As a freelancer, there will inevitably come a time when you’ll have to decline a project. Every professional working in the graphic design, website design, marketing, development, and writing industries needs to know how to turn down a client politely and respectfully when they can’t take on a project for any number of reasons.
If you’ve shifted from working from 9-to-5 to freelancing recently, you might be under the impression that you won’t ever need to deal with tedious or unwanted projects again. This is true to an extent; freelancers can pick and choose their clients, which days they work on, and which professional goals they aim to meet.
With that said, regardless of whether you’re working for a boss or independent clients, you will occasionally come across a project that you simply won’t want to take on board.
You might encounter a client who expects you to drop everything to help them meet a last-minute weekend deadline. Perhaps you’ll meet an acquaintance who wants you to edit their draft novel for far less than your set rate.
Whatever the case may be, there will be times when you’ll need to know how to say no—politely but firmly.
Communicating clearly will ensure that these kinds of unwanted projects don’t keep appearing in your inbox, draining your energy and weakening your business boundaries. Besides, being respectful and amicable will ensure that you maintain an excellent reputation among clients and potential clients alike.
Read on as we show you how to decline a client project with tact and diplomacy. We also describe some scenarios in which you should reserve your expertise for more appropriate projects.
Fostering Confidence, Boundaries, and Self-Trust
“Make sure your client knows you’re saying no to their request—not to them.” – Anonymous
If you’re still learning how to decline a client project, you may struggle to maintain confidence and trust in yourself and your work. You need to stand firm and believe in your abilities, your product, and your worth.
Being able to say ‘no’ respectfully is essential to exercising healthy boundaries in your work life, and may help to prevent burnout and mental exhaustion on your part.
If your gut feeling is urging you to pass on a certain project or client, listen to it.
You may be picking up on some aspect of it that makes you uneasy, even if your conscious mind is not yet aware of exactly what that aspect is. That uneasiness is alerting you to the fact that a boundary is being crossed.
If this is happening before the project has even begun, chances are, it will continue to happen throughout its duration as well.
All too many freelancers who find themselves in the middle of challenging or unwanted projects had a bad gut feeling they ignored when they first accepted the job.
If there is any part of you that feels that the task or the client offering it are not a good fit, knowing how to turn down a client politely can prevent you from over-committing yourself. Plus, it will stop you from regretting it later down the line too.
Reasons You Should Decline a Client Project
“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” – Stephen Covey
There are several reasons that could fuel a freelancer’s decision to turn down a client politely. It’s important for you to determine the key reasons why you wish to decline a client in the first place.
Knowing why you want to decline will help you plan out a strategic, amicable reply that will make your response clear without offending the requesters. In addition, it will give you the skills and knowledge you need to decline similar projects quickly in the future.
Here are some of the most commonplace motivations freelancers cite for turning down a project or task.
1. You Notice Red Flags
Has a client approached you asking you to complete work within completely unrealistic or tight deadlines?
Are they asking too many questions, pressuring you for discounts or special rates? Are they being controlling about every aspect of the project they have assigned you?
These are all potential red flags that the client in question doesn’t align with your business or values. This is especially so if their actions are making you uncomfortable.
Clients who don’t show respect for your time and services from the get-go will not likely feel inclined to do so once you have taken them on, either.
Saying yes to the wrong freelancing opportunities can leave you burned out, stressed out, and exhausted. Especially if the clients that offer them expect more of you than you can realistically deliver.
2. You’re Pressed for Time
Life is busy already, and being a freelancer tends to make it significantly busier!
You most likely already have a packed schedule on your hands, so you have every right to be selective about the projects and clients you take on board. Consider your upcoming schedule, your pipeline, and financial situation when deciding whether to accept an offer of work.
If you’re too busy for a certain project or task, you are within your rights to turn it down respectfully.
Turning down projects when you’re too busy will allow you to give your full attention to those that you have agreed to complete. This will ensure that your work remains at a consistently high quality for all of your valued clients. It will also help you minimize errors and offer your clients more one-on-one interactions, which allows them to communicate concisely what they want out of the end result.
Sometimes, whether a project fits your schedule will depend on your ability to work out a reasonable timeline with your client. They need to offer you a clear project scope to enable you to know exactly when they need you, and what you will be doing.
This will help you better plan your time and apportion your resources.
You should consider whether your client’s proposed timeline is too short for the task they require. This is all too common in just about every industry. In this situation, you could offer to do the project on a longer timeline to make it more manageable for you if you do want to take it on.
3. Their Budget is Too Slim
Most freelancers have set hourly, per-page, or per-task rates for their work, and most of these rates align with local industry standards.
From time to time, you may offer discounts or special rates, particularly to close friends and family members. Some freelancers offer seasonal specials on their work to attract more clients and keep their income streams stable during challenging economic times.
With that said, you have every right to turn down clients who approach you with a budget that’s significantly less than what you charge.
Your time is valuable, and your set rates reflect your level of expertise, skill, and respect for the quality of your work.
Don’t compromise unless you are comfortable doing so!
The last thing you want to do is devalue your worth by agreeing to projects that are out of your scope and don’t meet your minimum expectations when it comes to payment. This also undermines your industry, and could lead to other freelancers having to accept lower rates as the new norm.
