us both stay on track and also enable me to deliver to you my creative best—having enough planned time for design projects really lets my creativity shine!

To keep delivering for you on all the great projects we do together, especially since there are now multiple people involved in project assignments, it will help all of us to have some agreed lead-in timeframes.

[Tweet “Try to re-establish boundaries with a client before cutting them lose.”]

(List of specific expectations and boundaries)

Here’s what I propose:

  • (specific project timeframes + expectations)

Please realize that this is a proposed list of turnaround times and I’m very open to discussing alternatives. My intention is for us to have some expectations in place that we comfortably work towards so that we can continue to enjoy—and thrive—as we work together!

(Summary about “how it was” and what that meant)

Whilst I understand that the (recent project experience, example: a few weeks back with 4 of your different projects, all with tight deadlines, coming to me from 4 different people) was a one-off, it meant I worked all over my weekend to handle these projects.

(Statement of “how it will be” going forward)

Going forward, I realize that the occasional emergency design project will arise, so I’m willing to initiate a rush fee for these instances.

As my normal hourly rate (between Monday-Friday 9:00am-5:00pm) is $X/hour, projects deemed “rush projects” will be billed at the below rates and I’ll make sure to quickly let you know in advance what hours I can accommodate to meet any further “rush project” deadlines.

And, of course, I’ll ALWAYS let you know prior to starting any rush projects, exactly what rates you will incur as I know that, as a small business, you manage your budget very carefully.

  • Today = $X/hour
  • Tomorrow = $X/hour
  • 2 business days = $X/hour

(Conclusion: restating benefits of the change)

As a solo-entrepreneur—which is how I enjoy running my business—I want to effectively handle what comes my way for all my clients so that they, and (client), continue to experience my design talents and creativity to their fullest potential. Together, we’ve created such a great (project) for you and I love developing it with you!


Let’s have a chat, (client first name), about how we’ll make this work best for us all and I’m so excited to get going on the next (project) with you—my creative juices are already in full flow!

Thanks so much!
(Your signature)

Be firm and stand your ground. You are the boss which means you get to do things the way that makes the most sense for you to do your best work. Saying no is liberating and can make all the difference in a happy and rewarding freelance career.

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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