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How to Say “No” to a Client

Written by on June 25, 2018

People often attribute a lot of negativity to the word ‘no’. Some of you may even have an irrational fear of uttering this word. There are individuals who assume that saying ‘no’ to people can cause relationships to break down or offset the balance in the universe. On the contrary, it’s there to help you.

We all have boundaries and limits – we just need to be more vocal about it. That’s where the ‘no’ comes in. Without the use of this simple word, people may be quick to take advantage of you. Whether if its in your personal or professional life, saying “no” is a means of drawing a line.

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Freelancers tend to follow the “yes” man or woman route in the beginning. It’s a good way to appease the clients and build up a solid reputation. The thing is, you become accustomed to that and so do your clients. It’s a slippery slope that can lead you to biting off more than you can chew. Climbing out of this rut may be difficult at first, but it needs to be done.

An occasional “no” is essential. This way you establish yourself as someone who stands his or her ground and won’t be easily pushed around. Let’s face it, trying too hard to be on everyone’s good side by always saying “yes” will only hurt you in the long run. You have limits, make them known.

You May Know More Than Your Client

How to say no to a client - you know more than they do.

Unreasonable expectations and lofty demands that are not feasible – those could be some of your project requirements. Be weary of clients who’s eyes are bigger than their stomach when it comes to requests.

Before undertaking any project or a task, you will be presented with specifications. Some specifications will make sense while others could be impossible to achieve. You could potentially be more knowledgeable on the subject than your client. That’s a common occurrence though it may not sit well with some people.

Don’t gloat about your superiority on the subject matter. If the project cannot be accomplished with the given resources – budget, time, or the constraints of physics – make it known to your client.

Walk them through your thought process. Try to have them understand the various issues that you have encountered with the project proposal. Offer alternatives or possible adjustments that could be made in order to get things off the ground.

People can be reasonable and will heed advice from a professional. For example, I don’t know anything about gardening, but I will take advice from a botanist and ask questions if I struggle keeping my tomato plants alive.

The “no” comes into effect when you are just unable to get through to the individual. If they are being unreasonable and are the “my way or the highway” types, then it may be best to just cut your losses and decline their project.


Have an understanding of your priorities. It’s in your best interest to have a work and life balance. This is vital not only for your productivity, but overall well-being. Think about what you’re sacrificing when you say “yes” to others.

“When you say “yes” to others, make sure you’re not saying “no” to yourself.” – Paolo Coehlo

When discussing the details of the project and your obligations, be clear about your work schedule. It’s become almost an expectation in today’s work environment that you should be reachable at all times. Make it known when you are available and when they should avoid contacting you.

Don’t over-commit. Taking on a lot of projects at once can mean a hefty payday, but it also means a lot of responsibility. The allure of money can cloud your judgement when seeking out additional projects or accepting new proposals. Weigh out the benefits and understand the consequences of under-delivering. If you have a lot on your plate, it may be best to say “no” and focus on the task at hand.


Saying “no” isn’t always a necessity. You may be busy at the moment but your client isn’t in a hurry – see if you can work with them on a later date. Outright denying work could sometimes work against you.

If you like the project proposal, but aren’t currently able to work, talk to the client. Inform them that you’re preoccupied right now, but willing to work with them. Set their mind at ease by mentioning the current project due dates and when your availability opens up. Chances are, if you worked with them before, they will be more than likely to wait.

Be aware that plans don’t always pan out the way you had hopped. Be prepared for the client who’s been waiting to move on. If they are unable to wait, or their deadlines have shifted they could proceed without you.

Stay in touch with the people that are waiting on you. This shows your commitment and willingness to undertake their work as soon as you’re available.

Refer Them to Other Professionals

Refer the clients you can work with to someone else.

Your skills may not meet the demands of your clients, or you just don’t have the time. Without ever saying “no” to your client, you can refer them to others.

This is a great way to build positive rapport not only with your client but with other companies or freelancers within your industry. You may even divert the client to some of your friends who are willing to take on a project or two.

Downside to this is the possibility to lose out on a client(s) long-term. If the work was done well by your referral, your client could be going straight to them for any future tasks. Just something to consider.

Be Polite When You Say “No”

Saying “no” can be and should be done amicably. There is no need to be rude when you reject the client’s proposal. If you are worried about offending people, you can frame the “no” to sound a bit more pleasant.

Your goal is to try and stay on the client’s good side throughout the rejection. Handling the situation poorly and coming off as insensitive can be costly to you. The client may hesitate to do business with you in the future. Let them down softly.

Framing can play a big role about how you say “no”. Here are a few examples of how to frame your response so it sounds a bit more subtle –

  • Thanks for considering me, but I am currently unavailable to take on additional projects;
  • I can’t do that for you. What if I refer you to one of my friends who would gladly help you out?
  • I would like to give you a hand with this project but but due to my time constraints I cannot offer you my help.

From those examples, you can probably tell how the responses sugarcoat the denial. This method is especially valuable for those individuals who struggle with the chronic “yes-manism”.

6 Reasons Why Saying ‘No’ to Clients Can Be Good For You Sometimes for your small business or freelance, you need to learn how to start saying "No" to some clients. Read this guide to find out more. READ MORE

Can’t Always Be a “Yes”

By always accepting, always agreeing, and always saying “yes”, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Saying “no” isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it helps establish essential boundaries.

Exceeding expectations on a few projects is much better than taking on a lot of work and delivering sub-par results. Be honest with your clients and inform them of what you can and cannot do. This will lead you to develop more valuable and longer lasting relationships.

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