» Forums » Freelancers » Re: How To Tell Clients "No"
Page options
Community Member

How To Tell Clients "No"

The Delicate Art of Declining

A realization from my decade in freelancing: much of my time isn’t spent working. Instead, it’s navigating client conversation minefields and plotting how to manage (what should be) a straightforward conversation without letting it become a maze. Sound familiar? It’s a reality many, if not most, freelancers face.


Navigating Out-of-Scope Requests

Two weeks into a flat-rate website design, and suddenly: “Hey, can we add a merch store, an animated intro, and a virtual reality tour?”.

I can feel your blood pressure rising through the screen.

Instead of jumping straight to the doom-and-gloom, try to open up a line of communication surrounding the requests. Ask a few questions to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they just saw a webinar about the wonders of VR, or their nephew just got a Quest headset, and they thought it sounded cool? By getting them to articulate their request, they might even realize on their own that they’re asking for too much. I use this tactic often when clients hit me with vague notes when reviewing a design (like “Can we make it pop?”). By asking a client to elaborate (“Sure! What do you mean by that? What are we envisioning now?”) you’ll often force the client to acknowledge that their request isn’t fair or reasonable, and if you’re lucky they’ll backtrack and give you back the reigns.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. There are two options at that point: ask for more money outright (which can cause friction), or leave the idea on the table while tactfully letting them know that their idea is out of scope and it needs to be addressed separately: “I totally see where you’re coming from. The VR idea is super cool, but I think it’s a bit outside of our current project’s scope. Once we wrap up what we initially planned here we can jump on a call to discuss add-ons separately. This way, we can ensure everything gets the attention it deserves. I’ll add it to a list!”.

You’ve just accomplished a few different things in that response. You’ve told the client “no” (politely, yet firmly), you’ve made them feel good about their bad idea (this one sounds silly, but it’s important), you’ve left the door open for future work, but you’ve also firmly closed the door on out-of scope additions — and most importantly, you’ve set the tone. Setting the tone is great if you can make it happen in the heat of the moment, but even better if you can manage to do so prior to starting a project.


Setting the Tone Early On

One of the most vital aspects of freelancing (and many life situations, for that matter) is setting clear expectations. Before starting on a project, it’s important to set the tone with your client. This isn’t just about establishing a rapport, but also laying down clear expectations and boundaries. Before a project officially launches, take the time to have comprehensive discussions, clarify ambiguities and document every single detail. There is no such thing as being too prepared. 


Client Impatience vs. Quality Work

A lesson I learned when learning how to ride a motorcycle was to not let someone else’s impatience (honking, riding on your bumper, etc) have any effect on you doing your job (driving). The same lesson can be applied to freelancing. It’s not uncommon for potential clients to come to the table with a sweet offer. but won’t seem to give you the time of day. Some are rude about it (“I don’t have time for a call, just do it”), and some might just appear too busy (“Hey I can’t make a call, but I trust your judgement. Let’s see what you come up with!”). It can be so incredibly tempting to bite the bullet and move forward with these types of projects for the sake of making a quick buck. Try to avoid seeing only the dollar signs – but instead focus on the potential headache/time-sink/money loss that a “bad” project could bring. Steve Jobs (I know, I know) has a quote that stuck with me for a long time, and applies perfectly to these scenarios: “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.”. I’m fully aware how difficult it can be to turn money down, especially when you’re just starting out freelancing and projects are few and far between — but trust me, I’d take having a few hundred less dollars in my bank account over sacrificing my mental state any day. 


The True Dynamic

The reality of freelancing is this: the client has the money, and you want it — but the client needs you. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s a more symbiotic relationship than I’m making it out to be, but the day I realized that I was the one providing the real value in the relationship, was the day I realized that I was calling the shots. The freelancer dynamic can be a tough one. You’re applying to the project, you’re answering their questions, you’re hoping and praying they pick you….and while all of that is true (and won’t stop being true), the reality is that they need you more than you need them. Now that doesn’t mean you should puff out your chest and start strutting around like you’re some kind of prize to be won, but it does mean that you should demand (cleverly and politely) an equal ground in negotiations/discussions. If a client is “too busy” to give you the time of day to do work for them, it’s much more likely they’ll be unhappy with the result (because they didn’t bother to think about it beforehand, or articulate what they envisioned) — and it also means they are less likely to appreciate your contributions in the first place.


Design Challenges: Balancing Taste and Trends

We’ve all been there – the client desiring neon green with Comic Sans to “show our company is fun!” Or the feedback from their teenage nephew who suddenly becomes a design expert.

Remember, while design is subjective, guiding your client towards industry standards and best practices is vital. It’s about striking a balance between giving professional advice and honoring client input.

Instead of flat-out telling the client “I don’t think that’s a good idea”, guide them gently. Remember, somebody who is consulting their friends/family/nephews already doesn’t trust you fully as the professional. Respond with “I appreciate the feedback! Additional color can be fun, but based on what we’ve seen with industry trends, it might not convey the professional image e’re aiming for.”.

One thing I’ve learned in sales is that you’re not supposed to sell the idea of the addition of something, but the negative effects of not having it. This applies to design, too. It’s not “it might be too colorful”, but instead “this would look worse than the big competitor that you’re always mentioning you’re afraid of”. Obviously apply a bit of additional tact there, but a little bit of thought and clever wording before firing off a message can go a long way.


Conclusion: The Freelancer’s Tightrope Walk

Freelancing, and being a business owner, isn’t just about doing great work — it’s about mediating and building lasting relationships. Every challenge is an opportunity to strengthen that bond. So next time a curveball comes your way, take a deep breath, channel your inner diplomat, and know that you’ve got this. 

Community Member

It is very complicated. Want to say no - just say no. 👌

Mykola, I read your post from 2023 regarding 'Fake Jobs,' and I think we both need to establish an agency with the motto of 'Helping each other until Upwork takes notice of Fake Jobs and internal black sheeps' 

 until Upwork takes notice of Fake Jobs and internal black sheeps' 


Any guesses on when that might happen?

I'm thinking maybe In the Year 2525.



hey James, thank you for sharing such a beautiful song 😃


Community Member

I am thinking about what kind of prompt you would have given to ChatGPT to write such a lecture. 🤔

Community Member

Thanks ChatGPT...

Latest Articles
Top Upvoted Members