How To Turn Away A Prospective Freelance Client And Remain A Helpful Hero

Learn when to turn down new projects, discover how to say no and remain a hero, and get three email scripts to use in your freelance business.

Be The Hero

When you first start freelancing or start a creative agency, you have to say yes to all work that comes your way so you can gain experience, create a portfolio, build your ideal client profile, and develop critical business systems and processes. Then, as your freelance business or agency grows, you to get to a point where you need to turn down new projects to remain profitable.

I know the idea of turning down work and saying no to new clients to remain profitable sounds crazy, but trust me, it works.

When you take on new projects that aren’t a great fit or say yes to clients who aren’t a great fit, you often have to modify your processes and systems, perform more manual work, and spend more time managing the project and the client. It usually also takes longer to get projects done.

Ill-fit projects and clients reduce profits while great fit projects and clients boost profits.

This is why you eventually need to turn down new business that isn’t a great fit. When you say no, you make room for new freelance clients and new projects that are a perfect fit. The key is saying no to new business in a way that makes you a hero for the prospect.

Some of my favorite clients to date have come from me saying no and some of Bourn Creative’s biggest growth opportunities have come from turning projects down. You see, most of the time, I turn down a project because of budget, timeline, or project requirements that don’t align with my skills — not because the prospect may be a bad client.

Never Send Prospects Away Empty-Handed

Whether they found you through a referral, an existing relationship, social media, following you online, subscribing to your posts or newsletter, or through research, by the time you speak with a prospect, they have already decided that they:

  • Know you enough to believe you’re a good choice
  • Like you enough to believe working together would be a great experience
  • Trust you enough to reach out about investing with you

In some cases, prospects are even showing up as raving fans who are really excited to have a conversation with you about their project. At this point, you’re the hero and even if you don’t end up working together, your goal should always be to remain the hero.

No matter what the reason, whenever you let a prospect know that they aren’t a good fit, don’t send them away empty-handed. Instead be kind and helpful.

Point them in the right direction, by providing:

01. Tips Specific To Their Project

While you may not be a great fit for their project or requirements, I’m sure that you have thoughts about what the prospect is trying to accomplish. Help them move forward and take action, by providing valuable and strategic tips specific to their goals and objectives.

02. Recommendations Or Suggestions

When saying no to a prospective client, consider recommending tools, solutions, or other things that may be helpful. When making recommendations, try to provide a mix of free and paid options. For example, if a prospect needs a specific feature for their WordPress site, I usually provide links to a free plugin and a premium plugin and provide information about each one.

03. Referrals To Another Freelancer Or Agency

When you receive an inquiry from a prospect who has budget, but the project itself isn’t a good fit for your skillset or timeline, it’s best to refer them to someone else you trust. Now, notice I said, has budget. When making referrals to others, you want to make sure they are quality referrals because your referrals will be taken more seriously and receive higher priority if you vet them first.

When turning down a prospective project and referring the prospect to another freelancer or agency, try to:

  • Provide two or three options so the prospect has choices
  • Provide the name of the person you are referring them to and link to their website or directly to their project inquiry form
  • Explain why you think the provider you’re referring them to would be a good fit

04. Direction For What To Say To The Next Provider

Prospects often don’t quite have all their ducks in a row when they reach out to a service provider to talk about their project. This makes it harder to get an estimate or quote.

When making referrals to other freelancers or businesses, I’ll often add a quick note at the end of the email giving the prospect:

  • Direction for what to say to the next person they speak to
  • What information they should have ready before they reach out
  • What information they should provide when they have a conversation

05. Links To Valuable Content

If you have a blog, you probably also have content that prospects will find valuable. When turning away a prospect, provide them with a few links to content that will help them move the needle. Consider sharing links to blog posts, tutorials, videos, webinars, courses, templates, podcast episodes, ebooks, etc.

Sample Emails To Say No To Prospects

The two main reasons I say no to new projects and turn away new clients is to protect my profitability and maintain my brand reputation.

