Why It’s Ok to Say No to Clients (+ How to Do It)

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Of all the difficult parts of running a business, saying no has probably been the hardest for me. I’m a people pleaser. I worry way too much when I feel like someone doesn’t like me or something that I did. As a business owner, this can get you into trouble sometimes and saying no to clients when I need to has been a huge learning process for me. So today, I’m going to share some of that journey with you.


My Story

This year I found myself in a tough position with a retainer client that I loved. I had been working with them for over a year as their main designer, doing big projects every quarter and a few smaller projects thrown in between. When I first started with them, it was pretty early in my freelance career and I didn’t have many clients yet, so getting a big retainer client felt like a dream.

As time went on, the retainer client was seeing this amazing growth and things were moving really quickly. I was so proud of my work and it was exciting that I was getting to ride this wave of success with them. It felt like the perfect place to be for a young freelancer like myself, but behind all of that excitement were a lot of stressful nights, overwhelmed with tight deadlines and taking on way too much at once. I was having to juggle the retainer work, which at times felt like a full-time job, with all of my other freelance clients and that was getting messy. It got to a point where I felt like my work was starting to suffer because I was being stretched too thin, so I had to make a decision — either stick with the retainer client and take on a lot less work from other clients OR leave the retainer client and put all of my focus on my other clients. Like I said, the retainer client was doing really well, so business-wise, it seemed stupid for me to leave a thriving situation like that. But in my heart, I knew that the retainer work didn’t light me up inside as much as my other work did. So I talked with the retainer client, was totally open about everything that I was feeling, and finally said no to doing any further work with them. It broke my heart to do that, but I knew deep down that my intuition was guiding me to be free to do more of the work that I love and also be a little less stressed.


Knowing When to Say No

So now let’s get to the lessons that I learned from this experience. First, how do you know when to say no? Sometimes it’s really clear, other times, not so much. For instance, when a client approaches you and their budget is too low or their timeline doesn’t work with your schedule, it’s pretty obvious that you need to say no. But other times you might feel the need to say no simply based on a gut feeling and that can be awkward. That’s definitely when my people-pleasing worries kick in, thinking that the client will hate me for turning them down for no reason. But here’s the thing — gut feelings, bad vibes, even just not wanting to are all perfectly good reasons to say no. Why? Because you’re the business owner and part of your job is to make sure that you’re happy and invested in your work. If a project doesn’t interest you or align with the work that you want to do, saying no isn’t negligent or rude, it’s taking care of your business! Never ever feel ashamed for having a set vision for your business and being selective about who you work with because of that.

But if you’re still having trouble deciding whether no is the right answer or not, here’s a simple trick that I heard about on an episode of The Lively Show. Stand up, close your eyes and imagine two circles on the floor. One circle represents if you say yes and the other represents if you say no. Slowly step into the yes circle and just be still for a moment, imagining what life will be like if you say yes to this situation. How does it feel? Does the circle feel big and open, full of good emotions? Or does it feel small, constricting and heavy? Now step into the no circle and do the same. Does it feel different? Whichever circle feels bigger and lighter is your intuition’s way of telling you what to choose. I love this trick because it’s so simple but really powerful and can be used for all decisions in life. Test it out and see if it helps 😊


Say No First, Explain Later

Another thing that I learned from this experience is that it’s better to be upfront with your “no”. This goes against my nature because I always want to explain my reasoning before I say what I’m doing. But when I had this big talk with the retainer client, they actually gave me some advice afterward to just be upfront about it. You can always explain things afterward, but it’s better to make your intentions clear from the beginning rather than confuse people.


No, But…

One trick to making rejection sound a little less harsh is to always offer some small form of help. Even if you’re saying no, there’s usually some way to serve the person without having to commit too much time to them. For instance, when I say no to a potential client, I always offer to refer them to some other designers who I think might be a good fit. Or when I quit my work with the retainer client, I offered to help in any way that I could with finding and training their new designer. It’s a small gesture, but it helps and they always seem to appreciate it.


How to Say No

Finally, let’s talk about how to turn someone down. You never want to sound rude or harsh when saying no and I like to think that I’m pretty good at breaking that news in the nicest way possible (maybe too nice, sometimes). Here are a few different templates that you can use to help make that “no” a little bit easier:

For When You’re Too Busy

“Hi (Insert Name), Thanks so much for reaching out to me! I’m sorry to say that my schedule is all booked up right now and I won’t be able to work with your timeline. If you’re able to be a little more flexible and start our project at (insert next available date), let me know. If that’s too long to wait, I totally understand and would be happy to refer you to some other (designers, photographers, etc) who might be a better fit. Just let me know and I’ll send over their information.”

For When the Budget is Too Low

“Hi (Insert Name), Thanks so much for reaching out to me! I’m sorry to say that my prices are set and I won’t be able to work with your budget. If you’re able to be a little more flexible with that or would like to discuss creating a smaller package that would meet your budget, let me know. If not, I totally understand and would be happy to refer you to some other (designers, photographers, etc) who might be a better fit. Just let me know and I’ll send over their information.”

For When It’s Just a Bad Fit

“Hi (Insert Name), Thanks so much for reaching out to me! I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel that I would be the best fit for your project. I’m currently trying to only work within a specific niche of clients (list out industries) / only working on specific types of projects (list out types of projects), and your project doesn’t fall within those categories. I hope you can understand! However, I would be happy to refer you to some other (designers, photographers, etc) who might be a better fit for you. Just let me know and I’ll send over their information.”

For When You Need to Quit

“Hi (Insert Name), I’m so grateful to have been able to work with you, but at this point, I’m sorry to say that I’ll need to quit our project. I truly hate to do that, but (explain reasons for quitting). I really hope that you can understand and know that I am happy to refer you to another (designer, photographer, etc) who will be able to pick up where we’ve left off. Please let me know if you have any questions or need anything from me before we close out our contract.”


Saying no isn’t always easy, but hopefully my story, advice, and these templates can offer you some help to make all of your future “no”s a little less stressful. At the end of the day, this is really all that you need to know – you have every right to say no and you should never feel bad for doing what feels right for you and your business. Listen to your intuition, be confident, make your no clear, explain why and offer any small form of help that you can.

What’s been your experience with saying no to people? Have you found any other strategies to make it easier?

You Might Also Like

    Presenting Design Concepts to Clients

    Getting Clients