How to turn down freelance clients in a way that won’t break your business 

How to turn down freelance clients without breaking your business

How to turn down freelance clients in a way that won’t break your business 

Believe it or not, there will come a day for every freelancer, solopreneur or business owner where they receive more inquiries than they can take on. As much as you’d love to accept every project that comes your way (hello, bottom line?!), you will eventually find yourself having to turn down potential freelance work. 

This can a blessing in disguise but it’s still a hard skill to master - especially if you’re still in the scrappy, roller coaster, early stages of your business. 

Now that I’ve established my web design business, I am thrilled to find myself in this position. It took some time to get here and I had to figure out turn down work and projects in a “smart” way, but now that I’m here I want to share how I say no in a way that doesn’t come back to bite my business in the butt.

Saying No isn't easy and rejection ain’t fun for anyone but there’s definitely a ‘right’ way to go about it.

Let’s dive right in!

Why would you turn down work or freelance projects?

Before I tell you how to say no to potential work, I want to first take a look at why you might make that decision.

There are LOTS of reasons or scenarios where you'll turn down freelance work or project inquiries, and most of it comes down to the fact that it’s not a good idea from a business point of view. In my experience, it's usually one of the following reasons:

No time

The most common reason why you might turn down work is that you already have a full workload and don’t have the time or energy to add any more projects to your plate. If you know you won’t be able to deliver your best work to the client because of prior commitments, do everyone a favour and say No graciously. Remember that it’s a good thing to have a life outside of work and there’s no reason to take on a project if your personal life is going to take a hit. #worklifebalance

Related: Here's what my typical day looks like as a web designer/developer

Budget

The potential client might also come to you with a tiny budget, either because they are not willing or able to pay your regular rates. If they can’t compensate you fairly or appropriately for the work they want done for a particular project, you will probably say No. Even if you clearly outline your prices on your site (like I do on my Services page), these inquiries will inevitably find their way into your inbox and you’ll have to say thanks but no thanks. 

Related : How I budget with irregular freelance income

Out of scope

Sometimes an awesome project or inquiry will come your way but you’ll end up turning it down because it’s outside your business’s scope or your area of expertise. Although it can be tempting to take on any work that comes your way, remember that projects outside of your chosen niche will not advance or improve your portfolio and in the long run, it’s not going to help you do more of the work you want. I firmly believe that the most successful freelancers and service-based business are those who carve out a small and defined niche for themselves. When a project is out of scope and doesn’t help you reach your end goal, remind yourself to spend time wisely and focus on more fitting projects instead.

Related: The 3 types of projects every web designer/developer should include in their portfolio

Not vibe-ing

You might occasionally get a weird or bad vibe from a potential client and ultimately decide that you are not the most compatible pairing. That’s totally cool, you can’t click with everyone! Save yourself from awkward miscommunication, dread, and a whole lot of stress by turning down the project from the start. 

Diversification

Perhaps you’ve decided to diversify your business by building and creating products, hosting events, starting a podcast, getting into affiliate marketing, or launching a new program. Even Beyonce doesn’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done - you have to pick and choose and prioritize what’s most important. If your focus is on diversifying your business so that you have multiple streams of income, then you have to set aside time to get those streams started. If you take on every project that comes your way, you won’t have enough time to dedicate to this business growth work.

Related: Everything you need to know about monetizing your website

Personal time and holidays

A girl's gotta recharge, yo!

No matter why you decide to turn down a project, don’t leave the other person hanging. Out of all the people they could have contacted, they asked about working with YOU so do the decent thing and say no in a kind yet helpful way. In a small percentage of situations, the potential client might have been rude, out of line or just plain unpleasant - in those cases, take the high road and reject them well… even if you’re tempted to tell them to shove it!

Now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons why you might decided to turn down a project or freelance work, let’s move on to the practical stuff - HOW to do it!

3 best ways to turn down projects and people nicely

1. No but here are some free resources

Sometimes you will receive inquiries that leave you rolling your eyes. Maybe the potential client's budget is non existent or they want to add on a ton of extra deliverables to the project. Although it can be tempting to ignore or not respond to these inquiries, I encourage you to come up with a standard or template email that you can send over in these situations.

