Learning to say NO (to bad freelance projects)

Learning to say NOThe word “NO” may be one of those forbidden words in the vocabulary of most freelance designers.  We may be used to hearing it from time to time from prospective clients or recruiters, but actually saying “no” to someone is something we seldom do.  Why is that? For me, I’ll say it’s because deep down I’m in business to help people.  It’s not all about the money – though the money is a factor. Really it is about helping people understand why they need my services, and how I can make their dreams come true.  Essentially fulfilling a worthy need.  This comes with strings that may be harmful to that blissful and wonderful life we know as a freelancer though. Let me explain why.

There are a growing number of design freelancers out there either straddling the line of full time or part time work, and the main dream is to one day only work for self. In working for self, there are some preconceptions about how tasks and work will be from day to day. This may include getting up a bit later in the morning, watching the news, going to the gym, hours or work, quick snack for lunch, then more hours or work into the wee hours of the night. Sprinkle in some emails, phone calls, social media engagement, and research; and that would complete a typical day.

Here’s where things can go wrong. When you’re currently juggling a few projects and a new prospect is eager to work with you and ready to pay – but their project isn’t really within your scope of work or expertise.  Obviously you want to take the job because you’re thinking of the money and maybe some bills it would pay, or new iPad you’ve been craving.  I won’t call it greed, but you accept the job. Things seem to be ok at first, but after a few days or weeks the project takes a turn for the worst.  The client is very needy or lacks feedback you need to continue.  Their requests are over your head and out of your know-how. You’ve spent entirely too much time contemplating how to do or what to do. And my favorite, you’re now running behind on your other projects that are completely within your realm of service.

By now you’re thinking, “I shouldn’t have taken this assignment.” Hence, you should have said “NO.”  I’m here to tell you its quite ok to just say no to a project. The level of stress you endure when taking these non-essential gigs can start to ruin your ideal day of work. You remember that blissful feeling you had when you first starting reading this and reflected on your perfect day? Well that’s what keeps you doing what you do.

Here are some tips for saying “no” and being polite about it:

Increase your prices: Provided that you don’t have your prices listed on your website or posted service, you can accept a project, sub-contract it to a known associate that you trust, and still make a little money while retaining a new client.

Delay the project start date: Chances are that client may be looking to get started yesterday. (which is already a bad sign) Explain to them your current workload and defer to a date in 30-60 days. If they’re still interested you can contact them back.  This also works when current projects are about to expire and you’ve got nothing else lined up.

Admit to your limits: This is a bold step here but can be accepted as a humble gesture. Explaining to the client that their project is out of your scope of work and that you wouldn’t want to accept it without full confidence in what you’ll be able to produce in the end.

Offer a recommendation to another freelancer: This may seem like your passing them off, but if you can explain to them softly why they will understand. Especially if the recommended person is an associate of yours that you can make a warm introduction to this client. Now their project can be done with confidence, your associate will be happy with the referral, and you can keep your day bright and shiny.

Bottom line is that you have to respect people when they come to you for work, and also respect your existing clientele to ensure adequate service is kept for them.  One common complain I hear with people I’ve met is that their current or past designer doesn’t seem care about them.  Either by not responding to emails, phone calls, missed deadlines, and more. Word of mouth is so powerful and a kind word goes far; while a bad word goes even further and impacts a lot deeper.  As a freelance designer, we’re a dime a dozen. What sets us apart is our reputation, keep this in mind with the projects you do take and the ones you probably shouldn’t.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated. Please leave a comment and let me know if you agree or have different views.

8 replies
  1. Christopher Adams
    Christopher Adams says:

    Good post Jean. This makes me think of how a Brain Surgeon would not take on a patient who needed their gallbladder removed. I think a lot of businesses think they can do everything for all people but the truth is, stick to what you know. I like the tips you gave about dealing with this. Even if it is in your area of expertise, if you are already overwhelmed with work, taking on a new project when you don’t have the time to commit to it can backfire. If you do a sloppy job, no one will be happy.

