Honest, polite and direct: How to say no to a client

May 17, 2011


As a freelancer or consultant, it’s tempting to say yes to every project. After all, who knows when the next job will come along? Sure, it makes for some busy times – probably a few late nights, early mornings and weekend work – but it’s all worth it in the end, right?

Well, actually no, not always. There are many reasons why you’d want to turn down a project: the rate is too low; the timeline is too short; the request is morally or ethically questionable; you’re asked to take on more work when you’re already busy. Or it may be that you simply don’t like working for that particular customer, or you feel uncomfortable doing the type of work the client is asking for.

In those cases, you might want to take a pass. But in delivering the disappointing news, you’ll want to avoid inadvertently insulting the client or hurting the customer’s feelings. Let’s face it, no one likes rejection. You know you need to handle this conversation carefully – what’s the best way?

Take a breath and make it easy for yourself by sticking to the three main rules for letting a client down easy: put on the kid gloves, explain the situation, and explore alternatives.

Put on the kid gloves

As much as possible, try to diminish the blow. Be as polite as possible. It probably still won’t make you the client’s favourite person, but at least the customer might not despise you quite so much for turning down the offer. Copywriter James Chartrand in a Men With Pens post drew out key insights from William Ury’s book, The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. He highlights some useful phrases that could help you get the client to see things from your point of view:
• “I’d love to, but I really have to… (insert action here)”
• “I’m already working on (insert task here) but I can (offer alternative)…”
• “That would be great, but I’ve already committed to…”
• “My schedule is booked until (date). How about then?”
• “I really appreciate that you offered me this job but I’m presently all tied up with (insert project)…”

Play it soft and you’re less likely to step on the customer’s toes. And who knows? The client may well appreciate your diplomacy and come back to you later for another assignment.

Explain yourself

Kori Rodley Irons, home business blogger for families.com, advises that it’s important to thoroughly explain your situation. The key is to begin with an apology and to end on a positive note, such as a hopeful indication that things might change in the future, and that you’d look forward to another opportunity to work with customer. According to Rodley Irons, this “helps to make the ‘no’ less abrupt and show that you have care and consideration for the client.”

A commenter on this Freelance Writing Jobs blog post notes that a crucial part of your explanation should cover just how your rejection is actually good news for the customer, especially when the reason has to do with your being too busy to take on more work. Everyone loses when you don’t have the time (or energy) to do as good a job as your clients expect. The commenter warns: “I think it’s kind of irresponsible to not let them know you can’t do something – and then disappoint them with your lack of follow-through or inferior work, too.”

Explore alternatives

Use this as an opportunity to present alternatives to your customer. If you can’t work for her this week, would you be free next week? Would she accept a recommendation for another trustworthy freelancer, someone you know would do a good job? If so, you may have not only solved her search for a service provider, but you’ve also proven yourself something of a problem solver – just the sort of reputation you want to cultivate among your customers.

A final word of advice: Try to examine your reasons for saying no before you do so. Is it because the rate is too low? Are the timelines too tight? If so you may be in a position to negotiate instead of responding with an out and out rejection. Chris Talbot has excellent advice about raising rates, and you can find pointers on figuring out what you’re worth here.

img credit: flickr/Possum1500

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