The right way to turn down new freelance clients

So you’re midway through a potential client consultation when your gut starts telling you this client isn’t for you. Maybe your personalities just aren’t clicking or maybe they sound like a bad design client. (Here’s a handy list of warning signs.)

But, like any smart freelancer, you know unburning bridges is really tough, so you’re feeling stuck. As Millo reader Samantha puts it,

If you do meet up with a client that you know you don’t want to work with, how do you turn them down? In a polite/professional manner, of course.

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What’s your secret? Share your tips in the comments.

Here are my most successful answers plus a bonus tip that’s sure to leave a good impression even though you’re turning down the client:

“I’m all booked up”

Blame it on a more comprehensive project than you initially estimated or having just booked yourself through their time frame.

Example: Jim, this project sounds interesting, but unfortunately I can’t commit to those timeframes. I’d be happy to refer you to a few colleagues who might have openings.

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“This is out of my area of expertise”

Unless it’s a really simple request or you’ve sold yourself on being a perfect fit, claim that the project is out of your area of expertise.

Note: “Outside your area of expertise” can refer to your technical capabilities as well as your specialty or niche.

Example: I need to be honest with you, Patty. This project is out of my area of expertise. I specialize in infographics, but I’m not an illustrator. Can I refer two great digital artists who might be perfect for your request?

“I’m not passionate enough about the topic”

Some industries and hobbies have a cult following (think extreme sports, music, environmental issues, etc.) that require passion to sell a message. If you’re not feeling it, this can be an easy out.

Example: Mike, I enjoy the outdoors, but I’m not a mountain-biker. I’m afraid I don’t have the passion to share your product like you need. Would you like the name of a colleague who loves outdoor sports?

Bonus tip!

Other than turning down the clients, every example offers to refer someone else for the project. This is key to maintaining a good impression on this person despite telling them they’re not hiring you.

Think about it: most clients aren’t very good at hiring freelancers (how many do you know that have bad designer stories to tell?). Hiring is also stressful, takes away from “real” work, and is a leap of faith with a total stranger.

So giving them a lead that the designer they wanted to work with recommends is huge. (And you improve your relationship with the designers you recommend, even if they don’t take the job.)

Pro tip #2

Sometimes, you’re just ho-hum about a potential client, or maybe you’re only slightly interested in their project. What I mean is, for the right fee, you’d probably do it, but it BETTER be well worth your time.

So toss out a ridiculous quote.


Go big. Quote 25-50% higher than you’d ever charge for the project. (Struggling with pricing? Check out our latest ebook.)

If they take it, awesome. If they don’t, well, you weren’t stoked to work with them anyway (but don’t forget to offer a referral).

Get in on the discussion

Don’t forget to share your questions, comments, and tested tips in the comments. We love to hear from you!


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  1. I have been free lancing for a long time, finding clients and landing jobs has been the hardest part of being a designer a lot of the time i will get someone that loves my work tells me what they would like done and then just wont commit they want to become my friend and tell me life stories.Its very hard because at some points i could really use the money so i find myself entertaining them but i feel as though a level of professionalism is lost they want to friend me on face book and sorry for the rant but i have been getting a lot of well my husband or wife says she found a website that will do it for 4 pennies lol. being a free lance graphic designer is one of the hardest jobs you can do. sometimes i regret it dont get me wrong i love it and when a project goes good i get a sense of accomplishment that is insurmountable.It just seems like good clients are harder and harder to come by these days.

  2. Ohhhh Lordy Ian that just makes me cringe. I had a client like that. I was new to freelance and didn’t know how to so “No.” She and her husband showed up and nudged this here and nudged that there, and had a 20 minute argument about where to place a web address. *eye roll* and then got upset when I had to charge them for their argument. Now, no one sets foot in my office! ( it’s a total mess anyway)

  3. An interesting read. I recently used the “booked out” option for a potential new client who started alarm-bells ringing when they said that with each project they’d like to come to my office and sit with me while I did the designs!

  4. Thanks for sharing your advice, April. One problem I have when turning down a client is that I don’t have many colleagues to refer a client to. Do you have any advice on where to send a client that I don’t want to work with?