The prices you charge should increase over time as you gain expertise. Eventually, you will probably want to pass some projects down to junior-level freelancers and take more advanced tasks for yourself. If this is the case, you can offer to put your client in touch with junior freelancers you know and trust, who may be grateful for the referral.
How to Decline a Client Project Politely
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet
So, now that you have a reason in mind for wanting to decline a project, you need to find a way to do so without upsetting or offending your client.
Learning how to decline a client project politely can be tricky, but it’s an essential skill if you want to remain in good standing within your industry.
Freelancers and professionals who are abrupt or rude can quickly gain a negative reputation that will follow them for years.
If you’re worried about offending your clients, you needn’t be. The key is to be assertive so that when you do say ‘no,’ your answer is firm and not left open to negotiation.
Make it as clear as you can that you are declining the offer. You can explain your reasons briefly if you prefer, but there is no obligation to do so. Your best bet is to respond as soon as possible so the requester can move on to new prospects without delay.
Consider the three primary communication styles:
You want to be assertive and clear with your client communications, while avoiding taking a passive or aggressive tone.
Expressing gratitude for the opportunity is another polite gesture that will enhance your professional reputation. Thank the client for thinking of you, embarking on an interview process with you, or meeting you to discuss a job.
Most clients will happily respect a clear, polite, and honest answer.
If any of your clients respond aggressively when you exercise your professional boundaries, you’ll immediately know that you made the right decision.
You’re welcome to leave the door open to respectful clients to approach you in the future about additional work, if you feel positive about working with them.
Here are some example email scripts to provide you with guidance on how to decline a client project in a diplomatic way, based on the scenarios above — plus a couple bonus situations.
1. Example Email Script for Red Flag Clients
“Hi [client’s name],
Thank you so much for thinking of me for your project. This task doesn’t appear to be an ideal match for [my level of experience / schedule / current professional focuses], so I am respectfully declining it.
Please note that I am more than willing to [share the project on LinkedIn / put you in touch with another freelancer I know who may be interested], if you’d like me to. Please let me know and I will pass along the relevant details as soon as I can.
Thank you once again, and I’m wishing you the best of luck!
2. Example Email Script for Busy Freelancers
“Hi [client’s name],
Thank you for your email regarding your project proposal. I appreciate that you have considered me for the job!
After careful review, I feel that I am unable to fully commit my resources and attention to your project. I believe that your project deserves more attention and time than my schedule will allow me to provide it at the moment.
I have enclosed a few names of other trusted freelancers that may be able to take on this project right now.
(Optional: My schedule for a project of your scope will be open in _ weeks’ / months’ time. I can gladly add you to my waiting list if you would kindly let me know by the end of the week.)
Thank you once again for considering me for your project.
3. Example Email Script for Clients with Slim Budgets
“Hi [client’s name],
Thank you for your email regarding your proposed project. I appreciate that you have considered me for this task.
After careful consideration, I feel that your project lies outside the scope of what I am able to offer you right now. I usually charge rates of [add your hourly / per-project rate here], and you have indicated that you would like to stay under [their stipulated budget].
I respect your budget for this task, and my goal is to never exceed your stipulated budget unless absolutely necessary. In honor of that, I feel you would be in better hands with another freelancer who specializes in projects of your size and budget.
Thank you once again for considering me for this task. I wish you the best of luck with your project!
4. Example Email Script for Being Outside Your 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?
5. Example Email Script for No Interest in 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. There’s no reason to force something that you can’t give it your all.
Here’s what an example might look like: 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?
Other than turning down the clients, every one of these examples offer 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.)
Choosing Projects that Align with Your Values
Any project you do choose to take on board should fit your bill in a few crucial ways.
Suitable projects should:
- Match your core interests, level of experience, and areas of expertise
- Pay you sufficiently according to your specified rates for the task at hand
- Fit your schedule while giving you enough time to complete the project in a way that aligns with your personal quality standards as a professional.
The projects you choose to take on should align with your values and career goals. There will most likely be industries and tasks that you would wish to avoid. Having a clear idea of these will make it easier for you to know when and how to decline a client project that comes your way.
Here are a couple of factors to think about when it comes to choosing projects that are parallel with your values.
- Will completing this project advance you towards your greater professional goals?
- Do you find this project interesting on a personal level? Why is this the case?
- Do you believe that your work on the task will help people, communities, or the environment in a positive way?
- Does this project support a company or entity with views that you consider unethical or juxtaposed with your own?
- Have you worked with this client before and was it a positive experience? If they are new, do you have any reservations about working with them?
- Is this client respectful of your time, resources, and professional integrity as a freelancer?
- Will working with this client lead to other good potential sources of work in the future?
Carefully consider your answers to each of these questions when deciding whether you should take on a new project. If anything seems amiss, you now know how to turn down a client politely and find a venture that’s better suited to your needs.
An Important Learning Curve
“It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” – Steve Jobs
Learning how to decline a client project is an essential process for every freelancer, regardless of their industry or areas of expertise.
Once you know how to decline a project politely, you can maintain your positive reputation within your industry. At the same time, you’ll attract projects and clients that align with your values and goals.
It’s good to consider all aspects of a job or client together when deciding whether to take on a task. Lower-paying jobs could still be a great fit for you if they support worthy causes, provide you with important experience, or advance you towards larger long-term goals.
However, if something feels off, or you’re confident that a project doesn’t match your current skills, schedule, or budget, consider leaving it on the table by using one of our example email scripts as a guide.