How to Say No to Clients You Want to Keep


My three-year-old daughter’s protest is pretty clear. She has no issues with putting her foot down and declaring what she doesn’t want to do.

So why do I find it so difficult to say no to my clients?

“Sure, we can do that,” are words that come out of my mouth often. Sometimes I don’t even think twice. Sometimes I know I should say no but I say yes anyways – and regret it later.

An article in the Montreal Gazette by Monique Polak that quickly explored William Ury’s The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes struck a big chord with me. I don’t mind saying no (and I have, and I do) but I say yes to clients far more often than I should.

Saying no to a client is one of the most difficult aspects of business for many freelancers (and people in general). Freelancers don’t want to pass up an offer for work, after all. It’s their chance to earn money. It doesn’t matter that their schedule is already full, they are burnt out and tired, or that they would have to cancel an event they were looking forward to. They say yes – and they really wished they could say no.

Here are a few more reasons freelancers have trouble saying no:

  • They fear they might not get another chance in the future
  • They don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings
  • They want to give a good impression
  • They don’t want to appear incompetent
  • They fear what the person might think of them

Fear is the common thread of all those reasons. We are afraid of the consequences of saying no. We say yes, even though the result is even more unpleasant and the consequences more serious.

There are good reasons to say no to clients, too. With a lighter workload, people do better work. With the pressure off, they enjoy their job more. When they can choose the clients that match best with their personality, the business relationship is more pleasant and productive for everyone.

Ury’s thoughts are that saying no just means you’re saying yes to something else; time with a loved one, time for yourself, a different project or a better client. Sometimes that helps to make the task of saying no a little easier and guilt-free.

Using different words to say no can sometimes be easier than flat-out putting your foot down. Put a positive spin on your phrasing. Eliminate negative words (can’t, won’t, don’t) or offer an alternative solution.

Try using variations of no such as:

  • I’d love to but I really have to [insert action here]
  • I’m already working on [insert task here] but I can [offer alternative]
  • That would be great, but I’ve already committed to [insert event]
  • My schedule is booked until the [date]. How about then?
  • I really appreciate that you offered me this job, but I’m all tied up with [insert project]

Find creative ways to say no to a client that helps the person feel like he’s still important to you even though you can’t work on his project. That’s what is most valuable to people – that they feel valuable as individuals regardless of what you can or can’t do for them.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.