The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Three Situations where I turned down freelance work

Turning Down Clients
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.

First, 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 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. – Sean McCabe via seanwes podcast 055: Preserving Your Sanity by Creating Margin

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

No one enjoys saying “No” to a client, but last week in a single day I had to turn down three 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.

The Good – Understanding

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!

The Bad – Uncooperative

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.

The Ugly – Confrontational

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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  • Just wanted to say… Another superb article, Brent! I love how you illustrate the three situations with the email excerpts! Keep up the good work! You’re helping a lot of fellow freelancers here! :)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tomas. Your continued support really means a lot! :)

  • Great post Brent! I can’t believe how rude the “seriously?” client was. I wouldn’t have responded to him at all.

    It’s amazing how crappy people treat designers, the dime-a-dozen mentality some people have is really hurtful. I’ve had a lot of the same bogus replies through my previous email forms too – it’s certainly a good way to fish out the problem clients early.

    A bit of advice I’ve found helpful is to never be too apologetic in sticky situations. I like to preserve my authority by trying to avoid the word ‘sorry’ altogether. I’ll usually replace it with, “thanks for your understanding” or “I appreciate your patience” instead of “Sorry for the late reply” etc

    Agreed, keeping honest is definitely the best!

    • Great advice, Mitch! For myself it can sometimes be hard to remember that I shouldn’t use the word “sorry.” Especially since I did nothing wrong. Thanks for taking the time to read and share! :)

    • Indie Design Haus

      Great suggestion on avoiding the use of “sorry” — one that I will be sure to apply to my own freelance communications!

  • Great article Brent.

    I appreciate the transparency of your communications on project requests. This should help other freelance creatives better handle the refusal of projects. It’s never easy to say no to a project, but if you’re not saying “hell yes” the only answer for the benefit of everyone involved should be a “no”.

    The last example you gave was rather interesting. Frankly, I would have suggested they use 99designs or whatever spec work site they prefer. There’s no need for people to take such an attitude after you’ve been as professional as possible.

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  • Excellent article, Brent! You definitely responded in a very professional way to each client. I was looking for advice on this subject and I’m so glad you wrote about it. Thank you!

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  • Deepesh Chetariyil

    You have neatly laid out each damned scenarios, heart wrenching ones too. You’re right, it’s hard sometimes to turn down some or even lots of work because of the above reasons, but according to something that I read in a tweet, since we have to be free with our Lance, we cannot let certain clients dictate out style of work which eventually jeopardizes the style and flow with which we work.

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  • Great article Brent. And some good advice on your site. I wanted to comment about you one confrontational buyer. I have learnt over the years freelancing, that this kind of client is growing by the day, because of what they expect when paying out for something. These guys are always the cheapest, and expect the most for it. And they will always make the project a massive headache along the way!

    I personally would have sent him a reply as to why he will not be getting my services. Because of his attitude to work with, and the fact that he will not be able to afford me. But I admire your restraint in not saying anything!

    Keep up the great posts!

  • Great read! I love seeing things you normally don’t get to read about when it comes to freelancing, like how others deal with clients and their communication. I recently had a client that drove me up a wall but the job was paying very well.. Then after he paid me I never heard from him again! I’m relieved because he was annoying but also wonder why he just went AWOL. Who knows, maybe I’ll hear from him in a year lol!

    • Hopefully you don’t have to deal with that client again, but like you said, you never know if he’ll be back next year! :D

      I’m actually writing an article right now, sharing a recent experience with a client trying to negotiate my rate. They went from asking for a 50% less cost, to 25% less cost, then to accepting the full original price! I’m most excited to share the emails that were sent. Those seem to be well-received by everyone.