How do you say “No” to a client?

18 November 2017 | Compass of Design

Darian Rosebrook

15 min read

How do you say “No” to a client?

You might eventually find yourself in a position where you need to say “no” to a

client. Here’s how to do so professionally.

We’re designers because we’re good at making things. We use a lot of our head-space to think of creative solutions to your client’s problems. We use art, math, time, and resources to create something that gets our clients closer to their goals.

The thing is, the world is scarce with people who value the work we do, or even understand what we do and what it achieves.

I run into that from time to time when people ask me if I could just “really quickly design a logo for their site” or like the first inquiry that I had who thought I had agreed to do a design for him and got so angry at me he blocked me on every social media platform…

The world of design won’t always be a nice and forgiving career, but the benefits and positives outweigh the negatives for sure.

I have been thinking a lot about my design business. This has lead to a lot of reading into the business of design, design strategy, ethics, and various topics on building a creative business. I see it as preparation for things that I will face when increasing the number of clients I take on, transitioning out of a day job.

One of the things we will face a lot during our time running a design based business is having a situation where you either have to say “no” to a client or being in a situation where you wish you had.

The cost of saying “Yes”

Let’s start with what happens when you say “yes.”

In the words of Sean McCabe from **seanwes, **he says that the word ‘yes’ is a very expensive word to use. When you agree to do something, you’re actively filling time that you have.

**Time is the most expensive resource you have. **You will continue to find that saying no is the best tool you have to ensure your resource of time is protected and put towards the things that matter.

Gut check

Imagine saying “yes” to taking on a new client, and that client turns out to be such a handful that you wish you hadn’t. What does your gut tell you after agreeing to take them on as a client?

I have been in plenty of moments where I have regretted saying that I’ll do a project for people. For some, the entire client wasn’t a good fit, but out of a mindset of scarcity, I took them on anyway. Other times, it was by underbidding the project, or not setting proper communication or expectations at the beginning. We all learn from our past mistakes.

So what do you need to do?

Stop saying yes to everything.

If you want your “yes” to mean anything, you have to value it.
By being selective, we are actually able to give more power and credibility to our “Yes”

Say “no” early and often

It does make a difference.

In the most recent months, I have found it easier to say no. I have a reason to actually choose what I say because I value my free time.

My free time allows me to spend more time with my Fiancé and Child.
My free time allows me to work on expanding the value of my design community.
My free time allows me to build products and courses.
My free time allows me to unwind and enjoy my periods of rest.

“Say ‘no’ early and often”
— Blair Enns (Win without pitching manifesto)

Our problem is usually one of quality, not quantity.

A number of quality leads we have are usually smaller than the overall leads we get (that is if you’ve even made changes to get more leads from your portfolio). We tend to compensate that lack of quality by taking on as many other clients in as we can.

Imagine, however, the ability to take on fewer clients and be paid the same, if not more for your efforts…

Selectivity is a mark of a professional. One of the defining characteristics, building more credibility and reducing the friction of qualified leads taking you on.

The filter

The easiest mark of having a selection process is the conversations that you have up front. When an opportunity arises, see if you can kill it.

My current filter is my design questionnaire on my website. I’ve had a handful of people (<100) visit my site for So Magnetic, I have received 16 inquiries since the site went live. 9 completely filled the questionnaire out. Those were more qualified leads than I’ve ever had before when I was just using my personal site.

Diving more into the projects allowed me to weed out those projects that still were not a good fit or were better served by other freelancers (projects that were for types of design that I don’t do). This still brings value to the client inquiry because they then have more clarity on what they want, what they need, and who’s best fit to help them.

Helping a client with clarity is never wasted time. You might even get good referrals for being honest in the first place.

Just like our reasons for saying yes, by saying no, we are actually able to avoid headaches later on in the process.

You want to be in pursuit of that “No”.

Need for “No”: Hot pursuit

In order for us to turn down client’s requests, we need to have set parameters on what we actually will take on.

It would make sense to spend some time working on setting parameters for:

  • The type of work you want in your portfolio
  • The persona of client that you want to interact with
  • The level of budget projects you would like to take on
  • How you want to communicate
  • How you handle the scope of work
  • Any part of your process
  • etc

The more you outline in your “ideal client” the easier it is to say “no” to someone who doesn’t fit the bill. Positioning is a big step towards finding those right fits. Something you can do directly from your website.

“Clients are going to assume responsibility for anything that you haven’t purely defined.
It’s your job to set expectations”

So even if the opportunity is right, we still need to be selective with what we choose to take on. By retreating just a little, someone who really does want to continue the project will follow.

“Speak softly and people lean toward you, speak loudly and they will back away.”

Constantly shouting to social media that you’re available really comes across as a hard sell. By playing “hard to get” (in terms of making the client aware you’re selective) the client is more likely to follow you.

Play a strong offense.

But don’t go to war with your clients

It is important to be firm with your “no.”

You can’t hem and haw with declining a request in a very clear and concise manner.

When we have clients that come in that would not be a good fit to work with, (maybe because they’re a family member or anyone else you have decided is not the ideal client), you need to say so explicitly.

You can’t just “get rid” of a client.

