Most people are drawn to the portfolio lifestyle because of the freedom it offers. You’re in control of your career, making you the ultimate decision maker – you choose when to work, who to work with, and, most importantly, when to say no. Yes, there is an element of client pleasing required, but ultimately you don’t have to do any work that you don’t want to.
That’s a very important truth to hold onto.
Sometimes a client just isn’t right. Othertimes, a project can mutate and change over time, meaning more hours than initially agreed on. Remember, you should never be forced to do more work than what you’re getting paid for.
Why you might have to say no to a client
In the early months of a portfolio career, you may be tempted to take on every job that comes your way. It’s the quickest way to build up experience and generate revenue. However, this is not a sustainable habit. As your workload grows, you need to be more firm about your time and your rate. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself working crazy hours and struggling to get things done.
Saying no at the right times is a critical part of building a successful portfolio career. You can’t do everything for everyone. The more you take on, the more your focus (and mental health) are at risk, so it’s key to be cognisant of what you can and can’t do – and hold your ground when the time comes.
Not sure exactly when you should be pushing back? Here are just a few reasons why you might need to say no to a client.
1. When the money's not enough
If someone is offering way too little for your services, you should consider turning that work down – but not every time. Sometimes you may decide to work for less (or even for free) if you really believe in the project, for example if it’s for a charity or if the company really aligns with your values. Or maybe you want to prove yourself and get a great review or case study for future work.
Just be cognisant of the fact that low paying clients aren’t always apparent from the get-go. You could end up working way more hours than discussed if the customer asks for several rounds of revisions or expects you to attend loads of extra meetings or calls. Be on the lookout for time draining (and energy sapping) clients – they’re often more difficult to spot than the low-paying ones.
2. When the project scope changes
It’s not uncommon for a client to change their mind or ask for something new once a job has already started. Make sure you negotiate the number of hours you’re looking to put into a project and be clear about any additional costs for time spent over that limit.
It can be helpful to use a time tracker that accurately calculates exactly how many hours you’re spending on a job – we recommend Clockify as it’s free to use. If you notice the hours you’re working aren’t matching up with what was initially agreed upon, then it might be time to have a conversation about expectations. Maybe your fixed monthly retainer should be changed to an hourly contract, or a success fee should be added.
3. When you’re already overcommitted
If your workload is already filled to the brim, then by all means feel free to turn down any additional work that comes your way. Always be transparent with the client and let them know when your schedule is likely to free up – that way you don’t harm that relationship in the long term.
It’s never a good idea to take on more than you can handle. Not only does it impact your overall mental and physical health, but it can drastically drag down your outputs across the board. The exception to this is if you can efficiently outsource part of the work to other portfolio professionals.
4. When the client isn’t a good fit or doesn’t see your value
Sometimes you get a gut feeling that a client isn’t right for you – that may be because of their expectations, their communication style, or even the way they treat the rest of their team. Don’t ignore your intuition – if something doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to go down that path.
Many times, this uneasy feeling derives from the client simply not aligning with your values or understanding what your skills are worth. What you do and what you offer is unique. Never forget that. If it’s clear early on that the client doesn’t see your value, it’s best to move on.
5. When the client costs you time and stress
“Bad apple” clients aren’t always clear right away. Sometimes, it only becomes apparent once you’ve already started on a project. If the client is constantly badgering you with problems or sending incessant emails that suck your time and attention away from other jobs, it’s worth having a conversation about boundaries.
You’re always within your rights to tell a client how you would like to work. The best way is by defining a clear Service Level Agreement (SLA) right from the start that spells out turn around times, how you expect to communicate, and how many hours you will dedicate to the project. If the client steps outside those bounds, you’ll have a reference point to refer back to.
How to say no without spilling bad blood
Telling someone no isn’t always the most comfortable experience. Some people take it well, whilst others can react less favourably. To help lower your chances of having a blowout over a simple disagreement, we’ve put together a list of things to keep in mind when approaching some of these more difficult conversations.
1. Always thank the client for their consideration
No matter the situation, you should always thank a customer for wanting to work with you. They’ve clearly decided to put their trust in you, and that’s flattering no matter the outcome. So soften the blow with a genuine thank you beforehand. Remember, being genuine is key – you don’t want them to think you’ve simply copied and pasted a templated response!
2. Be transparent about your reasons
Part of politely saying no is explaining the reasons why. Nobody likes to be rejected for no reason, and telling them why you are turning the job down or pushing back against a request might help them work better with independent talent in the future. Just remember to be honest without being too harsh.
3. Refer a friend where possible
Just because a job wasn’t right for you, doesn’t mean it won’t be right for someone else. Offering an alternative person for a role is a great way to soften the blow when you reject an offer. Think about the trusted colleagues in your network and recommend people who you think might be a better fit where necessary. If in doubt, search within The Portfolio Collective community for someone with the right skills and experience.
4. Remember to leave the door open
Just because you don’t want to work with someone now doesn’t mean you won’t want to in the future. So remember to be professional, supportive, and empathetic when you say no. This applies to both rejecting a job and pushing back on demands or changes. Client relationships are paramount to any successful portfolio career, so try not to burn your bridges. You never know what might happen down the road.
What experiences have you had saying no to clients?
We all have our own way of approaching client relationships. So share your tips and tricks in the comments below! Who knows, it may just be the thing that helps someone figure out how to navigate their portfolio career a little bit better!
Want to learn how to boost your productivity so it’s easier to work with multiple clients at the same time? Come along to our upcoming Productivity Masterclass where we teach you how to build better habits and plan your time more efficiently.