When should you turn down freelance work



What I’m about to share with you are three real situations where I turned down freelance work. All three situations were turned down for different reasons and each had a unique reaction from the client.

Why you should start saying “no” to freelance work

You’re going to be tempted to take on every project that comes your way – especially if you’re just getting started or are hurting for the money. I know this because it’s how I felt for a long time, but believe me, it’s not worth it.

There are many reasons why you should turn down a freelance project:

  • The client’s budget is too low
  • The project timeframe is too short
  • The project is morally or ethically questionable – making you feel uncomfortable
  • You’re already too busy with other work
  • You don’t like the type of work or the client’s way of working

In any of these cases you may want to turn the work down. However, no one likes rejection, so the delivery of your decision to the client must be handled carefully.

Stay calm and collected when responding back. Don’t go the easy route and lie to the client, rather, explain your situation and explore an alternate solution if possible.

Here are a few useful phrases to help you respond back to your client:

  • “Thank you for reaching out. Unfortunately I’m booked with other projects at this time…”
  • “I’m currently up to my nose in work right now. However, I’d be happy to forward your details to another reliable designer…”
  • “I appreciate your interest in working with me, however, after reviewing your project requirements I’m not sure I’m the right fit for the job…”

It’s difficult to turn down work, but saying no means saying yes to something else. There’s an opportunity cost associated with everything you take on.

Every commitment you make is taking up your time, so you need to delegate A what’s on your plate, and leave margin for new opportunities to come.

It helps to strictly stick to your specialty. For example, if you’re a logo designer, don’t take on a presentation design project.

You have to say no to a lot of good things in order to be able to say yes to a lot of great things.

How to turn down freelance work

No one enjoys saying “No” to a client, but last week in a single day I had to turn down tlhree new inquiries. All three situations were turned down for different reasons and each had a unique reaction from the client. I hope you’re able to pick some useful information from these situations.

Turning down understanding clients

I received a new entry on my website from a very nice person asking if I’d like to help build a solid template for their sales presentation.

Here’s a blurb from their email:

I’m looking for a designer to help us with a solid template for our sales presentations. We need something sleek, professional, and engaging. We’re starting at ground zero and trying to get the content collected at this point. […] If this is something that interests you, let me know.

I could have definitely helped design their template, however, sticking to my specialties and keeping margin for other opportunities I had to turn it down.

Also, I had some major projects coming up, so I couldn’t devote much time to this.

The client did give me a concise brief and was polite in reaching out to me, so I still wanted to help them in anyway I could.

Here’s how I responded:

Thank you so much for reaching out with your project. I’m currently up to my nose with work and side projects so I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the time to devote to your project. However, I’d be more than happy to forward your details to one or two other potential designers. I’ll do a bit of screening to make sure they’ll be able to deliver, and again, I’ll only forward the details to one or two people so you’re not bombarded with emails from designers.

Let me know if that sounds good to you.

Sorry I wasn’t available at this time. If you ever need help in the future please don’t hesitate to reach back out. I’m here to help any way I can.

I’m never sure how a client will respond to me turning their project down, or if they’ll reply at all.

But I was pleasantly surprised with their response:

Awesome, that’d be great. We’re just looking for a great template at this point.

So I sent out some tweets looking for able freelance designers and forwarded the project onto someone more willing and available to take it on.

A win-win situation for everyone!

Turning down uncooperative clients

Typically I receive new logo projects from my project brief forms (found on my contact page).

In order to provide an accurate project estimate I need quite a bit of essential information up front, and I make this clear during the process.

If a client is looking for something quick, they’re free to simply use my contact form instead.

This specific client needed quick information, but chose to use my logo brief form…

On every required text field they filled in, “Seriously?”

That’s it… Then in the final text area, they said:

That’s way to much information to require for a request for information. It’s my Dad’s business, they’ve been in business for over 25 years. I really just need a logo with the name of the business. Something simple and appropriate for a high end business.

Their problem wasn’t with the form, but was not doing any research on who I was or how I work.

They demanded what they “needed” to be done, but didn’t want to invest in any time to work with me.

That’s not how I do things, and that’s ultimately why I turned them down.

Here’s my response back:

Before starting any logo project it’s essential for me to gather the necessary amount of information from you. This helps pave the way to a successful project, assists in bringing your ideas into perspective, and builds a better working relationship. Ultimately, the questions in the brief will help me in putting together an accurate quote for you.

I’m always looking to improve, so I’ll take your feedback into consideration and try to simplify this process. Regardless, I appreciate you taking the time to reach out.

Unfortunately at this time I’m unable to take on your project. If you’d like I could forward your project details to another potential, well-qualified designer that may be able to work with your project requirements. Let me know – I’m here to help in any way I can.

Thanks again for reaching out.

Remember, all they gave me to work from was, “Seriously?”, a deadline of “ASAP”, and a budget of “Seriously?”


They followed up with:

Right, If I had put a lot of time into filling that out just so you could tell me you didn’t have time to help me, I’d be far more irritated. It’s presumptuous to waste that much of people’s time. Good luck.

Again, they chose the project brief route rather than simply using my contact form.

I had nothing further to say.

Turning down confrontational clients

Last year I worked with this client on a project by project basis doing t-shirt design and mockup work. This client demanded I did “minimal” work on each design, then if their client approved the mockup I’d fully flesh it out and get paid (a very low price.)

I still can’t believe that I wasted even a few hours with this client (basically doing spec work)… However it was a learning experience.

But then out of the blue I get this email:

We spoke about a year ago—

Are you open to new freelance t- shirt designs
and mockups/ proofs??

We are growing and looking for new creative talent

2 types of projects

Basic Mockups/ layouts with our ideas.

Creative Designs your ideas hourly rate with revisions.

Let me know any interest.

From my previous experience with this person (and their lack of literacy), I had zero interest in working with them. Nothing against the person themselves, just their workflow and target market for the work needed.

Sometimes it’s hard for a client to hear the truth, and you can’t really tell how they’ll take it. In this situation I was hesitant in my response back – should I say that I’m too busy to take on the work, or be honest about not liking their project/work flow?

Here’s how I responded:

It’s good to hear from you again.

Unfortunately, I think the type of t-shirt designs and workflow you’re looking for is outside the scope of what I do well.

I appreciate you reaching out, and I wish you the very best of luck with business.

I kept it very short, honest, and professional. I was expecting them to respond back with a, “thanks”, or no reply back at all. However, they didn’t take this very well… Here’s their response:

What you are really trying to say is something like….

If you cant pay my price, I am not interested.

Correct me if I am wrong…!!

We live in a world of Price, Service and delivery.

The market is full of people with your graphic design skills
and services…..

99design, elance, odesk, Mumbai India Design studios
the list goes on and on… Those are your competitors.!!

We are looking to form alliances with graphic designers
who can be paid per job or a percentage of sales on each job
so they are rewarded for the creative talent.

There’s so much I wanted to say back, but for my own good I kept it to myself and never replied back.

I never enjoy turning down work, and sometimes when the client can’t take the rejection, it’s best to leave it be and not respond if not needed.

Do you think I handled each situation well?

What I really want to know is have you had to turn down any clients? I’d love to hear your stories!

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