So please, for the love of all that is of an elevated sort of manner…

do not:

  • Quote an abnormally high rate:
  • This is a dishonest and arbitrary way of trying to get rid of someone. If you don’t want to work with them, say no. Charging them higher than the rest of your clients based on the fact that you don’t want to work with them just means you’ll have to take on the client if they accept to not be rude and be stuck with a client you didn’t want to work with in the first place.
  • Tell them you’re too busy when you’re really not. E.g. “I can’t at this time”
  • Again, this means that should you then post on social media that you’re taking on new clients, your client inquiry will see right through your BS and put in their request again.
  • In either case above, if they are someone you’d like to work with, consider a retainer fee for their spot on your calendar so that you can work together.
  • Ask them to go through your questionnaire when you already know it’s not a good fit
  • Unless you really do like wasting people’s time for the fun of it.
  • Give any reason outside the truth (probably distilled)
  • Don’t tell them upfront that their project sucks. Don’t tell them that they’re an asshat. But let them know in a professional manner that they don’t fit the profile of clients that you work with.

These are lies, and they will require maintenance to keep up. Avoid the nonsense by being straightforward up-front, and honest.

Do not compromise

Never compromise your professionalism. Never compromise on your ethics. Never compromise on morals. Never compromise on price. Never do work for free in exchange for “Exposure.”

Somewhere along the lines, if you’re running into areas where you are having to consider compromising in these areas, there’s a hole in the process. The beauty of that is because you as a professional have the responsibility and capability to change things.

Though you might be in the situation right now, you can take time after the engagement to audit your process and see why the situation popped up and do something to safeguard against it in the future.

So what do you say?

You be honest. Tell them:

Hey, [name]

Thanks so much for getting in touch. I really appreciate you taking the time to send an inquiry and provide your project information.

I am very selective about the projects I take on. After much consideration with your project request, based on my project criteria, I will have to decline your project.

I do want to sincerely thank you for your time and interest.
If you would like, I do have colleages I can pass your request along to, just let me know.

All the best,

[your name]

Surprise!

“You still have me over here, waiting for you to revise this design for the 8th time”

The client you already have

I know that all of these situations above tend to safeguard us from taking on difficult clients that aren’t a good fit.

However, what happens when you already have a client that is requesting things that you know will be (even just slightly) outside of what you both agreed on?

“But it’s a small change, it shouldn’t take you any time at all”
“I’m the one paying for this project”
“We need to change [date, request, colors, etc]”

Have a conversation first

The thing about being in the client engagement already makes this a very sticky, tricky, and potentially legal battle to fight with clients.

You need to have empathy for where the client is coming from and you need to have conversations around what the client’s expectations are. Maybe the request is a simple misunderstanding, and maybe the request is due to the client needing to take charge.

It’s your responsibility to clear this up and continue the project the best you can.

Be firm

It won’t be easy to navigate having to tell a current client “no” during an active client engagement. For whatever reason, your client has come to you in order to add a detail, start another revision, change the style completely, or go back and change a small thing.

You need to have certain processes in place in order to safeguard yourself from situations like this.

Everything up to this point has been as part of your written or un-written design process, contract, or design proposal.

Somewhere along the way, there was a miscommunication, either you weren’t able to fully understand the client’s vision (or they couldn’t convey it clear enough), or the client misunderstands what you both agreed upon.

The first line of action is to check the request.

  1. Does this request require me to compromise (see the last section) my professionalism?
  2. How much time and effort will this request take to complete?
  3. Is this going to make or break our client engagement?

You need to **check the list above to see if this request is going to be feasible **within the client’s scope of project.

You then need to **audit the request to see if there was any miscommunication **between you two that got you to where you are now.

You may have to tell your client that you cannot do the request **because of processes in place, time restraints, feasibility, ethics. etc. Just **do not lie. Be honest.

If saying “no” to the request makes the client want to break the engagement, you may have to consider 2 things:

  1. Go along with the request (as long as it doesn’t break too much) and fix your process to avoid that in the future. Take this as a clear example of what to avoid/fix for future engagements.
  2. Have a sit down with the client, redo the project discovery to get a full and complete picture of where the client was expecting the project to go, if any goals have changed, clearing up any misconceptions and then starting the process from there with a new proposal and contract.

If it will break the engagement, and it will compromise your integrity as a person, professional, or a designer. Don’t let it devalue the work we do as designers. Tell the client no. Firmly. And that the course of action is to continue with the project as planned, or to stop the project entirely.

Seek outside help

Having someone outside of the situation to go to can be of great help when looking for advice. Whether it be a mentor, someone you can go to for legal advice, colleagues, other designers, you might be able to get help with navigating the situation.

These situations aren’t easy to navigate at all.

If you want help, we have a community of designers from UX, UI, Web, Graphic, Data, Print designers, along with developers of sorts who have all had experience with the aspects of client work.

In the end

Taking time to put processes in place in order to avoid these situations will be your best armor for avoiding these situations entirely. But eventually, there’s going to be a situation where you have to say “no.”

Say so with a firm, clear, and consise manner that is professional. Don’t burn bridges. Remember that word of mouth is still your biggest ally in client work, and your professionalism on how you handle these situations will determine whether that word of mouth helps you or hinders you when searching for new clients to work with.

Don’t be afraid to tell a client no in order to protect the value of your work and the work of every other designer out there in the world.


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Darian Rosebrook

Brand Identity Designer for @itssomagnetic, running a design community at @compassofdesign. I write to help others grow their skills as designers.

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