Three ways to… say no to a client

What to do when you’re too busy to take on a job? Martin Lee offers practical advice on how to say no. It’s a nice problem to be too busy but you don’t want to lose a client for the future. Here are three ways to say no while making it sound like saying yes.

One of the most galling situations you can face as a small business or one man band is when you’re too busy to take on a job from a client who wants to give you the work. For all that it’s a nice problem to have, the anxiety is that you might lose a client for the future. Here are three possible options for coping with a situation like that.

1. If you can’t sub-contract or freelance the work out, then give a genuine recommendation of someone else that you know will do a good job. (But also make sure that you know that the person you recommend won’t then pinch the client away from you.)

2. If it’s a client you work with often, offer to review the work for free that gets done by your replacement to ensure consistency and quality.

3. If the work has come at a traditionally busy time, perhaps make an offer to them that if they were to commission work from you in, say, January (or any other month when you’re often underworked), that you could give them a preferential rate. This would at least demonstrate goodwill.

Longer term, developing a reciprocal network is the best defence, such that you already know who you can get freelance support from in the case of being too busy to do the work personally.

  1. You mean, I can’t just say, “No! No! No!”


    Thanks for the info, Martin. Equitable is a word that comes to mind.

    Your caveat in 1, however, has burned me many a time, thus my acronym: TNT! (Trust no takers!”).

    Also even-handed is your point 2. But when your replacement does so good a job that your client is loathe to override her work (in fact, your replacement need only do a comparable job), then you’re in trouble. If you then call shotgun, you don’t look like such a nice person — suggesting someone good to fill the gap, only to try to muscle in after the fact. TNT!

    Point 3 is genius – time discounting… I love it. But use it wisely. You may be forced to lower your rates more than you think… “Time discounting” is a phenomenon whereby a desirable result in the future is thought LESS valuable than the same result NOW (for those who don’t know). It can be hard to make your discount attractive to someone psychologically programmed to be suspicious of future values (who knows why we’re like this). Getting 100 euros now is, for most people, better than getting 100 euros in three month’s time. (In fact, 75 euros right now is more attractive than 100 euros in the future.) So it can work against you. (There’s also the growth market principle whereby a growing market makes things less pricey – supplies are more available – so your client’s future business might expect cheaper rates anyway, leaving you exposed.)

    What can I add?

    You say reciprocity is the best defence. In my experience (and at the risk of sounding controversial), I would put it another way: have your clients owe you – always.

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