Saying no can be extremely difficult, especially when you're running your own business. Why? Because you want your clients to keep coming back. You don't want to lose business. You need money. You want good referrals.
But saying "No"is sometimes necessary, both for your psychological well-being, and for the client. When you always say "Yes" to everything asked of you, you will eventually be overwhelmed and overcommitted, your work will suffer, and your clients will notice.
So when do you say no?
- When it's really not feasible for you to take on more work.
Your client LOVES you. I mean, seriously LOVES you. They are constantly coming back for more, asking you to work on this project or that. This is awesome. But you have to maintain your relationships with other clients as well, and a smart freelancer knows not to put all of their eggs in one basket. I have made this mistake. Too many projects equals not enough time to do my best for everyone which equals rework or dissatisfied clients. If working for one client all the time is preventing you from producing your highest quality work for your other clients, say no.
- When the work required is outside your area of expertise.
If you need work, taking on additional projects outside your area of expertise can be tempting. You argue, "I can learn! It will be good for me!" and the client either doesn't know any better, or knows they can get you to do it cheaper. The truth is, however, if you don't do a good job, your reputation will suffer and your client will be unhappy. This is a scenario that happens to me relatively frequently. "Oh, you're a writer and publish books!" they say. Then they hire me to copyedit. Then they want me to design the interior, make the cover, build the e-book… I've given in a couple of times, but this is a case where I should say no. My skills are writing and editing, not design. So, if a client asks you to do something, and you don't really know what you're doing, say no.
- When the client is wrong.
Contrary to popular belief, the customer is not always right. I'm sure you can think of an example of a project you worked on where you were always fighting because the client wanted something that didn't make sense, that was ugly, or that was just plain wrong. Wrong can mean anything--morally, ethically, aesthetically, academically… whatever. The client hired you not only for your skills, but for your expertise, and if you are always a pushover, you risk losing the respect of your client, especially if their project doesn't perform as well as they expected. If you and the client can't agree on what "right" means, this is probably a time to say no.
- When you're not getting paid enough.
I struggle with this the most, primarily because I don't want to risk losing a client or work--and after all, some money is better than none, right? Not necessarily. What if you take a low-paying project, and while you're working on it you have to turn down a better-paying one? I've also noticed when working on low-paid projects, that I'm always rushing to complete it and feel grumpy about the wage--both things that will cause me to produce lower quality work. If you're not getting paid enough for the project, say no.
- When communication sucks.
Communication is critical to the success of a client relationship, and communication can suck for a variety of reasons. Maybe your client never gets back to you, and is really terrible at responding to emails. Maybe they only respond to the first sentence of your emails and don't read the whole thing. Maybe you and your client's brains are in totally different universes, and when they say "red" they mean "crimson" and you think "scarlet" and nothing you do is ever quite... right. You should, of course, always be working to better your own communication, but sometimes it never quite 'clicks'. If you feel like you never really understand what the client is looking for, it may be time to say no.
- When you just can't convince yourself to like them.
Not everyone gets along with everyone, and when you work for a small company or by yourself, you will come into contact with clients that you just don't like. If you've tried working with them, thinking, "maybe it will get better," and it hasn't, it may be time to break up. Sometimes, working with someone you don't get along with will cause you so much stress that it impacts your other work. Sometimes, you drag your feet or produce low quality work because you really can't quite stand them. Don't feel guilty for disliking someone; simply find a polite way to end the contract. Everybody dislikes somebody, and if you don't like them, chances are they don't like you either--so just say no.
Saying no is an important tool in every freelancer's toolbox. You should never be rude or unprofessional, but most clients will understand or at least be professional in return, and more often than not, they will respect you more for being open and honest about your time and capabilities.
Read more about being a freelancer: Tips for Managing Your Freelancing Time.