Why Saying No to Clients is Sometimes in Your Best Interest as a Freelancer

This is a guest post by Amy Boyington.

Owning a freelancing business can be a double-edged sword.

You work with incredible clients doing the work you love, but you also have to market yourself. With marketing comes the potential of turning away clients who aren't a good match for you and your business. Some clients will understand; others might get offended and put you in a sticky situation.

The reality is that you're going to have to turn away some clients as your business grows and as more people want to work with you. It's the only way to position your business the way you want, and to work with people who align with your values and skills. However, many freelancers and first-time business owners often feel uncomfortable, or are afraid, of turning down potential clients.

Get past this hurdle by learning when saying "No" becomes a positive thing and how to do it in a professional way.

The Right Reasons for Saying "No" to a Client

Not sure when you might need to turn a potential client way? Your gut will usually tell you when a customer isn't the right fit for your business, but here are a few common reasons you'd likely need to pass:

1. You Know You Can't Do What The Client Needs

You and your business have a reputation to uphold.

You say that you do this, this, and this, but a client contacts you and wants you to do something different. It might be along a similar line of what you do, but it's certainly not your specialty and you're unsure that you can meet the client's expectations.

Why set yourself up for potential failure? You're in your business because you're skilled at what you do. The clients you work with should have needs that you know, without a doubt, you can not only meet, but also exceed. This is precisely how you'll wind up working with only people who will give you stellar feedback because you're so good at what you do.

2. The Client's Needs and Values Don’t Align with Yours

Clients usually have some idea in their head of how they want you to do the work for which they'll pay you. That idea doesn't always mesh with your thoughts or process and that's okay; it doesn't make either of you right or wrong.

The problem is when a potential client isn't open to your ideas. After all, you're the expert they've come to for guidance. If they aren't willing to learn more about your successful methods or aren’t open to combining their ideas with yours, then it's unlikely that the working relationship will be a mutually beneficial one.

Similarly, it's always wise to decline potential work if a client's brand, messaging, products, or mission isn't something you can see yourself supporting. Personal beliefs are important in your business, too.

3. The Client Tries to Devalue Your Work

You became a business owner when you decided to freelance. The problem is that there are some clients out there who don't quite understand the dynamics of a client-freelancer relationship. They might try to take control over your work, insisting that you do it a specific way according to their deadlines, rules, and contracts.

In most cases, that's not how a freelancer-client relationship should work. Freelancers should know what they do and how they do it well, relaying that knowledge to the client. If, at any point, you feel like a client isn't valuing the work you do, it might be time to break the relationship before it progresses.

What might this look like to a freelancer? It could be a client constantly belittling your work. It could also reveal itself in your pay, like a client refusing to meet the rates you're comfortable with after a couple of rounds of fair negotiations.

4. It's Not Someone You'd Consider a Dream Client

After working with a few clients to get your feet wet—and possibly even before that—you'll learn what your dream client looks like. It's probably a decision maker who works in the niche you're most interested in. He or she might be relatively laid back, or it could be someone who's very outspoken and detail-oriented.

Whatever that dream client looks like, that's who you want to target in your business. No, you don't need to look only for clients who are cookie cutter molds of each other, but the ones you work with should have the most important qualities you look for in someone you could work with long-term.

5. You'd Feel Like You Were Over-Committing Yourself

One of the worst things you can do in the freelancing world is sell yourself short. Over-commitment is a surefire way to stress yourself to the point of no return and leave clients less than pleased with your work.

If you have any doubt that you might not have the capacity to take on a project due to time constraints, it's probably best to pass on that project. You can always tell the client that you don't have time for it now, but let them know when you will be available so that they can circle back with you around that time if they still need your help.

How to Say "No" Professionally

Knowing when to say no is only one piece of solving the problem; the other is doing so professionally. If you use these tactics to express your concerns and potentially pass on a project, you'll stand a better chance of ending the conversation gracefully and leaving the client in your corner.

Offer a Clear, Concise Explanation

You should have a good reason for turning away a client or project, so there's no harm in being honest about it. Clients must have some form of trust in you to turn to you for help. Maintaining that trust by offering a clear and straightforward explanation for turning them down will keep those trust lines open and make it more likely for them to leave the conversation with a positive outlook.

You don't need to be overly wordy. Just explain, briefly and to-the-point, why you don't believe you and the client are a good match currently. Is the company not able to afford your rates? Say: "While I admire your mission and services, it doesn't seem like your budget works with my current rates. However, if your budget grows for my services in the future, I'd love for you to reach out again!"

Leave Room for Future Work

Are you jammed with client work for the next month but expect slots to open after that? Rather than telling a client that you don't have time to work with them right now, you can give them a specific date to schedule them in. This strategy leaves the floor open for them to decide to wait or find someone else to do the job instead of making you the decision maker.

Give a Counter Offer

Negotiating is something most clients will want to do, and that's okay. You have your rates and they have their budget, but you might be able to work something out that is mutually beneficial. Rather than abruptly walking away when a client offers a rate much less than you were expecting, you should try to negotiate better terms. You'll be surprised by how many clients start off low only because they're unsure of what to offer.

Be detailed in explaining everything your counter offer will include. The key in negotiations is to be firm, but also to offer value to the client to help them see how much value you're providing for what they're going to pay. Negotiating sets a tone that you're willing to compromise, which is always a good starting point for a business relationship.

Refer the Client to Someone Else

When I don't have the time to work on a project, or I don't think I have the right skill set necessary for a proposed project, I try my best to refer the client to someone else who I think might serve them better. This is where it pays to have a reliable network of other freelancers and business owners.

Referrals are great because they still give the client what they need without just saying, "Sorry, I can't do it. Have a nice day!" Bonus: Your network can always return the favor for you when they're in similar situations.

Have you turned down client work before? How did you handle it and what was the result?

Amy Boyington is a freelance writer and blog manager for lifestyle entrepreneurs and businesses. After working a few unfulfilling 9 to 5 jobs, she took it upon herself to create a career path that meshed with her family life. She now works with clients all over the world in a flexible freelance career that helps her be both a businesswoman and mom to her two children.

Bruce Hogan

Bruce Hogan is Co-founder & CEO of SoftwarePundit. He leads the team's research and publishes content about software products and trends. Bruce has experience investing at multi-billion dollar private equity firms, leading teams at venture-backed technology companies, and launching new businesses. You can connect with Bruce on LinkedIn.

Bruce is an expert in several software categories including:

  • Dental software
  • Mental health software
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  • Social media software

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