Five Ways To Say “No”

How to nicely turn away the wrong clients to say "yes" to the right ones.

Five Ways To Say No article ©Alvalyn Lundgren.
by Alvalyn Lundgren
Having completed more than 42 years of freelancing, it’s a certainty I’ve engaged with a fair number of less than desirable clients. For a long time I chose to work with pretty much anyone who came along, and experienced a number of hits and misses through this approach. At some point, I realized I needed to be more selective.
There are a number of reasons why we might end up working with clients we don’t want to work with. My three big ones were: 1] I need the money; 2] I need the project in my portfolio; 3] I believed a promise of future work coming my way from the client if I did this one for free.
But it’s important to qualify the clients we work with. Qualification means there are a set of standards or criteria we use to assess the benefits and detriments of accepting a project and working with a client. I’ve written about qualifying and selectivity here.
On the basis of your criteria, if you’ve decided a prospect isn’t a good fit for you, then how do you say “no” without insulting or angering the client?
— If you started reading from your email, begin here. —
We know we can get stuck with more than we want to work on, and more than we can handle. This happens because we tend to say “yes” more than we say “no.” It’s hard to turn people away. We want to be “nice” and accommodating. We want to help people. Or, we simply need the money.
Saying “no” is a necessary skill for any freelancer. Until we start saying no to some things, we’ll never have the ability to pursue the important, significant things.
Saying “no” is best accomplished without actually saying “no”. These are my top five responses* to people and businesses who aren’t a good fit for me:
1] “I need to look at my schedule first.” This communicates you’re working on other projects and have a few future jobs in your queue. It also keeps you from having to give an answer right away if you need time to ruminate on the merits of a project. It buys you time. So check your schedule, weigh your options. Get back to the prospect with your decision. It’s likely they’ve already moved on and found someone else.
2] “I’m interested, but I’m currently booked.” This response indicates that you don’t have time and space right now, but are open to consideration in the future. It’s a respectful approach to declining the project in the moment but remaining open to future work.
3] “That’s not what I do.” You may have prospective clients asking you to provide services you don’t offer, that don’t align with your priorities, or that are beyond your target audience. For example, if you’re a lifestyle photographer and your second cousin wants you to photograph their wedding. Or you’re an illustrator for children’s books and you’re asked to work in the style of a fashion illustrator for a beauty product insert. Or, the prospect asks you to tweak a logo they bought off a stock image website. It’s key to define your lane — what you do, and who you serve — and stay in it. 
4] “I’m working on a hefty project at the moment and it’s taking all my attention.” When a prospect proposes a small project that “…shouldn’t take much of your time…”, or wants to pick your brain, it can be an intrusive imposition. You want your clients to respect your time. Even if you’re not working on a hefty client project, you’re busy working on your business. You have your own projects to accomplish — marketing and promotion, doing your books, updating your skills, adding to your portfolio, etc. Taking on insignificant work distracts you from what you need to be working on.
5] “That’s not the way I do business.” On occasion you may encounter a current, past, or prospective client who suggests that you take on a project, recommends a prospective clients, or expects you to adapt to their business approach. Since it’s your business, you have the right to say “no.” It’s the “We reserve the right to refuse business to anyone” principle. I’m thinking back to a few years ago when a long-term client decided to “school” me in “customer service” because I charged a late fee when they overlooked an invoice. I recall that they deflected from their responsibility and agreement to pay on time (contracts…) by reprimanding me for the extra charge (which was also outlined in our contract). They questioned my business policy and claimed I shouldn’t do business this way because I wasn’t putting the customer first. We had a sit down and I outlined my business policies (again), and asked about theirs. We came to terms. I agreed to remove the late fee this time, as a courtesy. They paid the invoice. We continued to work together until they sold their business. They were never late again.
Although saying “no” is risky, take note that none of these responses are meant to offend. Each is truthful about your situation, and allows you the space to project and clients that matter to you. Of course we should respond with grace and help when we can, but in case where your line is crossed, these are effective responses.
The primary principle in this is that we stop automatically agreeing with what others think is urgent and start aligning with what we believe is important.
*I developed these responses over the years as means of protecting my time, brand, and reputation.
©Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.