How to Succeed In Freelancing: Say No to Your Clients

Today’s post kicks off a special five-part series on how to really succeed in your freelance career. Each day this week, I’m going to write about how you can get more money, better clients and the work you really love to do – all it takes is the magic words, and you’ll be enjoying a freelance business that really rocks. Enjoy!

It’s Tuesday night, 11pm. You’re tired – so tired your eyes feel like they’re going to melt off your face from staring at the computer so long. Emails bombard you. You’re running against deadlines. You were supposed to deliver this project at 5pm and you’re almost finished but…

A new email comes in. It’s a rush. The client wants to launch tomorrow and could you possibly fix this now? And you reply, “Sure, of course I can. I’m on it.”

Now why did you say that?

I get it. A full plate is supposed to be a good thing. If you have lots of work, it’s supposed to mean that customers love what you do and want what you sell. Being crazy-busy and in demand is supposed to be a good indication of success.

Why don’t you feel successful? All you feel is tired and overwhelmed.

You must be missing something. There has to be something you’re not doing right, because when you look at other successful people you admire, they don’t look tired at all. So you sign up for courses. You buy books. You try to learn the secret, because there’s obviously something you haven’t figured out yet. If you knew what that secret was, you’d be just fine.

There is a secret. It’s two little words: yes and no.

Say No to Your Clients and Yes to You

Have you heard about the story of the shoemaker’s son? It goes something like this:

The shoemaker crafted strong, solid footwear that helped other people walk further and faster with more comfort so they could get to the next town. When they arrived at their destination, they told everyone about the great shoes that helped them get there.

Word of the shoemaker’s talents spread. He got new customers, more work, and became so busy that he didn’t have time to fix his own family’s shoes. This was good! He was a shoemaking success.

Until one day, when someone noticed that the shoemaker’s son had worn right through his own shoes and they’d fallen apart. The boy walked with bare feet – while his father’s customers had solid, comfortable footwear that took them places.

That shoemaker’s son has the same problem that many freelancers do – new and experienced both. A freelancer often spends so much time working for customers that he doesn’t have the time to work on his own business-building. Customers end up with spiffy businesses that rake in clients and money, and the freelancer goes barefoot, with a neglected business that’s falling apart.

If you’re a freelancer, you need to say yes to yourself. You need to take care of your business first. Even if there are customers waving money at you. Even if you have bills to pay. If you never work on improving your business, it’ll never be able to help you reach your goals.

Your business needs continual maintenance and attention, because it needs to be able to withstand the competition and keep abreast of industry trends. It always needs to be better than it was last year. It needs to progress continually towards earning you more money and better assignments. You have to reserve time to work on these goals if you want your business to keep getting bigger, better and more profitable.

Now, making improvements to your business and taking care of yourself doesn’t mean cutting off all your customers just to find time to work on upgrades. Very few freelancers can afford to take a month off just to work on business improvements.

But you do need to reserve a little bit of time each week to help your business be better than it is, so that it can work harder for you.

Treat yourself like a client – your most important one. Hire yourself, and assign yourself a project. Pick a project that will help further your success. For example, you could redesign your website so it appeals to more clients and lessens your advertising costs. You could write new copy to draw readers in closer and get them hiring you more. You could set up a marketing campaign that reaches your ideal customer so you don’t have to keep taking on work that really isn’t your specialty.

Whatever project you choose to work on, treat it with the same level of dedication and attention you give each of your clients. For example, set start dates and create tasks to complete. Make deadlines for each task. You may not be able to devote 20 hours a week to your personal project, but you can certainly schedule in just an hour of business-building time each week to make sure your business isn’t being continually set aside in favor of improving someone else’s.

Consider the deadlines you set for yourself firm ones, too. They’re not ones you can shift around or blow off like they don’t matter. Would you ever tell a client, “Sorry, I had more important things to do”? Of course not. So don’t say it to yourself.

Go further with this concept of hiring yourself. Make it the ultimate customer experience. How well are you treating yourself as a client? Are you meeting your own deadlines? Is the work you’re doing just as good as what you’d do for anyone else? Would you recommend your own business to other people, based on the treatment you received from yourself?

