If you’re self-employed or a freelancer, the very thought of having turning clients away might seem like an unimaginable circumstance. Let’s face it, most of the time you probably don’t know where the next gig is coming from and would gladly jump at the chance of new/more work.
But what can you do when it feels like you’re drinking from the fire hose and can’t take on any more work?
Here are a few tips for turning down new and existing clients, without compromising the relationship you’ve worked so hard to establish.
Turning down new clients
This is a tricky one, no one wants to turn away net new business, but taking on new work when you know you can’t give it your full attention or complete it to your usual standards could be a killer for your business.
The best approach is to be honest. If you really are interested in the work and think the client is a good fit, explain that at this point in time your bandwidth is limited (this will show that you are good at what you do and in high demand). Be clear about when you foresee any openings in your schedule and see if the client can wait. If not, propose taking on a smaller project on their behalf so that they can make a dent in their to-do list, and you have the opportunity to prove your value.
Often, during these initial discussions, new clients are simply trying to gauge what you can do for them and are willing to wait. Those that expect you to drop everything for them are probably not the kind of clients you want anyway.
If they push hard don’t be shy about offering a referral – this shows that you are willing to help, have a problem-solving attitude, and you’ll likely be remembered.
Saying no to existing clients
Great clients will always ask about your availability. If your schedule is fully booked for the next few weeks, be upfront about this: “My schedule is booked for the next two weeks”, and then offer a solution: “If the project can wait, I can definitely help out at a later date.”
If this kind of gentle pushback doesn’t work, go with your gut. Is the client known for being difficult to work with? Do they often give you projects that change scope halfway through? Will taking on the extra work compromise your ability to take care of what’s already on your plate?
Saying no to regular clients tends to be easier, because they already appreciate the value of your work, and quite frankly, know that finding that elsewhere is going to be hard.
Trust your gut
You’re probably seeing a trend here. Freelancers live and breathe by what their gut tells them. If you ever get the feeling that something isn’t quite as it should be, or the client is pushing you too hard, don’t touch it, even if it means turning away a multi-thousand dollar contract. If you’ve been in the business for long enough, you’ll come to realize that your gut instinct is rarely wrong.
The bottom line
Knowing when to turn a client down is a delicate balancing act that gets easier with experience. Weigh up the value of the job against what you’ve already got going on. How much will it bring in? Will it compromise your ability to meet deadlines elsewhere? How do you cope with stress? Can you afford to give up a few evenings and weekends to get the work done?
Turning someone down is the easy part, it’s getting to the point where you’re confident with your decision that takes experience and a little gut instinct.