By Brandon Eley

When to Say No to Work

By Brandon Eley

Have you ever said “No” to new business? It can be tough to do, but sometimes knowing when to say “No” to work can save or even make you money. In what circumstances should you turn down a new client or project?

We recently turned down a new client and sizeable project improving and updating two mobile applications and a web app. The issue wasn’t with the client: they provided source code, notes, were helpful in getting us the information we needed, and were completely able and willing to pay our full rate. They were timely in communicating to us, and followed up to make sure we had everything we needed.

The problem was that the web application was built using a language and framework which we are not only not unfamiliar with, we have absolutely no desire to learn. We hate turning down good projects, but we couldn’t see why the website was built this way in the first place, and it would be a nightmare to work with it. We could see every change going over budget and taking far too long. In addition, since it was a language and framework with which we didn’t want to work, it would have affected employee morale in a big way.


In the end, we decided to politely decline the entire project simply because we were not the best fit. We felt that the client could find someone with experience in that technology, a firm better suited to help them going forward. The potential client was very appreciative, and thanked us for being honest.

As hard as it was to turn down such a great potential client, we feel good knowing we haven’t over-extended ourselves.

For what resaons will you turn down work? Will you ever take a project or client even when you don’t have certain required experience, thinking you can learn it as you go? How has that worked out for you in the past?

  • Totally agree.
    On a smaller scale I had encoutered this problem with clients wanting me to take over an existing shopping cart website in a software and language I was not familiar with at all. On the basis of cost effectiveness of the project (time taken to learn new coding/software,against other projects that would fall behind) and your reputation over the service the client would receive, I felt it best to turn down and point them to someone who deals with that particuclar ecommerce setup.

  • Robert Lewis

    Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you point out the limitations and drawbacks of their current site (including the fact that it would apparently cause them trouble trying to find someone to expand it) and offer to renovate the whole thing?

  • Much of our job is education. Nobody knows everything, and not even we know what were’re doing sometimes. Sometimes we have to learn something new.

    Having said that at times clients believe the cheaper the better!

    Hardly the best way to do business. I recently lost some work to another web designer because they went for the cheaper. I ended up having to educate the clients why these cheaper options would cost them more time and work in the long run, and how what they though would be a saving would actually cost them more money in time to come.

    Sometimes we say “no” to clients. Business practice evolves based on negative experiences.

    When you take on new projects, with foreign concepts, we place all our resources in order to cope with this, and at times, we’re unsure if this will pay off. More times that not clients turn into our test clients for something new. Often we’re more lenient because of this, but willing to make less money as we’re learning something new. If that new thing will not benefit us then there is no reason to put strain on ourselves. After all, it’s a business we’re trying to run.

  • I 100% agree with your reasoning. I work in PHP and Coldfusion and have no urges to learn certain other languages that some use for web applications. For that same reason I would have turned the job down. Besides, I don’t think most clients want you learning a new language from scratch and cutting your teeth on their production web app.

  • This sounds a liiiittle sly, but I think this can also be where networking with people in the same industry kinda pays off – you can always refer the client to another agency / freelancer who is a better fit to handle the client’s requirements. You not only help the client, but also earn some goodwill with the other agency (…and maybe they will refer you sometime in the future?)

    Anyway – yes, since I’m freelancing (and still have a day job), I would rather keep my commitments and service level with my already committed clients, and yet be able to balance my “work” and “life”, rather than accept a project and end up sleeping only for 3 hours a night.

    I guess there are some things money can’t buy. ;)

  • Dorsey

    The medical, legal, insurance, and accounting professions are constantly referring clients, but they also collect a referral fee. This is a good model to follow – I doubt that I’d send business away to a competitor without there being something in it for me. That “something” could be a commitment to share another project or a referral back again. Hoping that the client is so happy at your honesty will result in future business with them is wishful thinking and very long shot.

  • Yes – mostly agree. I’ll take on projects using unfamiliar technology if I think that what they want is something that’s worth learning *and* if there’s enough slack in the project to learn it. When this isn’t the case I’ll refer then to someone else with relevant experience. In any event most of my time is spent rebuilding client’s superficially pretty but ineffective websites and generally they are not desperately worried which technologies are used if the job gets done. As someone who is very comfortable using PHP/MySQL backends I’m not planning to take on anything needing ASP.Net any time now but might make the effort to learn Rails (I already know a bit of Ruby) if I was pushed in that direction.

  • I think there’s also a need to not feel like you have to be a fit for every client’s needs. Sometimes it’s the best thing if you say no. Focus on what your the best at giving and provide that service. If they ask for something that’s not your niche or if you feel you’re not the best to accomplish it, it’s ok!

  • About a year ago I had to turn down a project as it was beyond the scope of my knowledge base at the time. I was totally honest with my client which he appreciated. The company I referred him to was offering a referral fee – which worked out very well for me. Not to mention that my client trusted my judgment and had me kind of behind the scenes consulting on the project too!

  • I had a potential client call me about 7pm on a Friday evening. I just happened to be working late and had not yet sent the sales line to voice mail. He tells me he wants a site just like a particular URL he gave me over the phone. We spoke for a few minutes to get some idea of what he wanted. I asked if he knew what kind of budget he had in mind for the site. He said he really didn’t know at this point.
    I took an hour our so to review the site it was apparent that it was a fairly complex site with approximately 75 sub-domains. I emailed him back and explained that each sub-domain required a unique graphic and that alone was going to be about $10k and a rough estimate would be about $16k on up.
    He emails me back in all caps “I JUST WANT A TEMPLATE”. I was pretty sure at this point that this was a client I did not want to deal with.

  • Bob

    I ALMOST gave up a client because their original website was poorly constructed using .NET. Instead of having to learn .NET I convinced the client that using PHP and MySQL was superior. It took me little time to update the website using the scripting I was already familiar with and I did not have to turn down the job.

  • Even though there are a lot of great programs (point and click or template) that could be used to “get a website out there”, there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes that the client (usually not a designer or developer) is not aware of. That being said, if we took the time to learn every program that they wanted us to use, we would be in an endless learning phase and no longer creating websites. I think it is best to stick with what you already know and do the job well, even at the cost of “losing” a potential client. We have turned down a few that wanted us to use programs that we were unfamiliar with.

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