Drawing boundaries: How to say ‘No’ to clients effectively

8 min read
Nathan Reimnitz

Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill, and a particularly delicate one for self-employed freelancers. For some freelancers, turning down a client or even just imagining a time when they'd say ‘No’ to clients in the first place can be pretty scary, and even anxiety-inducing. If that sounds like you, then you’re in the right place.

Maintaining boundaries and saying ‘No’ to clients doesn’t have to be a negative experience, but will in turn empower you as a professional and your business.

As freelancing professionals, from time to time we’ll find ourselves in situations where our expectations are not directly aligned with our client’s. The nature of freelancing means there will in fact be times you need to turn down a client for various reasons.

There are countless ways to have a boundary setting conversation. But regardless of which side of the relationship any misalignment stems from, once you’ve identified the disconnect between your client’s expectations and your own, the next step is always the same – it’s time for you to say ‘No.’

You’ve already established your expertise as a creative professional, so finding professional ways to say ‘No’ to clients will become one of your most useful, boundary-setting tools. We’ll lay out a few catch-all examples so you can either learn for the first time, or just sharpen, your resolve to say ‘No.’

Whether you’re a designer, web developer, writer or any other creative career in which you’re the sole practitioner, it’s up to you to create and maintain those professional boundaries that will serve both your values and goals as a business, as well as your clients.

Why is learning to say ‘No’ to clients so important?

Being your own boss as a freelancing professional puts you in a unique space where there are few written expectations other than your own – especially when it comes to project/client selection, pay, and scheduling. In this space, you have the priceless benefit that your clients aren’t always right.

But you’re still a professional, and you must act accordingly.

Take a step back to evaluate your current boundaries with your clients:

  • Do you accept or respond to calls long outside your hours?
  • Do you often find yourself providing consulting hours or work for free?
  • Do your clients change the scope of the work on you in the middle of the work?
  • Are the deadlines you set missed or ignored when your client needs to provide access or feedback?
  • Did you take on a job you didn’t have time for just because it was a favorite client?

While you may not like that you answered ‘Yes’ to more than one of those questions, your current client relationships will in fact tell you everything you need to know about where you’re needing to draw your boundaries the most to be the most effective in your business.

Even freelancers who perfectly set precedents ahead of time can still run into situations where clients push boundaries beyond the limits.

One example is becoming a ‘yes-man’ in your professional relationships. While you may want to say ‘Yes’ to each and every request from a client, doing so can be a slippery slope to an overloaded schedule and even underfunded projects.

Being a ‘Yes-man’ could mean taking on too many clients simultaneously, instead of saying ‘No’ when you already know you’re at capacity. This could be detrimental to all of your relationships since you simply won’t have the time or resources to properly devote yourself each to their projects.

Another example could be a long-time, favorite client who requests additional work outside the agreed upon scope. Working outside of what has been agreed upon in the beginning of the relationship means you’re instantly affecting your pay.

Your value to your client is not going to be what they are able to get out of you for free. Clearly set your expectations for your clients, then work within those guidelines.

Learning to say ‘No’ to clients more effectively

By now you already know where the disconnect with your client occurred, so now it’s time to address it. Remind yourself often – “Ready, Aim, Fire” is more effective than “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

Before you say ‘No’ to a client for whatever your reason, it’s going to be important you have a gameplan for the conversation in place.

So what do you do first? You first have to ask yourself the question, “What is my desired outcome with this client?” In other words, is this actually a client you’d want to work with if your expectations were aligned?

Depending on whether or not you want to move forward with your client, boundary conversations should always be polite and professional. This helps avoid any misunderstandings and ultimately keeps the door open to working together on future projects, should that be your choice.

Just remember that you are a human freelancer, and your clients are human, too.

The easiest way to getting a ‘No’ across to your client is by following a version of the Golden Rule. Yes, simply saying ‘No’ to clients the same way you’d like to be said ‘No’ to if the roles were reversed, works.

Always maintain your professionalism, even if your client has not. You can’t fight fire with fire. Following this simple rule will help minimize your stress and best position you for success.

Being polite encompasses more than just the language you choose. You also need to be patient and intentional to your client’s needs. Often, client’s don’t completely understand their problem they are experiencing, which understandably causes frustration. Trying to rush through several responses too hastily isn’t going to help you or your client.

Instead, take your time and craft your responses specifically to what needs to be addressed, and in using the least technical language possible. If they can’t understand your technical responses, the chances of frustration compounding go up.

Plus, you don’t need to use a bunch of fancy technical language just to prove you are the expert. Understanding their problem is what got you hired in the first place. Instead, try replying to their needs in plain English. You’ll find it’s an effective way to reduce the friction, especially since you’ve done it politely.

Three must-have items in every boundary-setting conversation

At this stage, you are aware of the boundary that needs to be reinforced with your client, your game plan is set for the future of the business relationship, and you’re ready to politely and professionally discuss the issue at hand.

Regardless of your interest level in the work, always thank your client for considering you for their project. This starts the conversation off on a good note, and doesn’t necessarily reveal to the client that you might not be working with them on this project or in the future.

The next step in the conversation is where you make your point concisely and professionally using as little technical language as possible to avoid the additional frustration flare-up. Be clear in how you address the boundary, and leave no room for interpretation.

Saying, “I don't usually take calls outside of business hours...” tells a client that you are in fact willing to bend your rules. Try instead, “My hours are as follows, and all requests outside that window are answered within 24 hours.”

Would you find it odd that a grocery store enforced it’s business hours and didn’t let you shop after they had closed? No, you’d simply accept you missed the window, return the following day, or simply find another solution. The same goes for you. People expect boundaries, and they will respect them if you ask.

Those who don’t are the reasons boundaries exist.

Your final point in the conversation is where you suggest an alternative which will ultimately resolve the boundary issue and keep everyone moving forward. Alternative solutions can look like amended timelines or deadlines, additional funding that’s needed for a current project, or a referral to another freelancing professional in your network who may be a better fit for the project.

No matter what that reason is, this shows your client you are still trying to help them even if you won’t be helping them yourself.

Conclusion: Saying ‘No’ doesn’t have to be a negative experience

When it comes to saying ‘No,’ the secret sauce is being able to have three goals for the conversation:

  1. To be genuine in thanking the client before saying ‘No.’
  2. To be professional, sympathetic, direct, yet non-technical.
  3. To have an alternate solution ready for the client if you can’t help.

Turning down a client can seem like a difficult task, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping it simple and professional should avoid misunderstanding and keep the door open to future collaboration. It’s also good to remember that not every client is out to take advantage of your boundaries.

Consistency in your message will ensure your boundaries hold, and will pave the way for new ones as your needs change.

The boundaries you create are well-intended and serve a purpose for you and your business. Empower yourself by occasionally re-evaluating and evolving your guidelines, and keeping in check that you’re maintaining them.

Your value to your clients is at its greatest capacity when you are working comfortably within your boundaries, and your clients have a clear understanding of them.

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