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How and when to say ‘no’ to a potential client

say no potential client
By James Rose. Last Updated June 17, 2024
how to say no to potential client

Finding freelance work takes a lot of effort — it can make you want to say ‘yes’ to any money-making opportunity that comes along.

But it’s important to know how and when to say ‘no’ to a potential client if you want to get paid what you’re worth, scale your business, and consistently deliver quality work.

Here are 4 reasons you might need to turn down a potential client and how to do it without burning any bridges.

When should you turn down a potential client?

You don’t have the skills for the job

potencial client

Some freelancers might take a ‘fake it till you make it’ approach to landing clients, but that’s a risky strategy if you want to get positive results. If a potential client asks for something outside of your current skillset, you should probably turn down the work — unless it’s something you could easily teach yourself to do before the deadline. But even then, the first time you try the new skill shouldn’t be with a brand new client.

Remember that your reputation is at stake and be humble enough to turn down work that you’re just not cut out to do.

Email template: How to say ‘no’

Hi [Client],

I reviewed your brief and now have a good understanding of your needs for this project. Unfortunately [task] is outside of my current skillset. I could try to do it for you, but I think it’s smarter to find someone with more experience at [task] to ensure positive results.

But we should keep in touch — I would love to work together in the future on any projects that don’t involve [task].


[Your Name]

If you have a colleague in the industry who has the skill you lack, you can also refer your potential client to them. That will help you maintain a connection with the potential client, and win you points with your colleague who can send work your way in the future.

You’re too busy

helpful reply

Any seasoned freelancer will tell you that work comes in waves. You may go weeks without any new projects, then suddenly all your clients drop projects on you at once. When you already have a lot on your plate, it’s not a very good time to take on a new client. You need to go above and beyond to impress them, and a rush job just doesn’t cut it.

Communicate with your potential client and get an idea of what kind of turnaround time they need. If it squeezes in too close to your other deadlines, you should probably say ‘no.’

How to say ‘no’

Hi [Client],

I reviewed your brief — I can deliver exactly what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, my schedule this month is already filled with other projects that I can’t shift around. I wouldn’t be able to deliver in until [date].

However, my calendar will open up more in December. If you still need help with this or another project then, I’ll be ready to help you.  


[Your Name]

Make sure you always mention when you’ll be more available in the future. It’s possible the client really wants to work with you and you alone, in which case they’re willing to wait until your calendar opens up.


You’re not a good fit for each other

There are a lot of reasons a potential client might turn you off. For example:

  • You don’t communicate well
  • They don’t agree to your payment terms
  • They send you way too many emails
  • They’re rude
  • Etc.

You probably already know the signs that a potential client is going to annoy you, take up all your time, or be endlessly unsatisfied with your work. Don’t jump into the snake pit. Say ‘no’ once you realize you’re not a good fit for each other.

How to say ‘no’

In this case you’re not going to be too frank with your reasons! Say you’re busy, you don’t have the right skills, or whatever else to get them off your back. If you really want to encourage them to change their ways, then go ahead and be more direct.

For example:

Hi [Client],

Thanks for clarifying your expectations on this project. As it states on my website, I am unable to start work with a new client without a 25% upfront payment. I understand you’re only willing to pay upon completion of work. So unfortunately, we can’t move forward with the project. If things change in the future, please do reach out to me.

All the best,

[Your Name]

The money’s not enough

This is probably the most common and best reason to turn down a potential client. Many young freelancers keep saying ‘yes’ to low-paying clients, convincing themselves that they’ll stop when work picks up.

But the day you start saying ‘no’ when the money’s not enough is the day you can start really scaling your earnings.

There are two main ways the pay might be too low:

  • They offer very little money
  • They expect way too much work

Sometimes, you may need to charge more than your standard rate because a client wants several rounds of revisions or sucks up all your time through meetings and emails. Keep an eye out for “time suck” clients — they’re more difficult to spot than the simple low-paying ones.

Related: When budget is irrelevant

How to say ‘no’

Hi [Client],

Thanks for getting on the phone with me yesterday to discuss your needs. I thought about it, and decided [financial amount] isn’t sufficient for the amount of work involved in this project. The time and resources I need to deliver quality work for you would cost [financial amount].

I understand this is well outside your price range, so you’ll probably need to work with another freelancer. But we should still keep in touch to discuss future projects that might be in your budget.


[Your Name]

Wrapping up

Just because you say ‘no’ to a potential client doesn’t mean you’re closing the door on an opportunity.

A hard ‘no’ is actually one of the best tools you can use to restart the negotiation process and get what you need from a client. And even if you don’t end up working together in the future, you’re still better off avoiding troublesome clients or projects you’re not cut out to take on.

Use these email templates with your potential clients to communicate effectively and avoid burning bridges in your business network.


3 comments on “How and when to say ‘no’ to a potential client”

  1. Thank you. I used your advice to email a potential client this morning. I've entered a few mis-matched projects, and it's never worth the extra effort I ignored during initial negotiations. Your examples were very clear and helpful.

  2. Thank you. I used your advice to email a potential client this morning. I’ve entered a few mis-matched projects, and it’s never worth the extra effort I ignored during initial negotiations. Your examples were very clear and helpful.

James Rose

James is the co-founder of Content Snare - a software platform that helps professionals collect content & files from clients.

Once an automation engineer, his new priority is to help business owners regain their lives, be more productive and get more done in less time.