This lets you turn down the project in a nice way and points the person to several free resources (either your own or from elsewhere) that can help them out. Here’s an example:

“Hi John, thanks so much for your email! I appreciate that you reached out to me for this [XXX] project, it sounds very exciting. 

Unfortunately I’m not able to take on your project right now [optional: include an a brief explanation here, e.g., because of my current workload/planned holiday/etc.], sorry about that!

Here are a few resources that will help you/get you started with [project detail]:
- Resource 1- link with brief description of why it’s helpful
- Resource 2- link with brief description of why it’s helpful
- Resource 3- link with brief description of why it’s helpful

Thanks again for thinking of me and reaching out about working together, I really appreciate it. Please keep me in mind for future projects, it would be great to work together and collaborate in another way.

Cheers,
Charlotte”

This email reply is a good way to turn down a client because you said no but didn’t leave them high and dry with nothing. You pointed them towards free resources that are legitimately helpful and useful, and they’ll remember that. 

Side note: In my experience, these potential clients often pop up again in the future or refer people back to you, either for work projects or for the resources you shared, so it’s definitely good karma send this type of email! You've shown them how thoughtful, professional and considerate you are and people won't forget that.


2. No but here’s someone else

One of the best things you can do as a freelancer or services-based business owner is to build a network and keep a list of other people who could take on good projects when you aren’t able to. Maybe the work is a better match for someone else’s skill set, or they are able to accommodate the timeframe whereas you aren't. I recommend keeping tabs and regularly communicating with your peers and other freelancers in your/similar industries for just this reason. 

If you’ve vetted that the potential client has a project with a healthy budget, do everyone a solid and pass it along. 

Referrals create good vibes because other freelancers will appreciate that you’re sending quality work their way and will return the favour. Also, the client who reached out to you will be happy that you sent them to someone you know and trust - the next best thing to working with you. 

Here’s an example of what you can say:

“Hi Katie,

The project you have in mind sounds awesome and I have no doubt that you’re going do really great work in [XXX area]. I really appreciate that you considered and reached out to me, thanks so much.

Unfortunately because of my current schedule [or whatever], I don’t think I’m the right person for you right now to work on [project and outcome].

I’d like to suggest several other freelancers [or business owners] who might be a better fit since they all do excellent work that compliments [project] really well.
- Freelancer #1- link and why you’re suggesting them
- Freelancer #2- link and why you’re suggesting them
- Freelancer #3- link and why you’re suggesting them

You’ll be in good hands with any of the suggestions above!

In order for these freelancers to get back to you with a solid [quote/answer] right away, I recommend that you provide them with the following information when you get in touch:

- Outline project timeframe
- Description of what you’re looking for/hoping to achieve with [project]
- Link to your website
- Budget
- Etc.

I hope these contacts and suggestions help you to move forward with your project and that you can get started soon! Please keep me in mind in the future when I’ll have an opening in my schedule or if you have work in [XX area] where I can serve you best with my business.

Thanks again for getting in touch,
Charlotte“

You’re still saying no with this email reply, but you’re making sure that the potential client is left with options and has several suggestions of who to turn to next. The person who receives this email will notice (and appreciate!) that you gave them a thoughtful and valuable response. There’s no doubt that they’ll keep you in mind for the future or refer someone to you. 

Also, the freelancers who received your referral will be hyped to know that you thought of them and are sending quality work their way. This will strengthen your relationship and I have no doubt that they’ll return the favour whenever it’s THEIR turn to have a crazy schedule or a project that is a better fit for you! Referrals usually go both ways. I usually shoot whoever I suggested a quick email giving them the heads up that I had passed their name along so that the inquiry isn't totally out of the blue.

3. No but here’s a digital product that solves your problem

Sometimes you’ll receive a potential client inquiry where you want to help but can’t take on the project, for a variety of reasons. If you have created any digital products (think: spreadsheets, online courses, webinars, workshops, ebooks, checklist, tutorials, etc.) that offer a DYI solution to their problem, point them that way!