    1. Jerome,

      Then it’s time you did some peer networking! Get to know your fellow designers, both locally and online through communities like your Chamber of Commerce, Millo, Stoked, and LinkedIn. Check out portfolios on Dribbble and Behance and follow those you like. Start to build relationships with designers, illustrators, print procurers, marketing and SEO specialists, photographers, etc. You don’t have to be buddy-buddy with them, but you want to make sure your recommendation is well-received, otherwise your good name will begin to tarnish.

      Just remember, when passing the client on because of a red flag, let your referral know about that red flag. Then they can determine whether or not they’re interested.

      Good luck! Go network!


  5. Thanks for sharing these tips. These are really helpful for ignoring the client or refusing the work. It always comes in handy when you don’t want to work but you are unable to refuse it then hike your charges in front of him and behave like you really wanted to work for him/her.

  6. Some great tips, although I personally would never refer a potentially bad client to someone I know…just couldn’t do that to them.

    1. Sheila,

      I agree with you, but I’ve found that a bad fit for me might be a good fit for a peer. I also vet all my concerns to the referral before passing the client onto them. And, some designers just need business and are willing to deal with a below-average client for the paycheck until they have a solid client base.

      Thanks for your input!


    1. Outsourcing is definitely an option, but sometimes you know you just don’t want to be involved with them at all. This post is in response to that question.

      Thanks for your input!


  7. I always find telling a client that I a very busy so my prices have done up a little is the best way to turn down a client. As long as he knows that prices can change and a few months down the line when things slow down he knows he can call on me again

  8. Sadly, one must exercise extreme caution when saying “I don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter.” Photographers and bakers saying “I don’t feel comfortable with your gay wedding” are being sued left and right — EVEN when other service providers are suggested.
    Following your last two bullet points under this heading may open a designer to litigation.

    In such situations, it may be safer to go the “I’m all booked up” route.


    1. Joshua,

      Great point – thanks for sharing. In this day and age, we have to be very careful about discrimination, especially on hot-button issues and especially if you’re a corporation rather than a sole proprietor. We must remember that legally it’s the business working with a client rather than a person working with another person.

      In certain situations, it might be best to address the disconnect and let the client make the choice not to hire you.

      Example 1: I appreciate your interest in hiring me to create your political campaign materials. I must tell you, though, that I belong to the opposite party.

      Example 2: I’m not sure I’m the right designer for your liquor store. You see, I’m a devout Mormon and I don’t drink alcohol.

      Really appreciate your input, Joshua!


  9. Good points, Am from Kenya a growing economy and our current design environment doesn’t allow us to turn down any client. Seems like everyone here is a designer and getting a client is another job, Thats why most designers opt to get a permanent job while they do freelancing as side job. Good point out though for my fellow freelancers in developed countries.

  10. Thanks April! I was excited to see what you would write on the subject. These are great tips and avoids the “awkwardness” of turning down a client.

  11. It’s a good topic for discussion. One thing I’ve learned is you really only get one shot as an excuse to get off easily. After that it’s obvious you’re trying to get out of it.

    For example, I’ve tried the “We’re all booked up” only to have them go, “It’s ok…we’ll wait.”

  12. This Oct. will mark 30 years of a 100% freelance career for me. I’ve been reading Millo for a few months and think that your advice is excellent and on target in many areas.

    One of the most concerning problems for freelancers is timely payment. Spotting that problem early and moving gently away from the client could save you loads of anxiety later on. Sure, it’s difficult to accept that you won’t get a job, one which you might be pretty excited about–but, it’s a lot more bruising to do the job and not get paid!

    Often you can spot clients who are overreaching financially during an initial consultation meeting. When discussing general terms, statements such as, “I required 1/3 down payment before beginning a project…” can shed light on this, as you note the client’s reaction. If there is resistance or an attempt at redefinition of terms, that’s a red flag. Proceed cautiously. It doesn’t mean the client is a deadbeat, but this is where your emotional intelligence can give you guidance. Reputable businesses expect to pay you for your work and they like to have a letter of agreement or a contract in place. That’s a sign of a professional relationship on both sides.

    1. Dory,

      Wow – 30 years! Congratulations! I’m thrilled to have a veteran like yourself in our midst…your insight and experience or simply a virtual pat on the back and “I’ve been there” is greatly appreciated.

      Thanks for sharing!


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