It may be a little hard to say no to a client who needs you, especially when you’re so used to always having been available for your customers before. But remember that you’re not saying no to be mean to anyone – you’re saying no because quite simply, you’re booked.

You’ve already said yes to another customer: yourself.

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.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Thanks for the insight. I just recently started reading your blog. Every article I’ve read so far has been great. Keep it up and thanks.
    .-= Brett´s last blog ..Popoleo’s Pointing Dog’s =-.

  2. Solomon says:

    Thanks for the great post! I haven’t got so busy that I can deny work :-). But, sure, I neglect my own work. I liked the thought of treating ourselves as clients.

  3. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    Another strong message. Thinking of yourself and your own needs is hard to do. I blame my mother and the nuns.

  4. Smart advice, James – gotta keep the home fires burning bright! I mean, the shoes repaired.
    .-= Mark Dykeman´s last blog ..Thoughts from Nora Young of CBC Spark =-.

  5. I just finished spiffing up my web site (mostly behind the scenes) so it would be more focused and more attractive to search engines. I set a date to get it done and treated it like a client project.

    Same thing with e-books (paid and free) that I’ve been doing – and the last two both got launched during near-blizzards! Good thing I didn’t have to physically “ship” them!
    .-= Jodi Kaplan´s last blog ..Secrets of Writing Killer Copy =-.

  6. Hi James,

    Excellent advice about when to say yes and when to say no. The problem with agreeing to “rush” is that it increases the odds of making a mistake, a mistake the freelancer will be held accountable for.

    A truly strange scenario is the client that asks you to rush and asks you for a discount because they have a small budget.

    The best way to get more quality clients is to say no to such requests and stand up for yourself.

    Giulietta Nardone
    Take Back Your Life!
    .-= Giulietta Nardone´s last blog ..How do you define rich? =-.

  7. This is a hard one if you’re just starting up. It’s almost superstitious–if you say no, will you ever get another client? Your clients might not even realize you’re saying no. It might just be a matter of telling them what your schedule is, without them knowing you have time set aside to work on your own business. But that little voice in your head knows…

    Sometimes it’s stupidly hard to convince yourself your business will be better, and your clients better served, if you take the time, and avoid over scheduling. But it’s true.

    Great advice, James.
    .-= Stacey Cornelius´s last blog ..How do you feel about making money? =-.

  8. I agree totally.

    I do try to accommodate reasonable requests, but it isn’t fair to myself or my other clients if I take on too many rush jobs. I’ve learned the hard way that doing this on a regular basis will harm my health and lower the quality of my other work.

    Besides, as a trusted friend always says, “there’s really no such thing as a writing emergency.” If you think about it, he’s right. Most writing emergencies are the result of someone’s poor planning.

    Doctors and nurses, on the other hand, now they have true emergencies… 🙂
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Are You Trapped in the Writing Web? =-.

  9. Good post! Well written and with good style =)

    This post comes at a great time for me too, just yesterday I was trying to motivate myself to re-design my web site but ended up working on a project that was going to earn me some money instead, lol.

  10. Alexa Gregory says:

    Just what I needed to hear. There is never enough time so you need to take control of it. Just like pay yourself first if you want to save.

    The cobbler’s story reminded me of a company I just heard about: tom’s shoes. Every purchase also takes care of someone without shoes.

    Take care of yourself while taking care of others. Isn’t that the way to feel good about your time and your money.

  11. So true. I normally take a week off from full client projects every couple of months to work on my own stuff, improve my blog, portfolio and marketing. It helps in the long run as I’ll often continue getting new clients, even when I’m swamped and not really marketing.
    .-= Amber Weinberg´s last blog ..Post Thumbnails via WordPress =-.

  12. Agree with everything here, though I’d add that repeatedly failing to say ‘no’ isn’t helping anyone, including your clients. If you’re always swamped and stressed out, is really possible to deliver the best possible quality of work? I like a little pressure, but stay far away from ‘frazzled’ at all costs.

