When you work as a freelancer, it can be tempting to accept every client who comes your way. You most likely rely on winning clients to make money and pay the bills, so it’s tempting to agree to work with any client who requests your services. But if you’ve ever worked with a difficult client or on a bad project, you’ll know that not all projects are worth the money. In fact, they end up costing you more in time, effort, and patience in the long run. So, how do you politely turn down a client?
The cop out
Best for: This reason works best when you’re not interested in the project being offered, and you don’t want to hurt the client’s feelings.
When you get a request from a client and don’t want to work with them, the simplest and easiest way to turn them down is to tell them you’re busy. You’re currently committed to other projects and don’t know when you’ll next be available. This way, the client doesn’t take it personally.
The risk: You run the risk that the client may be willing to wait for you. Or if they think you’re just busy at the moment, then they may approach you in the future to see whether you’re available.
Best for: This reason works best when the client is difficult to communicate or work with, especially if you’ve worked with them before and the project didn’t go well.
If you tell the client the truth, then they at least understand the actual problem. They get the opportunity to improve—maybe not to work with you, but to ensure they have a better working relationship with other freelancers. This way, you’ll be doing a favour to your fellow freelancers too.
The risk: You may initially upset the client by being honest with them, so you risk getting an unpleasant response.
Better for others
If you tell a client that you’re busy but you actually have reservations about working with them, it doesn’t resolve the underlying problem, because they’re not aware of the true reason you’re declining the work. For example, I once made a potential client aware that his communication style during our preliminary discussions was very rude, and that I didn’t want to work with him because of it. I could have said I was busy, but then he wouldn’t have been aware of his behaviour and the next freelancer he approached would have to deal with his rudeness.
Better for you
If you make the client aware of their behaviour, you might find that they’re willing to change their approach to secure your services, in which case you could lay some ground rules for future work. I once worked with a client who was very disorganised, and when he requested my services again, I made him aware that I couldn’t work that way and gave him a few examples of the disorganisation. He took the feedback on board and agreed to change. In the next project, he was very organised and professional, and I gained a great long-term client.
How to be honest
Of course, being honest doesn’t mean that you have to be brutal. Instead, give the client honest, kind, and constructive feedback that their behaviour isn’t something you can work with. For example:
- “Unfortunately, I don’t feel that our working styles suit each other, as I like to work in a very methodical and organised way, but during our preliminary discussions, the information provided was unclear, late, or incorrect.”
- “I prefer a relaxed, harmonious communication style, whereas you seem to prefer a formal, brusque style, so I don’t feel that our communication styles match well.”
- “During our preliminary discussions, I don’t feel that our communication styles suit each other and feel you may be better to find another freelancer.”
- “On our previous project working together, several aspects didn’t run smoothly, for example…”
In other words, focus on their behaviours, not their personality—and you might get an unexpectedly good response.
How have you dealt with difficult or bad clients in the past? Have you ever turned a client down? Comment below or get in touch. Stay tuned for more freelance tips…