Taking on projects that aren’t a good fit will be less profitable because they will require more of my time to manage.
Taking clients on who aren’t a great fit could result in a less than stellar experience and in turn, erode my brand reputation and the ability to gather amazing testimonials.

When turning down new clients for your freelance business or agency, your goals should be:

  1. To remain the hero
  2. To be as valuable as possible
  3. To keep the respect they have for you
  4. To be profitable in your interactions

For example, when someone contacts my web design agency, Bourn Creative, about a new website project, but has a very small budget, I respond politely and say something like:

“Thank you so much for reaching out and considering us for your exciting new project. While we would love to work with you, Bourn Creative isn’t going to be the best fit to help you achieve XYZ.

Based on the information you provided, I do have a few recommendations:

  • Check out StudioPress and Genesis Pro for a collection of beautiful WordPress themes and blocks that will let you get started with minimal cost.
  • Alternately, you can check out It’s a marketplace for freelance developers and a great place to start.
  • If you need help learning how to use WordPress, be sure to check out WP101.
  • Also, here’s a blog post I recently wrote on the 9 things you should know before creating a new website. I think you’ll find it helpful.
  • And of course, if you ever need any advice or help along the way, or you just want a fresh perspective or feedback on an idea, I am always available for a consulting call.

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

Best of luck to you with your website project and if I can ever be of help in the future, please let me know.”

When someone contacts us and has a decent budget but isn’t a match for our skill set or their timeline needs don’t fit in our schedule and workflow, I respond with something like:

“Thank you so much for reaching out and considering Bourn Creative as your creative partner for your new WordPress website. [Detail shared] sounds really interesting and I can see it making a big difference. Unfortunately, while we would love to work with you, our schedule is jam-packed right now and we’re not able to take on your project at this time.

I do have a few suggestions of other freelancers and agencies that you could reach out to that I think would be a great fit for your project:

  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit
  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit
  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit

When you reach out, they’re all going to want to know the same things and need the same information to get you a quote in a timely manner:

  • Know your budget and be ready to share it
  • Share your timeline and critical deadlines
  • Communicate any requirements for the project
  • Provide links to sample sites with similar features to what you want

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

Best of luck to you with your website project. If I can ever be of help in the future, I am always available for a consulting call, or if you have another project in [your area of expertise], I’d love to work with you.”

When a prospect reaches out and they have a very specific need that I know can be met with a specific solution, I share the solution with them. Here’s a sample email I send when a prospect wants to heavily control the design but doesn’t have the budget for something custom:

“Thank you so much for considering Bourn Creative for your [PROJECT]. We actually get a lot of inquiries from business owners just like you looking for similar features and functionality.

While I could provide you an estimate and complete this project for you, there is another solution I think you’ll love that will save you a lot of money. It’s called Beaver Builder.

  • Beaver Builder is a WordPress page builder that lets you completely customize your website and create unique and complex page layouts without knowing how to write code.
  • All of the customizations are done on the front end of the site so you can see the changes you make as you make them.
  • Beaver Builder even has its own WordPress theme to use as a base.

When it comes to WordPress page builders, Beaver Builder is our favorite. It will allow you to completely control the design of your site at a fraction of the cost.

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

If you decide [solution name] is the better fit (because who doesn’t love saving money?!), please remember that I am always available for a consulting call to help you work through any details or strategy.”

Add Value To Every Interaction

As you can see, even though I am rejecting the project in each of the sample emails above, I’m doing it in a caring, helpful way. This ensures the prospect doesn’t feel like contacting us was a waste of time and feels really happy they reached out and thrilled to have my recommendations.

This approach alone has landed Bourn Creative some of our very best clients who were referred to us by people we never ended up working with, but were so impressed with how we handled the inquiry and so thankful for the recommendations, that we remained heroes in their eyes.

So next time a prospect reaches out with a project that isn’t a fit, pause for a moment, consider how you can add value to their experience, and help them out. After all, as Anne Frank has famously said, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

This article was originally written for and published by Liquid Web.