  13. The Aleksandar says:

    “Treat yourself like a client”
    Great advice I must admit I personaly don’t follow very often. 🙁
    .-= The Aleksandar´s last blog ..HTML or PHP pages for site? =-.

  14. Great comments, everyone, and I’m glad to see so many new faces chiming into the discussion!

    I’d like to point out one comment from Stacy:

    This is a hard one if you’re just starting up. It’s almost superstitious–if you say no, will you ever get another client? Your clients might not even realize you’re saying no. It might just be a matter of telling them what your schedule is, without them knowing you have time set aside to work on your own business. But that little voice in your head knows…

    That little voice is a damned hard one to shake. I know many, many seasoned freelancers who still live with that voice whispering at them. And, it’s a reasonable, valid fear.

    That’s why it’s important to market properly, whether it’s a busy month or bone dry. You need to always and constantly continue to get your name out there, even if you do have to turn clients away. Add standard lead time to your policies, let people know right away that you won’t book them on the spot, and build your schedule so that it’s full for weeks and months to come.

    Then tell that little voice to shove it 😉

  15. A very interesting angle. Thanks, James. Helped me make some decisions.
    .-= Alexei´s last blog ..Thoughts on outsourcing link building =-.

  16. Wow. This reminds me of my days as a textbook freelancer. To meet deadlines I’d sometimes have to write 48 hours straight with no sleep. Couldn’t say no or I wouldn’t get paid. I researched, wrote, edited 22 books in 18 months. It was hell. No more.

  17. I think it’s important to manage people’s expectations and put yourself first sometimes. This is hard to do as other people have mentioned when you have started your own business but something that develops over time.

  18. In November last year I found myself drowning in gigs and struggled to get any one job done in the turmoil of feeling torn in so many directions at once. I promised myself that I would turn down any new job for the rest of the year. I figured, “I’m booked.”

    But, any time I turned down a job with the explanation that my schedule was booked out till January 2010 the clients turned around and say, “Ok, I’ll ask again in January.” Which of course means I’m now booked out until April.

    Don’t be afraid to let clients know that you’re fully booked. Most of them are more than happy to wait if their project isn’t as pressing as they like to think it is. For the ones who really do need an immediate turn around, keep a list handy of fellow freelancers you can recommend.
    .-= Rebecca Laffar-Smith´s last blog ..Three Secrets to a Successful Book Ghostwriting Career =-.

  19. ‘No’ is such a magic word… works with kids, bosses, lovers, and with clients. I suspect the client’s I say ‘no’ to actually respect me more for it and I haven’t lost many… can’t think of one at the moment, but I’ve been doing this so long that can’t be true.

    It’s not unreasonable to be reasonable and demand reasonable treatment… although demanding won’t work. Just say no 😉

    Sometimes I’ve proposed something reasonable after my ‘no,’ like “I can do that for you in a couple of weeks, would that work?” or “I can’t do that in 24 hours, but I can in 72 and I’ll charge you an additional 30% for the rush.”

    Love the word “no”
    .-= Anne Wayman´s last blog ..Writing For European Publisher? Ask Anne The Pro Writer =-.

  20. Great start to the series. I’m looking forward to the rest!
    .-= Michael Richard Murphy´s last blog ..Bergman Real Estate: Mobile App Image =-.

  21. As always, another wonderful article from the MenwithPens. This is one of my greatest business flaws. Not so long ago my clients seemed really adept at turning the tables on me. Thus my inner doubt would push me to just go ahead and do it for them.

    What I found, it really hurt my bottom line. Untold hours of work not paid for by the client. I now do “NOTHING” unless it is in writing. If it isn’t in the proposal, I simply tell them it will cost on an hourly basis for anything outside the original scope of work.

    It has been a very hard lesson to learn, but I am better for it. And though they don’t know it, so are my clients.

  22. Great article. I recently posted a blog about a similar subject: how NOT to get fired by your designer. It can be read at
    .-= Ramsey´s last blog ..7 Ways to Avoid Being Canned by Your Designer =-.


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  2. […] This is the second post in a special five-part series on using the magic of yes and no to earn more money, better clients and work you really love to do. Click here to read yesterday’s post on how to say no to clients. […]

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