10 Ways to Say “No” to Bad Clients (How to Refuse Bad Projects)

We freelancers are well aware that there are bad clients out there. There have been plenty of posts describing how to identify a bad web design client or a bad web design project. We’ve even mentioned bad projects on this blog in this post for new freelancers. There are also plenty of posts encouraging freelancers to say “no” to bad clients.

However, there aren’t too many posts that explain how to turn bad work offers down. And turning work down is harder than you might think (as any freelancer who has ever accepted a bad project will tell you).

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For one thing, we’re not used to turning work down. Everything about our business is geared towards finding clients and bringing them on board. Also, if you are accustomed to working in a traditional corporate environment, you’re probably not used to having the freedom to say “no” to a client or a project.

In this post, I provide ten ready (and truthful) responses you can give when you’re asked to do a project that’s not right for you. (Because, after all, you don’t want to spend too much time on projects you aren’t going to work on.)

Response #1: I’m Too Busy

Have you ever accepted work you shouldn’t have even though you’re already too busy? I know that I have.

It’s easy to say “yes” to a project when you should say “no” when you’re busy because:

  • You may not take the time to really think about the project.
  • You may not research the client.
  • You may be feeling overly optimistic about your business.

If you’re busy, avoid answering an inquiry too quickly. Try to put the prospect off until you know you will have time to really consider what they are asking of you. Try saying something like:

“My schedule’s pretty full for the rest of the week. Can we discuss this on Monday?”

If you’ve had time to really consider the prospect and their project and you feel it isn’t for you, remember that being busy is a legitimate way to turn a project down.

Response #2: I’m Not the Best Freelancer for the Job

Sometimes you will be asked to do work outside of your freelancing specialty. It may be work you don’t know how to do or work you don’t have any interest in doing. You may be tempted to accept the work just to keep the client or prospect happy.

Don’t do it.

Almost every time I’ve accepted a project outside my specialty, I’ve regretted it. The best way to handle this is to let the client know that you don’t do this type of work. You can also use Response #6 and refer them to another freelancer.

Response #3: I Never Accept a Client without a Contract

NO sign painted in yellow on a the asphalt. Toronto, May/2010.

This statement weeds out a lot of bad clients right away. You should make it a practice never to do work for a new client without a contract or work agreement.

If a prospect refuses to put your agreement into writing there’s usually a reason for that. 9 times out of 10, that reason isn’t a good one.

Response #4: I Never Start Work without a Down Payment

New freelancers are sometimes hesitant to ask a client for money before a project begins. However, there’s really no reason not to ask for a down payment. Professionals in many fields (including web design) already ask for prepayment.

When combined with a contract, a prepayment is nothing that a client should be afraid of. A prepayment shows good faith on the client’s part. I also make the prepayment one of the terms of my contract–as in, the work can start when the prepayment is received.

Having this policy also tends to weed out a lot of bad clients. If they hesitate to make a prepayment, they may not really be committed to the project. They may even be planning to rip you off later.

Response #5: I Charge (Ridiculously High) Amount

Personally, I don’t recommend this response. However, I’ve seen it discussed in blog posts and on forums. So, it is worth mentioning.

The main problem with this approach to saying “no” is that the client might agree to pay the ridiculously high amount. If they do, then what will you do?

Before using this approach, ask yourself if the additional pay is worth taking on a potentially troublesome project. If it is, at least you’ll be well compensated.

Response #6: Refer Them to Someone Else

It’s a good idea for freelance web designers to build a network of freelance professionals whose skills complement your own. That way, when a client asks you to write web copy you can send them to a competent writer. Likewise, if they need some programming done, you can point them to a good programmer.

Ask your contacts in related fields whether they would mind if you occasionally sent work to them. Also ask them whether they would mind referring any clients who need web design work to you.

Response #7: I Never Work for Less than $X

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This is another response that tends to filter out the bad clients. In particular, this eliminates those who are trying to get by with paying very little.

Using this approach is simple. When you quote a price to this client, they typically respond by trying to get you to quote a lower price. That’s when to say:

“I never work for less than $X”

End of story. Then, it’s up to the client to decide whether they want to pay you what you’re worth.

Response #8: What You’re Asking For Isn’t Possible

You’ve probably been asked by a client to do something that really can’t be done. There are typically two reasons why something can’t be done:

  • The tools don’t support it. For example, a client may ask you to design a website and request that the website users smell fresh-baked cookies each time they access the site. With current technology and tools, this isn’t possible.
  • There’s a legal or ethical problem with doing it. For example, a client may ask you to design a social media platform exactly like Twitter. Well, of course there’s a legal problem with making a site that duplicates another site.

Either way, you need to be honest with the client. If tools don’t support what they are asking, let them know. If there’s likely to be a legal problem, they need to understand that as well.

Response #9: No Response

What most freelance web designers don’t realize is that no response can be a way of saying “no.”

Typically, I respond to all serious requests for projects. But some requests seem a little spammy to me. The sender may address me generically (as though they have sent out a bulk mail) or the request might seem a bit like a scam.

I tend to ignore spammy or scammy inquiries, and you can do the same.

Response #10: I’m Sorry, I Can’t Help You

Don’t forget that you don’t have to give an elaborate reason for saying “no” to a prospective client.

You may be going through a personal crisis that you don’t want to share, but that will keep you from working. Or, it might be too inconvenient to draft a longer response (such as when you’re traveling).

One of the perks of freelancing is that you can say “no” to work that you don’t want to do, so don’t be afraid to exercise that perk.

Your Turn

Have you come up with another way to say “no” to web design projects you don’t want to do? Share your responses in the comments.

Published November 26th, 2013 by

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