How to say NO to a potential client?

Look out for these 5 warning signs when speaking to potential clients and learn how to make sure that each project you take on is worth your time and energy. Find clients that respect you, value your work, your process, and are willing to pay you what you're worth!

In my case, I have been lucky to be able to work where I want, when I want, and how I want, as long as the work gets done. You will rarely find this amount of flexibility in a typical 9-5. One of the challenges to freelancing is that one constantly has to be thinking ahead. What will happen in X weeks when I finish the last deliverable for Y client? In order to pay the rent at the end of the month, freelancers often bite off more than they can chew and take on more clients than they should (speaking from experience). 

Freelancers are human and are only capable of doing so much in a given workday, so the next time you get approached by a potential new client and don’t know if you should bring them on or not, here are some tips to help you say ‘no’:

You don’t have the time

Ask yourself, “Do I honestly feel like I am giving each client the attention they deserve? Or, is the quality of my work slipping as I try to cram everything into one day?” If you answered yes to the second question, chances are you are spreading yourself a little too thin. 

In my opinion and experience, it’s much better to focus on 1 or 2 bigger clients and have extra time on your hands, than to have 5 or 6 smaller clients, and have no time at all. 

You aren’t passionate about the project/client

Early on in my career, I admit that I would take really whatever project or client that came my way. However, I only choose to work with clients who make me excited to get up in the morning. If you aren’t interested in the sector the potential client is in and the work that they are doing, you're better off with kindly telling them no.

Project/client doesn’t line up with values

Beyond whether or not you are passionate about the client and project, it should be in line with your values. Is the company transparent, ethical, and honest? Will the project be promoting something that you personally don’t agree with? Do some research and if anything makes you feel uncomfortable, politely decline.

Project/client would create a conflict of interest

Adding a new client to your pool, depending on what industry they are in, may create a conflict of interest. If the potential client is a competitor of one of your existing clients, it would be wise to turn them down.

The client isn’t willing to pay you what you deserve

Only work with clients that will meet your payment expectations. Avoid getting into a price negotiation war, where the client wants you to lower your rates or give them a discount. Also, be the one that sets the terms. Half of the payment upfront? A good potential client understands the fact that freelancers have to live too and can’t wait several months in order to get paid. In the end, find clients that value your work. 

The client doesn't value your way of working

When talking to a potential client, it is important you explain which design process you have in place. Are you also offering strategy? Do you demand that each new client is going through a discovery or kickoff meeting, before starting the design process? If setting up a discovery meeting and summarizing all analyses and expectations in a creative brief is important to you, this has to be communicated to the potential client. If the client doesn't think this to be necessary, don't take on that client. Because a client who values the strategic approach to your design process understands this will help to create a better outcome. For you, this means, you are able to charge for strategy + design. And this is a win-win for both!

Now that you have some ideas of when to say no, it is also worth mentioning that you shouldn’t burn any bridges. When you’ve mustered up the courage to say no to a potential client, you can still:

Send a thank-you email

Regardless of your interest, thank them for their time. Also, be sure to briefly explain the reason why you can’t work with them at this particular time (ex. due to bandwidth).

Keep in touch

If you would like to possibly work together in the future, connect with them on LinkedIn and reach out once you have more time. 

Make a referral

If for whatever reason I can’t take on a project but know someone who is a good fit and could possibly help out, I connect them with the potential client. This scenario really is a win-win-win for all parties involved. The potential client is grateful that I facilitated them with someone who can most likely help them with their project, the referral receives some work, and later down the road, the referral will most likely return the favor and present me with future work. 

If a new client approaches you and they fail to bring you joy, aren’t in line with your values, create a potential conflict of interest, don’t pay our worth and don't' align with your process of working, it’d be best to just wait for another client to come along. I know it is easier said than done, but after much practice, saying no becomes second nature and what may seem counterintuitive, actually sets you free. 


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