Turning down a client is like saying no to a pay rise, right?
When working for yourself, you are perfectly entitled to be a little fussier about where your wage comes from. After all, you, and you alone will be the person responsible for earning your paycheck.
Saying ‘no’ to prospective clients isn’t throwing money away. In many circumstances, refusing to take on work is actually a smart move.
When to Turn Down a Client
What are these circumstances? Let’s highlight a couple of the more common scenarios where it’s probably a smart idea to turn down a prospective client.
- They aren’t paying you enough for your services. Even if you’re being offered a vast sum of money to complete an assignment, if the work it requires takes you below your standard hourly or daily rate, think twice before accepting.
- You don’t have the resources to complete the work to a high standard. Maybe you’re lacking a software license, the office space, or simply the time to take on their work. If this potential assignment isn’t doable under your current circumstances, it’s better to turn it down now instead of struggling on and having to give up halfway through – or present your client with a substandard service.
- Your product isn’t a good fit. Perhaps you aren’t fluent in the programming language they want you to use. Maybe they want you to write a white paper and you don’t have the experience. They might be after technical copy that you don’t feel qualified to deliver. It’ll work out better for you and the client in the long run if you let them know of this mismatch at the earliest opportunity.
- They’re vague and indecisive. As a freelancer, you need to work with clients who are sure of what they want from you. Clients who keep changing their minds or won’t give you any specifics will take far more management. Is it really worth spending the extra admin time on these clients?
- They seem untrustworthy. Look for red flags like missing contact details on their website or a reluctance to sign contracts. If they ask for unreasonable payment terms, tread carefully. Another warning sign is sluggish replies to emails.
- They’re a family member, friend, or friend-of-a-friend. Using your network is usually a smart move, but avoid working with the people you’re closest to. Any business problems might spill over and impact your personal relationships. Friends of friends might not be so much of an issue, but make sure they don’t use their connection to you to pay less or pay later. This arrangement could also put your mutual friend in a difficult position if things don’t work out.
- They want to employ you. Don’t let your client dictate every detail of your work or expect you to be available 24/7. If necessary, reiterate that you are a freelancer, not an employee.
Of course, there are plenty of other instances where you’d be well-advised to steer clear of a prospective client. Always think twice before taking on new clients, even if everything lines up. Do your research before agreeing to anything.
Obviously, you won’t always have the luxury of turning down work – but if you do, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.
How to Turn Down a Client
Now comes the tricky part: actually telling the prospective client you won’t take their money.
Clearly, this process is made far easier by rejecting the client before you’ve started working with them. Ducking out of a contract mid-way through means you need to abide by any notice periods and check that you’re in the clear, legally.
It’s also wise to recommend an alternative. Even if you’re recommending a direct competitor, it’s worth it for you in the long run. The client will be grateful that you suggested who to reach out to next. Explain why the alternative freelancer is better suited to the project, and pass over a link to their website or social media profile.
Keep it short, and don’t provide unnecessary detail. The client doesn’t want to hear your life story, and sharing details of your personal life is hardly professional. Use phrases such as “personal circumstances” instead of oversharing. If a lack of skills, time, or resources is the reason you’re turning them down, be honest about it.
If your schedule is packed, let them know when you can start on their project. They might not want to delay for too long, but you’re giving them the option to stick with you instead of going elsewhere.
Don’t burn bridges. Even if the client offered you an insultingly low rate, resist the urge to tell them that! After all, they could be a valuable source of work in the future, either directly or through their network.
Above all, to turn down clients you need to understand the type of freelancer you are (or want to be!). That doesn’t just mean your skills and technical expertise, but also the working environment, values, and lifestyle you want to maintain.
Do you want your calendar to be consistently populated with assignments, or would you prefer to go through periods of hard work interspersed with lighter ‘vacations’?
Do you strive to master multiple niches in your sector, or do you want to maintain your focus on what you do best?
Only you can answer these questions. The trick is to find a balance between financial gains (or security) and how picky you are about which clients you take on.
Freelancing is all about figuring it out for yourself. Turning down clients is a small, but crucial part of that process.
About the author:
Anna Roberts is a freelance writer and blog editor based in the UK. Find more of her writing on marketing, HR, and entrepreneurship on the RotaCloud blog.
You can follow Anna on Twitter.