When To Say ‘No’ To A Client

April 11, 2011


Anyone with an endearingly wide-eyed child, a friend always in trouble, or a constantly guilty conscience knows that saying the word “no” can be hard. Freelancers and start-ups can find it tempting to say “yes” to almost anyone, particularly when the money is good–especially in an economic downturn.

The key to making a decision either way, however, is listening to your inner voice. It’ll usually tell you when you’re steering in the wrong direction. And besides taking a deep breath and practicing your “no’s” in a mirror every morning after brushing your teeth, a good way of being prepared and confident in your “no’”s is just being able to know when it’s appropriate to say them.

Quality Reasons

Okay, this is probably a given, but money is pretty great. Lots of money? Even better. But if a client wants you to pull your magic wand out of nowhere and put together a long, involved, and not to mention flawless project overnight, then you might want to decline, as well, even if the client is offering you more money than you’ve ever seen at once in your entire life. If all you can come up with in the time allotted is a shoddy-looking rush job that even your mother wouldn’t appreciate as a gift, the client will be dissatisfied, and the work could harm your reputation.

There a flip side to this, too. It’s also possible to produce shoddy work because the client has terrible taste and refuses to budge. Perfect example: you’re a freelance web designer, and your client wants rainbow colors, scrolling text, a frameset from 1997, and a flash animation on their website. You gently ask him to reconsider, but he’s adamant that this is the best design scheme possible, his 7-year old came up with it, kids are the wave of the future, etc. Do you really want your brand associated with this kind of travesty? Probably not. Pass.

Mis-matched Skillset

If the learning curve on the proposed project is steep, it’s likely that you’ll be spending more time running around attempting to find mentors, tutors, and qualified partners to help you, or fiddling around with manuals and online tutorials, then actually working on the project. Again, the client probably won’t be happy with the result, so it’s not worth taking on.

Ethical Reasons

If a client suggests a project and the description immediately makes you sick to your stomach, that’s a red, red flag! Whether it’s because you believe the proposed project is illegal, derogatory to some group or other, or just plain against the beliefs of you or your company, you should never take on a task that makes you (or your colleagues) uncomfortable. (If you do, your unease with the project may subconsciously affect your work.)

Just politely decline. Maybe even say something tactful like, “I don’t think this project aligns with the best interests of our company.”

Because really, if you don’t enjoy working on it, you’ll just go home every night after work and cry into a bowl of cereal, mentally berating yourself over sacrificing your integrity. It sucks, and we’ve all been there–so do yourself a favor, please? Don’t.

Other Red Flags

The above listed red flags are the most common reasons to say no, but there are a slew of others:

– Your client is just rude or overly-demanding. It’s not worth the money. Repeat: It’s not worth the money.

The client offers too little money. Sure, desperate times call for desperate measures. But, if you can help it, it’s best to stick to your guns on this one. You don’t want to get stuck in a pattern of low-wage work.

The client makes a disappearing act. Trust us, the client with no phone service and a malfunctioning e-mail account while you’re working on the project will suddenly show up out of nowhere with eight pages of criticism and suggestions once you’re already done. If a client shows no interest in communicating with you, then he/she is probably not very engaged in the project — a red flag if there ever was one.


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