Just Say No: How to Turn Down Requests to Work for Free

Just say no: Tips for business owners dealing with problem clients

There is no reason why you should ever work for free. After all, you’re a professional and your time is money, and you should always, always, always charge for your work!

But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever be asked to work for free. Sometimes you might even be tempted. It could look like a dream client and a good way to get your foot in the door. Or it could be a valuable existing client who keeps pushing for more, and you’re worried about losing a lucrative account.

In these cases, a simple “no” might feel a bit abrupt. You don’t want to burn bridges, after all. So how do you stop clients from expecting free work, without jeopardizing your relationship with them? Let’s have a look.

With New Clients: State Your Policy, But Also Your Value

You get an email from a prospective client. Your heart starts racing when you realize it’s dream work for a client you’re dying to work for. But the catch: They can’t pay you. Maybe they promise “exposure” or even hint this might be the start of more…

What do you do?

It helps to have a template response to requests to work for free (and to spend some time thinking about your own policy). You might, for example, decide you will do a certain amount of free work for not-for-profits as a give-back to your community.

But when a large commercial client asks you to work for free, it’s worth having a standard response that asserts your rates. This e-book from FreshBooks has some starting points (for this conversation and others).

But don’t leave it there. Explain the value of your work not just in terms of what it costs, but in terms of what it delivers for them. Here’s an example:

Thank you for reaching out! I would love to work with you on this project.

My policy is to do free work for not-for-profit organizations, but for businesses like yours, I always charge for my work. I’ve attached my rate card/estimate for your information.

What will you get in return? You can expect stellar [assets] that drive outstanding [results] for your business. Similar work I did for [clients X, Y, Z] yielded [quantified results].

With Existing Clients: Set Expectations from the Start

Early and often is the rule of thumb for managing your clients’ expectations. Think of it as training: On the first few projects you take on with a new client,  be a tyrant about scope creepy requests.

This is where strong documentation can help. Set yourself up to make this easy by providing a clear estimate or proposal from the start of every new request or project. That way, when they ask for something more, it’s clear whether the item is covered in that scope of work.

Project estimates help you take the guesswork out of client relationships. They provide a breakdown of services, costs and project length. More importantly, they kickstart good practices and ensure everyone grasps the work involved.

Be diplomatic to preserve the relationship. Take a moment to explain the time and resources it would take to complete their request so they understand it in clear dollars and cents.  This way they feel like they have a choice in the matter and can either agree to fork out or forgo the request.

Making Exceptions: Don’t Nickel and Dime a Good Relationship

While charging for work is important, it’s equally important to identify when offering a freebie might be advantageous.

You want to build lasting, positive client relationships. You don’t want your clients to think you’re someone who quibbles over every penny. So, be reasonable, maintain a long-term view, and be willing to let things slide. Consider that sometimes you stand to gain more in the long term from that interaction—that single freebie or favor—than you would from the initial monetary benefit.

One practical way to execute this and show your generous spirit in the name of building that relationship (but make it clear a charge would normally apply) is to add a discount to your invoice.


There’s nothing wrong with giving a loyal client a freebie. But it becomes problematic when the client starts expecting it. And, if you’re not careful you may find yourself doing massive amounts of “free” work with no money to show for your efforts.

Failure to correct this situation may lead to resentment. And that’s not fun. Thankfully, fixing the situation is easy, and you don’t have to burn bridges with the client. Just take charge and train them to stop expecting it.

Do you have clients who expect free work? How do you deal with it?

We hope you don’t need these, but if things get out of hand, here are some tips to help you break up with a client.

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Tags: Customer Stories