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I know that the whole premise of the title of this post seems counter-intuitive. When you’re building your business, you would think that you would want to take every client that you could get. The truth is, sometimes this just isn’t the case. It is important to understand that your time is valuable. Not every client that walks through the door is going to be worth your time. In this post, I’m going to cover when to say no to clients.

When to say no to clients

Say No To Clients When You Already Have Enough Work

Your first instinct might be to say that you never have enough work. I know you may think that you can just work and work and work and never stop, but you are delusional. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve made this mistake before, and stretched myself so thin that I couldn’t get enough sleep at night. I didn’t have time to go to bed and sleep like I’m supposed to.

Knowing and acknowledging when you are at your limit is an important aspect of owning your own business. If you are already at your limit, and you take on more work, the project will end up suffering. Your business can also suffer, because you can’t devote the time necessary in order to do the project right. Most likely, your new client will not be satisfied with your work.

A better solution is to have a network of trusted designers that you can pass projects off to when you are overwhelmed. You could easily say “I would love to work on your project, however I can’t devote the necessary time that your project deserves. I do have a trusted colleague that may be able to handle this for you.” On Sitepoint, Alyssa Gregory discusses saying no to clients with tact. When you do this, you keep from earning a bad reputation, because you’re not producing poor work, but you are referring clients to someone who will do a good job. Being able to hand a project off to another designer, means that they will owe you a favor later. They may pass off a project to you during slow times, which is essential for keeping a steady flow of work coming in. Designers do this all the time, and it’s a great way to network.

Say No To Clients When They Don’t Value Your Work

Eventually, you’ll run into clients that don’t value your work or your time. They may start off as a regular client, but eventually they end up showing their true colors. They may start trying to shave money off of the end price, or they may ask you to do things without charging for them. Don’t get sucked into this. Be firm with clients, and make sure that they understand that they don’t run the show.

Owning your own business is wonderful, but there are some times where you have to handle unpleasantries. I’ve only had to send a client packing a couple of times, but it was worth it in the end. If clients don’t want to pay for your work, and their upfront about the fact that they don’t agree with your prices, this is a red flag. This means that they really don’t value your work.

When to say no to clients: Monopolize your time

Say No To Clients When They Tried To Monopolize Your Time

There are some clients that don’t realize that you handle more than one project at a time. There are others that note this, even after you explain it to them, and they still feel like they can consume your entire day. They feel like you should be at their beck and call, because they are paying you to handle the project. This is not the case. I’ve had clients call me or email me 10 to 20 times in one day. It’s important to handle the situation, so that you can focus on all of your projects, not just theirs.

Ways to avoid this are:

  • Set strict office hours and stick to them.
  • Don’t respond to after-hours emails until the next day.
  • Don’t answer the phone every time they call. It’s ok to let them leave a voicemail.
  • Make sure they understand that they must schedule a meeting.
  • Do not correspond over the weekend.
  • Bill them (and make them aware of this) every time you meet.

Set boundaries, so that clients don’t eat up your entire day. You have to be able to perform your other duties. You have to attend meetings, work with other clients, and actually do some design work throughout the day.

When to say no to clients: Steal Design Work

Say No To Clients When Clients Ask You To Steal Other Design Concepts

I’ve had this happen, too. It’s okay to creatively borrow, meaning to let other designers’ work inspire your own. Everyone does that. You cannot blatantly steal other designers’ work. This is a huge no-no, and you shouldn’t even be considering it. Make sure that clients know that you operate with integrity, and that your design solutions are created specifically with their business in mind. It’s okay to be inspired, but you don’t want to be a thief. This will kill your reputation, and no other designers will want to work with you. On A List Apart, Whitney Hess talks says “Sometimes the best way to say no to bad design is not to take on the project in the first place.”

When to say no to clients: no contract

Say No To Clients When Clients Want You to Work Without a Contract

This should be an instant red flag. Any client that one should work without a contract, or refuses to sign one, may have the motive of getting you to do the work and then skipping out on the bill. Just like people that go to a restaurant and pull an eat-and-run, some clients will try to do this with your design work.

Say No To Clients When Clients Want You To Do Spec Work

You wouldn’t go to a mechanic and tell them that if they fix your car and you like the work, then you’ll pay them, would you? The same goes for your own work. Don’t do spec work for people. Make them pay you for your time, even if it is for general concepts. The concepts are your ideas, and they took time to generate. They also take time from your other work, so it is important that you charge for them. Spec work devalues our industry as a whole, so it is important to boycott it.

Say No To Clients Conclusion

It is important to understand when to say no to clients. There are times when you need to say no to clients, so that you can focus on the ones that are worth your time. Every minute of your workday has value, so it is important to maximize your efficiency, so that you can make as much money as possible. When clients overstep their boundaries, and expect too much they can cause a lot of frustration and actually detract from your other work.

I want to hear from you!

What is the situation for you’ve had to say no to a client? How did it go? How did you handle it? I would love to hear your stories, so please leave them in the comments section below.