Often times a person can do something themselves if they have instructions to follow, or training to take. If you hear the same questions over and over, these could be great ideas for you to turn into DIY digital products for. You can still help these people accomplish their goals and get the results they want, even if it’s not through personalized services.

Many people want to work with YOU because they like the way you explain things or because they feel like you really ‘get them’ and understand their particular niche/industry. They will still receive a ton of value from your self-directed digital products and it saves them from having to hire someone else. 

I did this with my two digital products, the Website Growth Tracker and Income Tracker Spreadsheets. People kept asking for this information so I packaged it up and offered it as a product for sale on my website, and now I diret people to it all the time. 

Here's an example of what you can say:

“Hi Brian,
Thanks so much for your email, I appreciate that you thought of me for this project. I totally understand what you’re hoping to achieve with [project] because [brief description or reason]. 

 

[Option A, if you can’t take on their project]
Unfortunately I’m not able to take on your project right now because of [budget, current workload, booked up until XX date, etc.] but there are still a few ways that I can help you!

[Option B, a DIY option will be a good fit]
While I know that I could do great work with you on the project you have in mind, I’d like to point you towards another resource/solution that would get you the same results for a much lower price. 

 

[For either option:]
Through my work [at a particular job or in whatever industry], I’ve worked with countless people in your position who need [XXX]. They were looking for similar results and I kept hearing the same (wonderful) questions being asked about [topic] that I ended up creating a DIY solution that answers those questions and helps them get [XX results]. From what you’ve told me about your project, it sounds like you would be a good fit for my [digital product - include link]. This product is great for people (like you!) who are looking for [explain 3 benefits/results/outcomes]. 

Please take look at my site where I explain [product] in more detail here: [add link].

I’ve also created a free resource on my website that introduces you [topic] and gives you a good starting point for your project : [name of free resource and link here]

I hope my [digital product name] is a good fit and that you find it helpful if you want [XX result]. If you have any questions at all about whether the [digital product name] is right for you, hit reply and let me know - I’m happy to help!  

Thanks again for getting in touch, I hope your project goes well!
Cheers,
Charlotte” 

With this reply, you’re saying no but the client can still get the results they want, without the higher cost of working with you directly. This DIY paid resource let’s them take matters into their own hands, get started right away, learn new skills and save some cash. If they were considering working with you as part of your services, it’s very likely that they’ll consider this option because it saves them money and they still get to work with you - just not in the way they initially inquired about. 

As a side note, digital products are much easier to scale which means that you can direct client inquiries to these products instead of taking on smaller projects for less money more often. If a client is desires a certain result but is willing and able to do the work themselves, then you can point them here and spend your time working with clients who are dead set on working directly with you instead. This is time well spent and often leads to extra income. Everyone wins!

Note: You can also suggest other people/business's products or services here - bonus points if you're an affiliate and get a kick-back from the sale!

Related: Here's what I learned from launching my second digital product

Final Thoughts

As you grow your business, your inbox might start to snowball out of control but it’s still common courtesy to reply to all inquiries that come your way. Remember that out of all the people in the world, the potential clients reached out you and considered spending their hard-earned money on your services or offerings. This is significant and a reply is always appreciated!

Even if you reply saying no, it’s best to do it in a way that doesn’t leave people wondering where to go next. Say no but help them out!

As I mentioned, I find it super helpful to create email scripts/templates that I can use in these situations. It only takes a minute or two to personalize or customize the email reply, and I know that the person receiving it is left feeling cared for impressed by my thoughtful recommendations. Not only does this show potential clients that you care about their situation and value their project, it also lets them know that you’ve got your business up and running in a reputable way.

Now it’s your turn to tell me, have you ever had to turn down a client inquiry? What type of freelance projects have you said no to? Do you have any similar email scripts that you can fire off as needed? Is your business at the point where you have to nicely reject certain projects that come your way? I’d love to know so leave me a note in the comments below!


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