Learn why freelancers must stop saying yes to every project and start saying no more often — and how to turn away business with grace and respect.
When trying to grow a freelance, service-based business, one of the hardest things to do is say no to new business and turn away revenue.
Cash flow management is critical in the early stages of business development, which often means that if you’re not working, you’re not making money. This leads to business owners saying yes to every new project and client that comes their way — even if it isn’t a good fit — because they don’t know when the next client will show up.
I know this feeling well. When I began freelancing in 2005, if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t making money. I wanted to prove to those who doubted me that I could do it; that I could build a successful business and replace my full-time salary. As a result, I said yes to everything and was constantly overworked and overwhelmed.
As my freelance business rapidly grew, learning to say no to projects and turn away clients that weren’t a good fit became critical. Saying no to ill-fit projects and clients…
- Makes room for projects and clients who are a great fit
- Ensures you only accept clients you can serve well
- Keeps you focused on projects you can knock out of the park
- Sets the stage for stronger, happier client relationships
- Reduces overall stress and worry
But saying no and turning away work isn’t easy. The first time I turned away a potential client when I needed the income, was hard.
Over time, however, saying no to ill-fit clients stopped being a choice and became a requirement. As a freelancer, you must be selective about who you work with because both time and availability are limited.
Clients shop around, so why shouldn’t you?
The Problem With Saying Yes To Everyone
Saying yes to clients who aren’t a good match results in one of three outcomes:
- You work way too hard to make them happy, which erodes your hourly rate and causes you to sacrifice sleep and time with your loved ones.
- The project gets completed to your standards and their expectations, but you never hear from them again — and enjoy no repeat business, quality referrals, or raving fans that help promote your brand.
- The project goes sideways and you find yourself in a contract dispute, working for free, or refunding your fee after investing hours into the project.
None of these situations are ideal. That’s why you need to learn how to identify red flags — signals that a client or project might not be a good match for you — as early as possible in the sales cycle.
Seven Red Flags That Signal The Need To Say No
1. The prospect is price shopping
If a prospective client is too focused on cost instead of results, you have two options: say no or see how good of a salesperson you are and use the opportunity to convince them why you are truly worth the investment. Sometimes people just need a little nudge to move forward. If their only concern is price, often, nothing you say will change their mind and you have to decide if joining the race to the bottom is something you have the capacity to do.
2. The prospect has unrealistic expectations
While most people are genuinely excited about working to build something new, some prospective clients have a get-rich-quick mentality: They lack motivation to do any real work but expect incredible results and loads of cash to boot.
Filtering out prospects who aren’t serious begins with making them do a little work upfront when completing your project inquiry form and setting realistic, clear expectations before a contract is signed. Clients who are truly ready to work with you will appreciate your professionalism and seriousness, while the others will move along to another service provider who will tell them what they want to hear.
3. You don’t understand the prospect’s business
If a prospect can’t articulate their ideas clearly enough for you to understand their vision, requirements, and goals, you are most likely not meant to work together. If they don’t understand the industry they are entering, lack clarity on their business model, and struggle to communicate what they need or want to achieve, they are not ready to work with a professional. In this case, consider referring them to a business coach or consultant who can help them solidify their idea and business plan.
4. You don’t believe in the business
If the business engages in something you have a moral dilemma with or simply find ridiculous, do not take their money and attempt to put on a supportive face, because, in the end, neither of you will thrive. Only accept projects that will energize and inspire you and refer all others elsewhere.
5. The project is outside your skill set
If a prospect’s entire request centers around a service you can’t do or don’t understand, kindly decline the project and refer them to another service provider whose skills match their needs.
If only a small part of the project is outside your skillset and it aligns with your own big vision and business roadmap, you have a few options:
- Be honest about your current shortcomings, use this opportunity to uplevel your skills, and offer a special deal
- Say nothing to the prospective client and use this opportunity to uplevel your skills
- Sell the project and bring in a specialty partner to fulfill this portion of the contract
6. The prospect doesn’t understand or value your process
There are certain things a prospective client will say that signals a lack of respect for your work, your time, or your value. Examples of these statements include:
- “I would do it myself but I’m too busy.”
- “I have years of experience doing this, but my focus is now elsewhere.”
- “My sister’s neighbor created my last website.”
- “This is an easy project. It shouldn’t take you long.”
- “Any expert could get this done in a few hours.”
- “I just want something simple. All it needs to do is XYZ.”
If at the end of a sales call, a prospective client can’t see your value, questions your fees, or laments the timeline required to deliver the results desired, they may not be the best fit. Accommodating this client sets a dangerous precedent that can lead to an ongoing lack of respect for you and your work throughout the entire relationship.
7. Nothing you do will help them
It’s easy to take money from an excited client who wants to get started. The hard part is feeling good about it when you know you’re not the best fit or that they would benefit more by choosing a different path. If a potential client has a flawed business model, engages in practices that will not yield the desired results, or isn’t ready for the work you deliver yet, they are not an ideal client. Instead, let them down easy and move on.
I see this scenario most often with business owners who approach me about redesigning their website. Too often business owners think a redesign is the solution to slow sales and low conversions. The reality, however, is that they simply lack website traffic and would be better off investing in content marketing, digital advertising, and other marketing services. Most of these business owners don’t want to hear that answer though because it’s a harder path to follow.
Saying No Gently And Professionally
When starting a new freelance business, you may have to say yes to every project that comes your way as I did. But eventually, you must take steps to be more selective about who you work with and the type of projects you take on.
That means saying no to some of the new work that comes your way.
I have said no to large projects with large budgets based on my interactions with the prospective clients during the initial sales conversation. At the moment, it was tough. But it was worth it because that action created space for ideal clients who were a dream to work with.
After making the mental decision to say no to a project and turn away a prospective client, you must take action gently and professionally, showing empathy and grace.
Whenever you say no to a project and turn away a client, think about how you can add value to their experience. Consider:
- Referring prospects to a service provider who is a better fit
- Helping prospects gather the information other providers will need to provide an accurate estimate
- Sharing tips to help prospects move their business forward and achieve their goals
- Making recommendations for commercial tools or resources that would benefit them
- Providing links to articles, courses, and training that could help them take action
The first time you say no will be the most difficult — it may even feel uncomfortable because you are turning down revenue. Luckily, it gets easier each time you do it. By turning away ill-fit clients, you are giving them the opportunity to be an ideal client for another service provider. This also allows you to work with your own ideal clients who value your abilities, respect your work and time, become raving fans and repeat customers for life, and make going to work each and every day enjoyable.
And seriously… Who doesn’t want that?!