Learn How to Say No To a Client The Right Way

by Jodee Redmond

When you are starting out as a freelancer, your focus is on getting work and building your business. That should always be your goal, but there will be times when you can’t take on any more work or you realize after learning more about the project that you aren’t the right person for the job.

You will need to learn how to say No.

The word No is very small but it’s a hard one to say for many of us. A toddler has no problem saying No to just about anyone and anything, but they soon learn that there a consequences to saying No to people who are bigger and more powerful than they are.

We learn as children (hopefully) that life is easier for us if we go along with what parents and teachers want us to do. This idea is reinforced by positive feedback from adults. The problem is that if we never learn how to say No effectively as children, it’s hard to do so when we are grown up and we should be saying it more often.

Before you say No, decide if that is really what you want to say. If the issue is timing and you would otherwise be interested in the project, you may want to offer an alternative. Sometimes a client does have a bit of flexibility as far as deadlines are concerned and it doesn’t hurt to explain that you are fully booked until X date but you would be happy to take the project if you can start after that point.

That way, you have indicated to the client that if it weren’t for scheduling difficulty, you would be interested in working with them. Then the client gets to decide whether they can wait for you to become available or find another writer instead. You have also kept the door open for future projects by saying “Not right now” instead of “No way” and slamming the door shut.

In a situation where you learn more about what the project entails and you realize that it’s not a good fit for you, tell the prospective client right away so they can look at other candidates instead. I’ve done it when I’ve realized that the client was looking for someone with specific marketing experience that I didn’t have at the time. I explained that I wasn’t the person he was looking for and I asked to be taken out of consideration. I did indicate that he could contact me about future projects and I would be happy to talk to him.

How do you handle saying No a client? What strategies work best for you?





7 responses
  1. Dani Avatar

    Great post, Jodee! Such an important topic.

    Learning how to say ‘No’ helps with more than saying it to clients when needed. Sometimes there are others in my world that I need to say ‘No’ to in order to meet deadlines, spend enough time looking for work/applying for work, updating my sites and blogs, and mostly making sure I have enough quality time with my son.

    I have learned that in not saying ‘No’, I create stress for myself and overload myself. It is not the fault of anyone else for ‘taking advantage’ of my good nature – it is mine and mine alone for being a doormat instead of a living, breathing human with needs and other responsibilities.

    Learning how to say ‘No’ was liberating and reduced my stress. It increased my confidence and made me feel joyful for finally taking good care of myself. It was high time I learned to do unto myself as I did unto others. 😀

    Funny thing is, most people don’t even bat an eye when you tell them ‘No’. I used to be so worried I would upset others or hurt their feelings if I said ‘No’ to them. I was such a dummy! 😉

    Now if I could just learn to say ‘No’ to being verbose . . . 😉

  2. Dani Avatar

    PS. In answer to your question, I have learned that when I have to say ‘No’ to a client about something, usually a simple ‘No, thank you’ or ‘I am sorry – but I just cannot do that for you’ will suffice.

    If they require more information, an honest (and firm) explanation that points out why they are better off with me not taking on whatever it is they want at that moment in time usually satisfies them, heads off any attempts by them to try to pressure me into changing my mind, and keeps me in their good graces for continuing/future work.

    Clients generally appreciate the integrity of letting them know you can’t do something rather than deal with the let-down when you take it on and can’t follow through. I think its kind of irresponsible to not let them know you can’t do something – and then disappoint them with your lack of follow-through or inferior work, too.

    *zippin’ my lips now* ;-D

  3. Ann G. Avatar
    Ann G.

    I find this works both ways and generally points out the “employers” who just aren’t worth your time in the end. I had a steady writing job with a company setting up an online phone directory in rural Spain. I’d worked for them for six months earning $10 each for articles that were about 350 words long – I could do four an hour, so it was a great salary for me. Six months into it, they asked if I was willing to take on a new assignment for the same pay. The job was three times the work and I knew it so I explained that the pay rate wasn’t going to work for me because the writing required three times the research her other job had entailed.

    The owner emailed me back with a long winded response stating she was upset that I wouldn’t do this for the lower cost as we’d developed a fabulous relationship. I explained that in the end, the pay she wanted me to accept would come out to approximately $4 an hour and that isn’t even close to minimum wage here and that it wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

    After being called every name in the book, she went on to say I was unprofessional and that she was very disappointed with me for saying no and that she was telling her friends and associates not to work for me.

    I lost that job for saying no. But then, I’m glad that I stuck to my guns. Even though we had a good relationship, her idea of paying me $5 an article for 1,000 words wasn’t acceptable.

  4. Mark Charke Avatar

    It’s hard to convince a writer to say no. When I started I was all gung-ho and ready to work very hard for any publisher for next to nothing. I did a ton of writing for two years. It took me two more to realize it wasn’t going to get published. Four more has seen that material out to other, more reputable publishers.
    I have learned that a bad webpage, long responce times and no budget indicate people who, no matter how keen, simply aren’t going to get the work published. Even a published book, that sells far less than a hundred copies because the publisher couldn’t be bothered to promote it, is hardly worth the effort.
    So just take a second before you sign away four months of your life on a keyboard and re-evaluate your employeer. Work is never wasted, but it’s so much harder to take a product written for one publisher specifically, to a different one.

    Mark Charke

  5. Bob Younce at the Writing Journey Avatar

    More and more, as my writing business grows, I look for more ways to say “yes.” It might mean contracting out some work, or it might mean offloading some non-writing tasks to my business partner (my wife).

    I try to avoid “No,” at least when it is with a long-term client. Do I have to decline sometimes? Sure. But, like you suggest, “Not yet,” often is a better answer than an outright “No.”

  6. Jenny B Avatar

    I have had to say no a couple of times for various reasons. One, the project would have involved too much time and I didn’t want to spread myself too thin. All good, as the employer certainly wanted to keep me in mind if my scheduled freed up.

    For another, I was uncomfortable signing a non-disclosure after reading through it. I would not have received any credit for the writing involved. It would have been different if it had been initially advertised as ghost writing, I would have understood.

  7. Kathryn Avatar

    Hey Ann G. – I had something similar happen to me. I wrote some articles for a client and after completing the project she emailed and asked if I could double the articles for less that 50% more than I was getting.

    I like the client and had a good relationship with that client, but I had to say no because of the doubled work and decreased pay. I did give a price that I would be willing to work for. After some heart thumping emails (where I expected to be kicked around) we actually worked out an agreement.

    The professionals in the business typically understand and are willing to work with people that are acting professional. I have yet to have a client I work for consistently come back to me with a lower paying gig – most of them appreciate what I’m doing and how I do it (and have given me periodic raises). Plus, the more I gain in experience the more determined I am to be respected – so no is getting easier in my professional (and personal) life.

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