Coach to Creatives

The Clarity Journal

Tactics, Tools, and Truth for Creative Entrepreneurs

How to Say No to Work

A lot of creatives are busy, but they aren’t necessarily busy with the right work. A big driver of this is an inability or unwillingness to say “no” to work that isn’t the right fit. 

Why Should You Say “No”

Saying no to the wrong work is the first step to getting more of the right work. It frees your time and energy, giving you the gentle push that you need to go after the work you really want. 

Turning down all of the work that doesn’t fit your ideal profile might sound, a bit, idealistic. Should you expect that 100 percent of your workload will be your dream jobs for your dream clients? Probably not. But, your goal should be for 80 to 90 percent of your work to be a good fit. The rest of your workload may be exploring new kinds of work or services, favors you are doing for good clients, or the occasionally “probably-should-have-turned-this-down” gig.

How to Be Honest without Being a Jerk

In work, much like in breakups, honest and direct communication may not be the easiest route, but it is the best. Don’t give your prospects a generic, “It’s not you, it’s me” explanation: you need to tell them directly, and diplomatically, why you aren’t a good fit to work together. This has the potential to feel snobby or selfish. But, the truth is, if you aren’t a good fit for them, working together isn’t just bad for you; it’s bad for them, too.

When you are letting your prospects down gently, you need to communicate that  you are acting in their interests as well as your own. (This always goes over best if you actually do care what happens to them. Genuine care and concern for others is key here, but unfortunately it can’t learned from reading a blog.)

Here is some language you can consider using for these conversations.

“You will be better served by working with a designer with a more _____ aesthetic.”
“I don’t have the right experience to work within your industry.”
“I specialize in managing the entire process from start-to-finish. There are others in the industry that are better suited to do a piece of a larger project.”
“If your deadlines for this are firm, I won’t be able to meet them with my existing workload.”
“In the past I have done this kind of work, but right now I am focusing on _____.”

When it’s Their Budget

In some cases, the prospect and the work are both a good fit, but, the client’s budget expectations are way out of line.

Even if you don’t have have established budget minimums, you still need to be able to confidently tell prospects when their budget is too low. In some cases, if you patiently explain to a prospect why their budget expectations are unrealistic, they may be willing to commit more dollars to your project. If they won’t budge on budget, you need to stand your ground and suggest they look elsewhere.

“For the work that you want, a budget of _____ would be more appropriate.”
 “It is difficult for me to provide good value at your price point.”
“I’m not able to meet your budget, but there may be someone else who can.”

When It’s Their Personality

There are people in the world that are gutsier than me who would have no problem telling someone they don’t want to work with them because it wouldn’t be a good personality fit. Others of you, like me, would rather shrivel up and die than hear those words come out of your mouth.

When your gut tells you that you absolutely cannot work with someone on the basis of personality, and you can’t cover your tracks with another viable explanation, I suggest the following deflection that is absolutely not a lie.

“I’m not in a position to take this on right now.”

Another option when the client’s personality is the only thing holding you back is to add a “pain-in-the-butt” premium. Increase your rates by 25 percent so that if you do end up working with them, you at least are earning a premium for dealing with their antics.

Help Where You Can

When you can’t do work that a prospect needs, it doesn’t mean you have to send them away with nothing. It is likely that you have valuable information, resources, contacts, and advice on the best way for them to move forward. Give this help generously and freely. 

A quick note on referring work to others: **Do** send your peers in the industry referrals if you think it would be a good fit. **Don’t** dump your unwanted leads on your unsuspecting colleagues when you know that the job is too small, too weird, or too unrealistic for anyone to do.

Always Preserve the Relationship

It may be that the prospect isn’t an ideal client now, but they might be in the future. Stay in touch. Put them on your e-mail list. Call them every few months to check in and see how they are progressing. This might seem strange or forced, but it isn’t. In fact, basic networking skills like this are crucial to your success as an entrepreneur. Everyone you know is someone who could be a client, a source of referrals, or a source of help in the future. The goal here is not to make a sale but to nurture a relationship.

Short-Term Losses Create Long-Term Gains

The hidden benefit to turning down work in the short term is that it may actually lead to more, and better, work in the long term. 

Have you ever had a truly honest mechanic? Then you know how valuable it is to find a professional that is willing to turn down an opportunity to make money in order to serve the best interest of the customer. There is absolutely nothing that builds more professional credibility than turning down paid work. It displays a confidence and security that is hard to replicate in any other situation. 

If you prove yourself in this kind of situation to be honest, genuine, and confident, you can be sure that the prospect will pass your name along anytime they get a chance. Additionally, if you do the painstaking work of explaining to people what type of work you do best, they will be better equipped to not only send you leads, but to send you the right leads. 

Say "No" With Confidence

Don’t let an unwillingness to say “no” hold you back from doing the work that caused you to start your business in the first place. Learn to say “no” to the wrong work so that you are in a better position to say “yes” to the right work


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Tools + TacticsKatie Wussow