Turning down a potential client

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Speaking to any freelancer they will tell you that initially turning down a potential client is one of the most challenging actions you can take.

‘Just one more client.’

There’s an urge which develops within your head to hear out the potential client.

‘What if the grow into a large company?’
‘They may be the type of client I actually need.’
‘But they are a big company. Surely I should work with them?’

These are likely to be the type of rhetorical questions you will ask yourself. For the past eight months I’ve been battling this demon. When the enquiry hits my inbox it’s a sense of achievement and it gives me a huge buzz irrespective of the client type. I want to speak to the client, hear them out, bring them under my wing and help them.

Recently I got too far down the rabbit hole with one client who wanted to pay me monthly a smaller amount than my current day rate. This would have included me doing progress reports, regular calls and updating them of every change I wanted to make to their campaigns. 35 emails and two hours of analysis later I decided to politely tell the potential client that I did not want the job.

The damage was done though. I had wasted hours of time on a client who was never going to be right. But these are the mistakes we all make as freelancers. We constantly chase the next client as we always worry about the ‘what if’ scenario. The very best freelancers learn how to turn down potential clients; something I am now doing when I know it’s not quite right.

In an effort to make a judgement much earlier in the dialogue I created a blueprint of what needs to be right for me to proceed with the potential client.

  • Correct fit – I’ve already written about having an identity as a freelancer and I believe this falls well within that area. It needs to feel right. I have a clear idea of the type of clients I want to work with and also how I present myself as a freelancer. If it doesn’t fit within this then I politely decline.
  • Demands – What is required? The client’s expectations for the financial reward. Extract as much information as possible from the client in the very early stages.
  • Geographically – Where is the client based and do they require you to work from their office? I went self employed so I didn’t have to commute to offices. I’m completely on board with meetings but if the day to day requirement is to be office based then it’s a non starter for me. Freelance was a decision to enrich my life and spend time with my wife and daughter.
  • Industry type – In the past I’ve turned down jobs for ethical reasons. This is no different when freelancing. Having my own educational business has perhaps amplified this further as I only work with the right clients. I’m incredibly choosy with who I work with. If the industry doesn’t excite me or fit with me ethically then I wouldn’t take on the work.
  • Financially – When consulting your day rate or contract rate matters. It’s not the primary driver however it has importance. Clients who start the initial conversation with ‘I don’t have much of a budget’ are a huge red flag. One of my favourite clients currently pays me the lowest day rate but they are an absolute joy to work with. I try and get the perfect blend when choosing clients.

Within the initial dialogue with the potential client I try and gauge whether this is going to work based on the above. The tone and approach of emails from clients safely provides me with the information I need for most of the points. This leaves just the financial side to discuss which can be pretty easy.

‘My typical day rate is X. As a project based fee I would charge Y.’

By letting the client know this early (not too early) you can turn the client down or indeed them you if they decide they do not have the budget for your rate. Or you may refer them to someone else who may fit their criteria better. A client who decides not to proceed without making a counteroffer is likely to have a naive view of the costs of Digital marketing consultancy. They will never be the right client.

Turning down potential clients is always strange when freelancing but believe me it’s the right thing to do if it just doesn’t feel right. Remember why you became self employed in the first place. You wanted to choose opportunities which work for you and that resonate with you.

Stick to the brief and don’t buckle under the pressure. I assure you it will benefit you in the long run.

1 thought on “Turning down a potential client”

  1. Good advice and there are definitely times when you just have to say no. It takes a while to learn this especially when friends ask for ‘favours’ which turn into a massive ball ache! I’d love to help everyone but doing that comes at a cost to me personally sometimes you have to turn offers down.


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