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Learning to say no as a freelancer or contractor

The problem with saying yes to everything, of course, is that you only have a finite amount of time and resource to offer. On top of that, you might well end up saying yes to a client that just isn’t the right fit for you.
Learning when and, importantly, how to say no is a valuable skill for any freelancer. To help you on your way, we’ve put together a guide covering the key points.


When to say no…


When you’re already fully booked
You’d think that this one would go without saying, right? However, it can be all too easy to think ‘I can squeeze this work in’ or ‘this is a valued client, I don’t want to let them down’.

The problem, of course, is that even the best freelancer can’t bend time to meet their needs. So, inevitably, you miss the deadline or have to cobble together subpar work. Both of which will tarnish your reputation and negatively impact your self-esteem.

When the vibe feels wrong
Okay, discussing ‘vibe’ might feel slightly hippyish, but there’s no denying that a project or client can simply feel wrong. Perhaps the client takes a curt tone during the quote phase. Or maybe the brief seems to be sketchy on crucial details.

It might seem trivial, and you might want to override your instinct – but learning to act on intuition can often help you avoid those contracts that are destined to fail.

When the numbers don’t add up
Negotiating a project fee or day rate is often a slightly awkward exchange. However, if a potential client is trying to batter you down on your fee from the get-go, then it could be a better option to walk away.

Obviously, working out a price that works for everyone is part of being in business. But when your quote is getting butchered with no explanation or change to the brief, it should set alarm bells ringing.

When the work doesn’t excite you
We know that not every brief is going to fill you joy upon landing on your desk. And, sometimes, it’s refreshing to do some straightforward work to let you slip into autopilot and pay the bills.

That said, if you’re utterly uninspired about a project before you’ve got stuck in, you might find yourself struggling to stay motivated enough to see it through.

How to say no…


Always be gracious
Regardless of the reason for saying no, there is always room for grace and good manners. Be polite, be courteous, and be professional.

Be concise
The harsh truth is that saying no will mean you’re probably going to add to someone’s workload. So, it’s worth getting to the point and avoiding apologetic waffle.

Offer a (good) recommendation
As we noted above, if you’re saying no, then the client needs to find someone who’ll say yes. If you have a colleague in mind and think they’d be a fit, offer to connect the two parties. Perhaps skip this advice if you feel like the client is a bit ropy.

Consider a compromise
If lack of time is your reason for saying no to a brief, then it could be worth you offering a middle ground solution. Perhaps you could suggest a movement of the deadline, or picking up a specific portion of the work. Even if it’s a no-go, showing willing will paint you in a positive light.

Stay positive
Saying no can be scary, and can occasionally get a negative response from clients. Remember that, ultimately, it’s not a big deal and you are turning down the work for the right reasons. Over the long term, it will make you a stronger freelancer and a more appealing prospect to clients.

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