Freelancers: Learning When To Say No To Clients

We’ve all heard it before. The inevitable request from a client to revise a design to make it more… something. The client isn’t sure what, exactly, but they know that whatever they’re looking at on the screen isn’t quite "there" yet. Sometimes they’ll even utterly confuse you with a vague or nonsensical request, like "make the black blacker," or "it’s just not poppy enough."

say no

These types of inane directives have become so legendary in freelancing culture that, whenever they get mentioned out of context, any freelancer listening won’t be able to help giving a sympathetic eye roll or shake of the head. There are even whole blogs and other creative efforts centered around the weird things our clients sometimes ask of us; I’m sure you’ve heard of at least one.

Had Enough?

As freelancers, we all want to go above and beyond to please our clients and ensure that we maintain a good relationship with them. We want to remain in good standing to get referrals and repeat business and bolster our reputations. But sometimes, some clients really can try the patience of even the most saintly of designers.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that many designers often overlook that can alleviate or even completely remove these little professional hurdles. It’s called saying no.

We’re going to go over some of the different situations in which a designer can use this powerful tool in a respectful and courteous way, while still being firm about holding onto their sanity.

The Wonders Of No

It’s really quite remarkable, the power of this "no" word. I think every designer should add it to their vocabulary if it’s not already there. Practice simply saying no to requests you find strange, incomprehensible, or just plain silly, and see what happens. You can try it out first on a client who you know has a ‘thick skin’.

Later, you can move on to establishing what you will and won’t tolerate from the very first meeting with any new client. In my experience, a lot of clients are actually just trying to get a feel for your communication style when they make an offhand, impossible request. They may be testing you to see how much you’ll let them get away with.

Don’t Let Your Guard Down

It sounds horrible, but the harsh truth is that many people will be as naughty as you let them be. They will take the opportunity to con you or treat you badly, to justify underpaying you or even not paying you at all, if they believe they can.

Not everyone is like this, of course, but you can usually tell pretty quickly whether someone is looking to scam you out of valuable services. Putting your foot down by saying no to the first signs of disrespectfulness or lunacy will set a precedent for the entire length of your interaction with your client. Initial impressions are hard to change, so it’s important to make them count.

Don’t Just Blurt It Out

First things first: when I say that designers need to start saying no, I don’t literally mean that you should respond to your clients’ requests with a blunt negative. Saying no to a paying client requires a bit of finesse to keep the working relationship in a healthy place. I recommend writing out a few responses that you can use as reference in a future situation.

Something like "I’m sorry, but I’m going to need a more specific answer before I can give you what you want" usually works well, and you don’t actually have to blurt out "noooo!" like a two-year-old, (or Darth Vader). Rehearsing a reasoned, courteous response to an insane request helps you keep your cool, and it also keeps you on track to achieving your main goal, which is solving your client’s problem.

Not A Therapist

Clients can be a kooky bunch – no doubt about it – but it’s not really your job to tend to them like a personal therapist. You can go ahead and let them be as crazy as they want to be, as long as they’re clear with you about what they need and how you can provide it to them. And as long as they pay you in a reasonable amount of time, of course.

How Much Rope Should You Give?

It’s up to you to decide how far to go with accommodating your client regardless of whatever unclear request he or she will think up. Sometimes it makes more sense to simply refuse to go any further on the project until you receive a request you can work with, since you’d only be guessing at what the client wants anyway.

Also, because there’s been such a lack of clarity, they may become even more upset if you do not deliver what they want, whatever that is. Not only will you have wasted your time, but, depending on your prior negotiation, you might even have a contract breach on your hands.

Strive To Communicate

Alternatively, you could take more of an "onion peeling" approach, testing and rephrasing different questions until you and the client both arrive at a communication pattern that gets each of you the information you require to move forward.

This method is certainly more time-consuming, and it’s not unheard of for designers to add an additional amount to their revision fee (interrogation tax?) if it starts to take too long to achieve clarity.

It’s Not Always the Client’s Fault

That’s right, I said it. Sometimes a client gives you a vague answer… because you asked them a vague question. It really helps to learn the proper ways to phrase a question so that you get the answer you’re looking for. Specifically, the thing I’ve found most helpful in achieving clarity is asking the client to give me a clear example of what they need.

Confined Selections

This can take a few tries, for example, if a client wants a "prettier" typeface for their website, but can’t exactly articulate what they mean by "pretty," you can ask them to browse a selection of fonts until they find something that is "pretty" enough for their taste.

This is an example of what I call controlling fluctuations. I don’t know about you, but I like to have as few surprises or brick walls (as possible) when dealing with clients. Learning how to ask the right questions is crucial to getting through those unnecessary barriers so you can deal with the important stuff.

In Conclusion

Designers speak a cryptic language all their own, and sometimes it can be difficult to bridge the gap between what you mean to say to a client and how the client will interpret it. As the professional providing the creative service, it’s your job to make sure there is clarity all around. Your client is paying you to solve their problem, and you can’t do that unless you first establish exactly what the problem is.