Saying “No” and Keeping the Client Relationship

There are times in your freelance career when all of your clients seem to converge on your at once.  All of them needed a fast turnaround. All of them have gotten quick responses from you before. And none of them knew you were in the middle of a project that was sucking up time faster than a Shop-Vac sucks up dust bunnies, on a project that demanded focus and came with a tight deadline.

NoYou beg off two projects only to get hurt or angry emails, insisting you help and pointing to some guilt lurking off-stage that guarantees wincing on your part.

Several years ago I accepted too much paying and non-paying work and paid the price of humiliation and unfinished, promised work. Not wanting to do that again, I gathered up my coaching stamina and skills. . .and stayed up till 3 a.m. for three nights doing everything so people would like me. Damn. Personal growth can be a bitch.

Here’s what I learned. (I hate learning while it’s going on; afterwards, it’s always worthwhile. But when i see a learning experience coming on, I cringe.)

–People who don’t do your work invariably underestimate how much time and effort is involved. You cannot explain it because they don’t want to listen, they want results.

–When people ask you to re-write something,  they think it will take 10 minutes. It doesn’t. It takes 3 hours. When you open the email request,  send back an email that says, “This will take me 3 hours, and I can get to it next week. Is that all right?” When you get back an email that says, “I thought it would take 10 minutes, I just want you to glance at it and give me advice,” reply, “Nope, that’s 3 hours. Next week OK?” The key is to stick to the time it will take you and when you can get to it. Let the requester decide if that fits their deadline. If they tell you they need it sooner, you can honestly say you are booked. That’s the point where you started.

–In an ideal world, people get their work done before the deadline. In my world, I get requests to look at this “right away.” If I’m jammed up myself, I make up bad pictures of them thinking I have nothing to do and how inconsiderate is that? In reality, they aren’t thinking of me at all, they are trying to get something done. Back goes an email, “I’m jammed up right now, I can get to this in three days.” You have to stand up for yourself. Without making up ugly stuff about your colleagues. Just stick to the facts.

If you don’t want to do it, simply say “I can’t take this on right now.” You don’t have to offer more explanation. That’s hard, because we want people to like us and tell us it’s all right. But people are not concerned about what we want, they are concerned about what they want. Which is why they don’t care once you’ve said “no.” It’s amazing how well it works

If only I could follow my own advice. Meanwhile, you are free to try it out.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who is still learning, and plans on making a life out of learning. You can see her work at