Learning to say NO (to bad freelance projects)

Learning to say NOThe word “NO” may be one of those forbidden words in the vocabulary of most freelance designers.  We may be used to hearing it from time to time from prospective clients or recruiters, but actually saying “no” to someone is something we seldom do.  Why is that? For me, I’ll say it’s because deep down I’m in business to help people.  It’s not all about the money – though the money is a factor. Really it is about helping people understand why they need my services, and how I can make their dreams come true.  Essentially fulfilling a worthy need.  This comes with strings that may be harmful to that blissful and wonderful life we know as a freelancer though. Let me explain why.

There are a growing number of design freelancers out there either straddling the line of full time or part time work, and the main dream is to one day only work for self. In working for self, there are some preconceptions about how tasks and work will be from day to day. This may include getting up a bit later in the morning, watching the news, going to the gym, hours or work, quick snack for lunch, then more hours or work into the wee hours of the night. Sprinkle in some emails, phone calls, social media engagement, and research; and that would complete a typical day.

Here’s where things can go wrong. When you’re currently juggling a few projects and a new prospect is eager to work with you and ready to pay – but their project isn’t really within your scope of work or expertise.  Obviously you want to take the job because you’re thinking of the money and maybe some bills it would pay, or new iPad you’ve been craving.  I won’t call it greed, but you accept the job. Things seem to be ok at first, but after a few days or weeks the project takes a turn for the worst.  The client is very needy or lacks feedback you need to continue.  Their requests are over your head and out of your know-how. You’ve spent entirely too much time contemplating how to do or what to do. And my favorite, you’re now running behind on your other projects that are completely within your realm of service.

By now you’re thinking, “I shouldn’t have taken this assignment.” Hence, you should have said “NO.”  I’m here to tell you its quite ok to just say no to a project. The level of stress you endure when taking these non-essential gigs can start to ruin your ideal day of work. You remember that blissful feeling you had when you first starting reading this and reflected on your perfect day? Well that’s what keeps you doing what you do.

Here are some tips for saying “no” and being polite about it:

Increase your prices: Provided that you don’t have your prices listed on your website or posted service, you can accept a project, sub-contract it to a known associate that you trust, and still make a little money while retaining a new client.

Delay the project start date: Chances are that client may be looking to get started yesterday. (which is already a bad sign) Explain to them your current workload and defer to a date in 30-60 days. If they’re still interested you can contact them back.  This also works when current projects are about to expire and you’ve got nothing else lined up.

Admit to your limits: This is a bold step here but can be accepted as a humble gesture. Explaining to the client that their project is out of your scope of work and that you wouldn’t want to accept it without full confidence in what you’ll be able to produce in the end.

Offer a recommendation to another freelancer: This may seem like your passing them off, but if you can explain to them softly why they will understand. Especially if the recommended person is an associate of yours that you can make a warm introduction to this client. Now their project can be done with confidence, your associate will be happy with the referral, and you can keep your day bright and shiny.

Bottom line is that you have to respect people when they come to you for work, and also respect your existing clientele to ensure adequate service is kept for them.  One common complain I hear with people I’ve met is that their current or past designer doesn’t seem care about them.  Either by not responding to emails, phone calls, missed deadlines, and more. Word of mouth is so powerful and a kind word goes far; while a bad word goes even further and impacts a lot deeper.  As a freelance designer, we’re a dime a dozen. What sets us apart is our reputation, keep this in mind with the projects you do take and the ones you probably shouldn’t.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated. Please leave a comment and let me know if you agree or have different views.