How and When to Say “No” to Clients


As a freelancer, I’ve  been asked to do many things. I’ve collected data and created spreadsheets, researched pallet rack manufacturers, written about poison ivy, and marketed promotional playing cards. Some of the jobs I did weren’t exciting, but they paid the bills, but I treated every client the same – as if each and every one was my most important client and priority.

Over the years I’ve learned that freelancing isn’t glamorous or exciting. The majority of my clients are smaller names, but I’ll never complain about good people (to work with) or steady work. I’ve also learned that there are times when I have to tell a client or potential client “no.” While it always pains me to turn down work (and money), I think it’s more professional to set boundaries or not bite off more than I can chew, than it is to take on more work.

One of the most important things I learned in the 15 years I’ve been freelancing is how to choose the right clients, and how to turn down projects or clients graciously if they aren’t a good fit or if my plate is full. Every freelancer has a different line to draw when it comes to work, but there are a few good rules of thumb for knowing how and when to say “no” to clients.

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When you don’t want to overextend yourself

It pains freelancers to turn down work. That’s why many of us are working into the night or getting up at the crack of dawn to meet deadlines. Turning down work can mean someone else gets a client and paycheck.

We’re no good to our clients if we’re too tired or overworked to give their project our complete attention, or if we’re pushing a deadline because we have many projects going at the same time. Taking on too many clients can backfire and cause us to lose work instead of gaining more.

When you don’t approve of the project

Sometimes freelancers are faced with a dilemma; do we take on a project that goes against what our beliefs, or do we turn it down and lose the payday? As a business owner – and yes, freelancers are business owners – we’re allowed to draw a line when it comes to projects that we don’t approve of or don’t feel right. Having a reputation for taking everything that comes along isn’t always a positive thing. I found that clients and peers respect me more when I stick to my guns and turn down work that doesn’t sit right with me. I’d rather be known as someone with integrity than as a hypocrite.

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When you don’t approve of the client

Not all clients are created equal. Sometimes we don’t agree with the way a particular client does business, or we don’t agree with the message they put out. There’s nothing wrong with drawing a line when it comes to the types of people or companies you want to work with. In fact, it’s more professional to have standards than to work with people with whom you disagree.

When you’re just not feeling it

Taking on a project you don’t enjoy can lead to procrastination and wasting time. Time is money, and if you’re sitting at your desk putting off the inevitable you’re not being very cost efficient. Instead of starting at your screen, you could be finding new clients and earning money with projects you enjoy. It might be more profitable and a better use of your time to avoid taking on projects you’re not feeling.

Knowing how to say “no” graciously and professionally

Many of us don’t want to turn down work because we don’t want to turn down money or lose clients, but there are ways to say “no” to a project without burning a bridge or giving up future work. If you don’t have time for a particular project but you want to stay on good terms with your client, be honest. Tell the client you have too much on your plate, but wish to continue working together. If there isn’t a rush on the project, you might be able to schedule it for a time in the near future when you won’t be so busy.

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If a project needs to be completed right away and you don’t have time, or if it’s not a project you want to take on, offer to recommend another responsible freelancer. Your client will appreciate your professionalism and hopefully, continue to keep you in mind for other gigs.

One of the most important and professional words in a freelancer’s vocabulary is “no.”  Don’t be afraid to use it as needed. You’ll find you have more time, more money, and more sanity.

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