    • jpDesignTheory
      jpDesignTheory says:

      You got that right Chris. I heard this phrase not to long ago “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” We don’t always see it this way till we’re neck deep and trying to find things to sacrifice in order to keep on. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Ryan Popovic
    Ryan Popovic says:

    This is a great post Jean. Some advice I hear from a consultant who built a 7 figure business in 18 months: decide on your niche, and provide only 2-3 services. Once you get these down you can always expand. Until then, say NO to everything else. Even if you need the money, even if it’s a high paying job; just say “no”. Stay focused on clients that are in your scope, be laser-focused and you can build a large business quickly. Be scatterbrained and all over the map (shiny-object syndrome) and you will grow much slower, if at all. Thanks for the article!

    • Design Theory
      Design Theory says:

      Hey Ryan, thanks for commenting! You know I have heard about that strategy too. Kind of along the lines of being a “Jack of all trades, but a master of none.” Being focused is such a big lesson to learn and something to practice daily too. Oh and I will admit to the “shiny object syndrome too. I will say this though, now having a team of people working with me that are great in their respective services helps me to keep focused on what I’m best at. When it was all on me it was at times challenging to keep focused and fully productive.

  3. David Yarde
    David Yarde says:

    Great article Jean, I particularly agree with your last point. Collaboration with other freelances makes handling such situations that much easier.

    Focusing on what you’re good at also helps you stand out as a leader in your niche market.

    The best benefit is avoiding a mess of a situation, because the project couldn’t get your full attention.

  4. Sally
    Sally says:

    Wow, I just finished my first freelance design project (creating 50 books) and I wish I read this article before I did this 2-month project (that was supposed to take 1 month).

    I had a proposal, a contract (the general: 3 meetings for revisions, drastic changes = $, delays in project production because of client = $, etc), and after approval, gave him the prototype. He wanted a drastic change. I charged him more. He approved and asked for 10 books. I gave him 10 books. He wanted a slight change that required me to take apart the 10 books. I charged him more for my time spent creating the 10 he had originally approved.

    I finish the book. The night before handing it in to him, he has his assistant call me asking for a change that required me to change something in all 50 books I had just completed. This call was at 11PM at night.
    I said no.

    That’s right, I said no!
    I explained to the assistant through a quick text message (as she texted me from time to time about the changes – informal messaging… should this be included in consultation charges in the future?) that it was very late and outside my working hours and this small change is not necessary or worth it for me to do.

    Note, this small change was about a changeable text in the book (printed on a piece of paper to be inserted into a sleeve in the book: he had originally requested this because he wanted the text to always be changing). This changing and updating the text was not my responsibility as a designer but his employees. My responsibility was the book and how it displays the text. I did the first printing of the text as a favor (for a small fee).

    The next day, I hand in everything, he is happy with the design but angry with the text and blamed everyone (including me) who hadn’t looked over the text because there were changes he had requested that weren’t done.

    He finally pays me and says he wasn’t happy with how I handled my business and to go get my money, “I don’t owe you anything.”
    I wished him a good day as he was just impossible to work with in general (20+ employees of his have left his company within the last year and he’s gone through 10 assistants in the last year) so there was no reason for me to say anything more. It wouldn’t have made a difference.

    An hour after picking up my check, I receive a call from his asst who says “Never mind, we’ll just email you. It’s about the check.”

    This was Friday. I never got an email.
    Then today, Tuesday, I get an email from his other assistant (yes, he has two now) asking where I purchased the materials (specifically the pages and cover materials).

    This whole ordeal left a very bitter taste in my mouth and just made me feel stressed and bad not only as a designer but as a person.

    I don’t want to deal with them anymore. Do I have to tell them where I purchased my materials? Am I legally obligated to?

    • Design Theory
      Design Theory says:

      Hi Sally! First of all thank you for commenting! Your message has a LOT of points to be discussed. First I love how you said no to that last minute revision after things were finalized. I think I read your comment about twice and will probably read it again just because it seemed so real. We’ve almost all been through the same thing. To answer your question though, unless you specifically are obligated to inform him on where or how you sourced your materials in your contract; don’t bother. I know it sounds a bit mean, but you don’t owe him/them a thing further. Especially since the transaction and end result went sour. Regardless of his business ethics, you still should guard yourself and your business. Keep your contract fresh and revise it often, especially when you experience clients like these. They’re great for learning, but difficult to live and work through.

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