Little Lessons #4: Saying No For The Right Reasons

Nubby Twiglet | Saying No For The Right Reasons

When it comes to client work, I have only recently gotten more comfortable with saying no. It’s always been hard because I have a bit of a guilt complex. The last thing I’d want to do is hurt a potential client’s feelings. Email should make it easier and in some ways, it does. But there’s still a human on the other side, reaching out.

It’s only been in the last two years where I even felt comfortable turning down projects. Up until that point, I took on everything I could get my hands on because I needed the real world experience, the income and I knew that each project would teach me something new. I took on the good, the bad and the questionable in a thirst for knowledge. A few projects landed me long-term clients that I still work with over at Branch and filled out my personal portfolio at a time when I spent my days working at agencies on large corporate projects.

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences because they not only taught me a lot about working with different types of clients but they taught me a lot about myself. I learned what I wanted more of. I learned that the sweet spot of Branch was creative small to medium-sized businesses.

Where is all this leading? By now, it should be easier to say no. A few weeks ago, even when I looked at the Branch schedule which was booked solid for at least a month out, I found myself cringing inside as I told my project manager to turn down about five jobs. Saying no still stings but I’ve learned that it is better to be honest.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of timelines. If a client needs something faster than you can offer it to them, be upfront about it. There’s no point in disappointing yourself and them when you can’t keep up. Other times, it’s in an industry you don’t know much about or feel comfortable diving into. That’s okay, too. Take the time to offer some great referrals to other designers you feel would be a better fit. And in some instances, it’s a clash of communication styles — you’re going to be spending a lot of time with clients, even if you’re working remotely so it’s imperative that you mesh well right from the beginning.

If you’re saying no for the right reasons, you should never feel guilty. Every single person who contacts you deserves the absolute best service and outcome of their project. If you can’t make that happen for any reason, be honest. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best for potential clients. It’s nothing personal; it’s a matter of being comfortable enough with who you are to know what you excel at…and what you don’t.

Saying no doesn’t always have to be viewed as a negative — instead, it can be viewed as empowering, honest and straightforward. Don’t just focus on what’s best for you but also what’s best for your potential clients.

Your turn: What are your tips for making saying No sting less?

17 Responses to Little Lessons #4: Saying No For The Right Reasons

  1. David Airey says:

    Hi Shauna, like you, I once thought I needed to say yes to everything. I’d probably earn more if I took on every project that came my way. But not for long.

    Each client would get less of my attention.
    The quality of my work would suffer.
    Client-satisfaction would decrease.
    And I’d get less offers of work in the future.

    So there might be a short-term gain, but definitely a long-term loss.

    • Shauna says:

      David Airey: Your mentality makes complete sense. It helps to see it laid out so clearly. If designers, myself included, thought about this process each time before we accepted a job, we’d all be better off!

  2. Lisa says:

    I freelance outside of my day job and I very recently experienced this same situation with a potential client. The client and I have actually known each other for some time and are friendly, which made turning him down even harder, but I was totally honest in saying that I could not devote the time I felt he deserved for the job that he needed done. It helped that he was very understanding about it. I also felt better just knowing that I could take my time with the work I already had and really focus on it – I don’t feel as stressed or tired as I would have if I had taken on the extra work.

    By the way, just recently discovered your blog – I love it, and these lessons post are so helpful!

  3. Alex says:

    “Saying no doesn’t always have to be viewed as a negative — instead, it can be viewed as empowering, honest and straightforward.”

    This. Saying “no” from time to time means you’re in control of your time and energy – a must if you want to stay sane as a creative/business owner/human.

    A few “red flags” that make me take turning down work a little more seriously –
    • aggressive negotiating of the cost of work/timeframe for completion
    • “I already know exactly what I want!” (though this could go either way, good OR bad, I suppose)
    • major delays in responding to emails

    I definitely wish art schools/courses taught these things in a ‘Creative Pro 101’ kind of course – such rough lessons to learn the hard way!

    • “If you’re saying no for the right reasons, you should never feel guilty. Every single person who contacts you deserves the absolute best service and outcome of their project. ”

      Yes, totally. I feel like when working with others its important to be clear when saying no that you want to be able to give the highest quality work to every project. If you’re over stretching yourself, the quality diminishes and your spirit and enthusiasm drops even quicker. I found that clients, friends, family all understand this and that oddly also come to respect you and your work more (I only say oddly because growing up I thought respect came from taking on more than others)!

      • Shauna says:

        Kat @ I used to think the exact same thing, too. But people really do respect a “no” when it has the right intentions behind it.

    • Shauna says:

      Alex: Thanks for sharing your red flags — I feel like we’ve all been there at one time or another. Every time my gut told me not to agree to a project and I did anyway, it never lived up to mine or the client’s expectations. Live and learn….hopefully the first time. 😉

  4. Emma says:

    This is such great advice. i recently took on a project that I knew wasn’t my style, but it was good experience and I didn’t think it would be too hard to do. It was when I was almost done with it that I realized it was a nightmare project and the client was pretty much evil. Unfortunately you realize that you should have said no when it’s too late! On the plus side- I know something I DON’T want to do!

  5. alicia says:

    I think a challenge as a designer comes with taking on projects you think you can handle and then midway through you realize it is way beyond your skill-set or capabilities. It’s a great learning experience but can also be way stressful and yucky.
    I do some development work myself but earlier this year I decided not to take on full website development projects anymore. I realized that my strong suit really lays in the design aspect of things. I am so thankful for my code knowledge, but I am no pro. Too many times clients would ask me things and I’d half-ass my response or say yes to everything, not realizing quite HOW MUCH work it would be. Plus I’d look unprofessional and like I didn’t know what I was talking about, which was true.
    Now I will happily tell a client that I am not going to be doing the development myself and have turned down projects since. I always love a challenge but being able to focus on the design aspect allows me to create much better work, without the stress of figuring out the development details.
    Therefore my clients get better results, I get to collaborate with developers or refer work to them and much stronger and honest relationships are created :)

    • Shauna says:

      alicia: Totally agreed 100%! I’ve always believed that it’s better to focus and truly drill down to what you’re best at because that’s where your work will excel. People don’t care about the “filler work” — they want to work with the best of the best and if you only show the work you really shine at, that’s what you will get hired for. I know how much work development is and I’ve never dabbled in it because I want to hand my projects off to the absolute best, the pros who really understand the details. There’s no point in half-assing anything!

  6. Veronica says:

    Well, I’ve actually created a script for it, which I use, when I have to say no. Where I try to be as honest but as positive as possible.

    I always try to include in a very honest way:
    1. A huge thank you for getting the request in the first place
    2. That their project sounds exiting and awesome (because it usually is)
    3. Put emphasis on the time and effort aspect – that I would love to be able to give my full attention on it because, as every project – it deserves that. (It’s what I stand for).
    4. However then I go into a brief outline that I’m booked up or whatever the reason is, in a friendly manner – that I have to turn it down.

    Sometimes, if I know someone in my network maybe a good fit for the project, I send their contact details with the reply.

    I always want to be polite, grateful and positive with everyone when I communicate, no matter what I have to say.

    This also helps me with saying no, because it’s so challenging not to slip in to FOMO (fear of missing out) and sometimes I’ve had to say no due to really personal reasons, which really, really hurts sometimes. Then crafting a response along those lines helps me to get over the hurt of having to say no!

    • Shauna says:

      Veronica: I keep a script on hand as well and customize it further for every situation. This is a fantastic outline, thank you for sharing. I am sure your comment will help so many others outline a polite and sincere “rejection” email.

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