The Biggest Lesson I Learned as a Freelance Designer: How to Say No

by Alabaweh Baweh -
The Biggest Lesson I Learned as a Freelance Designer: How to Say No

"The customer is always right." "If your customers aren't satisfied, they won't come back, and you won't be able to keep growing your business." "If you turn down a customer, you're never going to have a chance with them again." As a freelance designer, I've heard all the advice--including advice that left me wondering whether or not I was really cut out for this job. What are you supposed to do when you're offered a rush job that you really don't have time to complete? What happens when a long-term client calls you up and asks for you to get something done in the middle of what was supposed to be your vacation? 

Here's the thing: I love my job. I love design as a whole, and I love that moment when all the elements of a design come together and I'm able to produce exactly what a customer wants. 

Through years of experience, however, I've learned that there are times when you just have to tell a customer no.

Setting Your Prices and Sticking to Them

Everyone wants something for free. Your best friends, your customers, your family members: when they hear that you're a designer, they want you to put together their web page, or their logo, or that perfect illustration that they just have to have for their latest event. When you're first starting out, you might even offer some free services, especially to your friends and family members. It's a great way to build experience, put together your portfolio, and start improving your reputation. 

As your business grows, however, you develop a better idea of what all those hours behind your computer screen are really worth. You set a price list: a reasonable expectation of compensation for the work you're creating.

The discount requests, however, just keep coming. This family member thinks they should be able to get your services for free. That client thinks you're "just too expensive" (though they keep coming back to you for all their design needs anyway). This person would be willing to send a lot of work your way if you'll just offer them a deal on it. 

Sound familiar?

There are times, as a freelance designer, when you'll want to drop your asking price a little. Maybe there's a client that you really want to work for, or perhaps you have a long-term client who deserves a little bit of a deal. Maybe you've even got a "friends and family" discount built into your pricing. When you have a fair price list, however, it's equally fair to stick to it. People who really respect you as a designer will also respect your prices--and chances are, they're willing to pay for it, too. Like anyone else, you have the right to make a living. If you're constantly offering discounts, it can be hard to get your designs to pay the bills. Learning to say no when clients asked for a discount they had done nothing to deserve was one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a freelancer. 

Adhering to Your Boundaries

Some freelancers in a wide range of industries struggle to tell their clients no for any reason. The deadline is too tight, they're on vacation, or they don't want to take a call at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, but they grit their teeth and do it anyway because "That's the price of being a freelancer, right?" 

No, it's not. 

Set boundaries around your work and adhere to them. If you worked a 9-5 job in an office, you wouldn't constantly bring work home with you and complete projects after hours. You might check your messages and send an email or two, but you wouldn't feel the need to skip a family meal or outing just to finish a project for a client who was late to give you the materials you needed. As a freelancer, you don't have to, either. Set boundaries!

  • If you're on vacation, be on vacation! You can create an "out of office" email just as effectively as anyone who actually works in an office--and yours just might be better designed. 
  • Set specific hours when you're willing to handle work communications. Sure, you can send off a quick email outside of those hours, but you don't have to--and you should make a habit of turning off your email and spending time away from your work. 
  • Know your limits. If you're already booked solid for the week and can't handle another project or if you know a tight deadline is going to leave you stressed and struggling, seriously consider whether you're willing to actually take on that project (and how much more you're going to charge them for the rush fee). It's okay to turn down work that you're too busy to handle--and turning it down does not necessarily mean that you'll lose the client in the future, either. 

"Firing" a Client

I once worked with a client who caused my blood pressure to shoot through the roof every time I saw their name in my inbox. Their rates were low (I started working with them long before I knew what my work was really worth), and they tended to have high-volume requests that they wanted to be turned around fast. As my portfolio and client base grew, I had more than enough work without them (that paid a good bit better), but when I finally tried to cut ties with them, a stack of unexpected medical bills sent me running back to them to take the project after all. 

Don't fall into this trap. 

I worked for this client off and on for years, stacking their requests in on top of other, more well-paid work. If I tried to politely suggest that there wasn't room in my schedule for their projects, they would come back with a request to handle a smaller portion of it, or offer a (still inadequate) "bonus" offer that, often, didn't actually materialize when the project was finished.

When I finally told them once and for all that my rates had increased to their current actually professional level, they sent back a somewhat snotty email about how they'd told me in the past that they couldn't afford those rates, and I was going to have to lower them to meet their needs. It was a weight off my shoulders to be able to tell them that I didn't need them unless they were willing to pay my going rate--and I haven't heard from them since. 

It's hard to fire a client, especially as a freelancer who knows that every client is a paycheck you can't afford to lose, but trust me: there are clients you can afford to lose. There are clients that, in fact, your business will run more smoothly without. With this client off my plate, I get to tackle more of the projects that I actually enjoy (and the ones that actually pay the bills). Instead of being stuck doing repetitive detail work with little creativity behind it, I get to work for bigger, better clients who appreciate me for what I'm actually worth. My business has actually grown as a result. 

The most important lesson any freelancer can learn is when to say no to a client. Not only can ignoring your boundaries lead to burnout, but it can also leave you struggling to take any joy in your business at all. Set those boundaries, and stick with them. There are clients out there who can't wait to work with you--and often, they'll respect you more when you establish and stick with those clear boundaries.