When to say no: the good, the bad, & the ugly

Turning down work may feel like a risky strategy for any business, but there are times when it’s by far the best thing to do for your margins and morale.


Business people, especially those that run their own businesses, are terrible at saying no. It’s understandable – our instinct is to please, take on new work, and keep our clients happy.

If you’re staring at a gap in the schedule, or a hole in the accounts and you’re offered a project it can feel impossible to turn down, but that’s exactly when you should do it. In fact, sometimes it pays to say no even when the going is good. Be firm, think about the bigger picture, and use this guide to stop being a yes-man.

The good

Sometimes it pays to say no to a good thing. A project might be full of promise and possibility, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted without some critical analysis. Every opportunity hides difficulties and roadblocks, so it’s important to take a good look at not only the client, but yourself before getting started.

Them: The budget is in place, the project is good match for your team, and the client is someone you know and trust. Sounds perfect, but when your client is a close friend or family member you might want to take a step back. Things go wrong and people can clash. That’s fine when everyone has some breathing room, but letting it spill over into breakfast or a night out with friends is a recipe for damaged relationships. If you love them, you’ll let them go… elsewhere.

You: The client wants you, they love your work, and they want to collaborate on something really exciting together, but can you actually pull it off? Knowing your strengths is important, but recognising your weaknesses is essential. We sell ourselves on quality and process instead of competing on price and that means that reputation is everything. One bad project can overshadow a lot of good so don’t get in over your head. That’s not to say that you should always play it safe or never experiment, but is it really cost or time-effective to learn a development language or way of working for a single project? Focus on what advances your business and remember that saying no to this project gives you the space to say yes to something that you can shout about.

The bad

There’s plenty of warnings that a project is going to go sideways, fast. The trick is to learn to spot them before anyone signs their name to a contract. Identifying problem areas should always be part of your discussions with a client before work begins.

Them: Tight deadlines, low budgets or unfamiliar technologies are all tell tale signs of a project that isn’t the right fit.

A short timescale might mean that their understanding of what’s possible isn’t accurate, but more often than not it means a client is trying to do a project cheaply. It sounds like quick, easy money but trust me, it never is. Two weeks later they’ll be trying to add functionality that wasn’t agreed or you’ll be staring at a substandard project that you can’t be proud of. Alternatively, trying to hit a rushed deadline or launch date is a tell tale sign of a disorganised client and if you’re going to deliver on time then you can’t wait days for essential information or leisurely sign-offs. The more time you have to spend waiting for them, the more your ‘quick, easy’ project delays others, costing you far more overall.

If your client uses their budget as a bargaining tool then stay away. The time you spend haggling over price and being pressured to add extra functionality at no cost is time you could be spending on other, more profitable projects. An unrealistically low budget usually indicates that the client cares more about price than quality, which means that not only do they not really respect what you do, but they probably want something functional rather than good – an end result that’s going to reflect poorly on you even if they’re happy.

A client who wants to use some bizarre technology or unfamiliar process may have good reason for doing so, but unless they can clearly explain why then it can also mean that they have no idea what they’re doing. Whether they’re trying to run their business on the cheap by looking at cost and not value, or just don’t know their industry, this should be a red flag. Say no now and protect your brands reputation.

You: Get real. There’s a time and a place for optimism but it’s not when assessing budgets, timescales, or what’s possible. Be frank to your clients if something is going to be expensive or time-consuming, but just as importantly, explain why. It’s easy to assume that clients know as much as you do, but if they did why would they be hiring you? You’re the expert here so stop being afraid to correct their assumptions. They’ll usually appreciate the honesty, which builds the trust that’s essential to longer business relationships, and if they don’t then they were only going to be a headache anyway. If you keep trying to live up to unrealistically great expectations, you’re going to end up in trouble.

The ugly

If a project isn’t the right fit then it’s not personal and often referring a client to someone better suited can act as the springboard for better-suited future projects. But then there are some clients you shouldn’t touch any more than you should jam a fork in the toaster.

Them: You know the type, all insulting offers and false promises for the future. If you’ve offered a price or publish your rates and they come back with half of that, you have the right to be insulted. How often have you have heard this before; “If you do this one cheaper – there will be loads more work to follow”? Nine times out of ten that’s a lie and even if it’s not, you’re going to be stuck doing the future projects beneath your prices. They clearly don’t value your work and things will only get worse if you actually take the project on. They’ll never be happy, will spend your precious time trying to negotiate new terms, and you’ll be lucky to get paid on time. You’re a professional and if they’re not then you’re going to be shooting yourself in the foot with any work you do for them. Even after the project your reputation will suffer by association and if they you caved on price then you’ll find yourself in the awkward position of having to defend the higher cost to your other, better clients.

You: Do your research. A client might say everything you want to hear in that first meeting, but what is their reputation in the real world? Thanks to public company listings and a quick Google search it’s not difficult to discover whether a potential client is in enough debt that you’re unlikely to get paid on time, is involved in something deeply unethical, or has a reputation that’s so radioactive that it’s likely to poison your own. Learn more about a client than just their pitch as it’ll save your time and money in the long run. More than anything though, trust your gut. If a client seems too good to be true or a project seems shady then they probably are. Even if you take on the project and somehow dodge the bullet, you’re still going to feel conflicted about it, making it impossible to enjoy or produce your best work.

A positive negative

Saying “no” doesn’t have to be an act of negativity and doing so before a project begins is just good business. Renegotiations, project terminations, and conflict always end up costing more in the end, whether in terms of cost, time, or reputation. By politely, but firmly, saying “no” you’re not only protecting your brand, but ensuring that you don’t have to pass on the real opportunities.

The good news is that it gets easier with time. So long as you’re turning down projects for the right reasons, you’ll soon see the results as well as the disasters you’ve avoided. Keep in mind that turning down a project because it’s a bad fit shouldn’t have anything to do with the size of the project itself providing the budgets and timescales are realistic. Great things really do come from small steps, whether you’re a freelancer or an industry leader – a lesson we understand since two of our largest contracts were won on the strength of earlier 2-3 day projects.

So be firm, be polite, and providing that the project isn’t ‘ugly’, you can always refer a project to your network of other businesses if it’s a better fit. You might even get something you can say “yes” to in return.

If you have a project that you’d like us to say “yes” to, then you can contact us today.

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