scorecardHow to say no and handle to tough clients professionally without getting pushed around
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How to say no and handle to tough clients professionally without getting pushed around

Angie Colee   

How to say no and handle to tough clients professionally without getting pushed around
Careers3 min read
  • Angie Colee is a coach who helps creative entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
  • As a freelancer, she says she's learned to master the art of politely saying no to client requests.
  • Presume good intentions before going into the conversation, and frame your words carefully and firmly.

If you've been in business as a freelancer and dealing with clients for a while, odds are you've encountered the kind of tough client that makes you question whether you're cut out to run your own business.

I freelance as the head of a writing team for an email marketing agency, and part of my role is saying "no" to clients without wrecking the relationship. Here's my go-to strategy.

A time to type versus talk

Sending an email can backfire when there are strong feelings involved. You might be great at writing emails, but upset people are even better at finding ways to misinterpret something you thought was 1000% clear.

As soon as you notice resentment or frustration, reach out. Set up a phone or Zoom call, and bring a few talking points and a positive, problem-solving attitude. Ten minutes on the phone will often clear up what was a genuine misunderstanding.

If you're worried you won't do well on a call, send a voicemail or video instead. You'll be able to script out what you want to say, practice a few times, and still send something personal, all without having to react on the fly.

Set the scene for your chat

Don't go into this looking for a fight. Since this is a client you've already started working with, assume positive intent, and that there might be some missing detail that helps make sense of the frustration. Pretend like the client is paying you because they like you, because they are. People like working with people they like!

If you start out upset, that irritation will leak into your mannerisms no matter how carefully you frame your words. If you look for ways to work together, you're more likely to solve the problem in a way that makes everyone happy.

Side note: If mean clients and misunderstandings are a consistent problem in your business, then something is broken in your lead generation system or your screening process. Fix that and you'll find working with clients is a lot easier.

Have a productive conversation

You need to find the answer to two simple questions. The first is, "Is this problem fixable?" The second is, "Am I the person to fix it?"

Sometimes the problem can't actually be fixed, like when there are circumstances beyond your control or the client has unrealistic expectations. I like to ask, "If you could wave a magic wand, what would solve this and make you happy?" If they haven't thought about what a good outcome looks like, this forces them to.

Once you have a potential fix, determine if it's feasible - you can't always fix a client's problems. I once had a wonderful client disappear after he unexpectedly lost a key member of his team. He couldn't keep up with all the demands on his plate, including our project. In that situation, I couldn't find him a new teammate, but I could (and did) let him know I'm still here when things settle.

You're allowed to walk away

You can walk away from any project or client that's making you miserable. Sometimes it's just not a good fit, and you can't always know that until the work begins. Refund their money or finish the work you agreed to, because professionals honor their commitments, and then part on polite terms.

It's hard to walk away from someone waving cash at you, but be strong and do it anyway, because bad-fit clients will suck up all your time and energy until you can't even see other opportunities. You've got to make space for bigger projects and better clients. Nature abhors a vacuum and will rush to fill the space you create.

And don't take abuse

Name calling, lying, and insults are unacceptable - it doesn't matter how much money they're offering. Stress is not an excuse for bad behavior. With almost 8 billion people on the planet, there's bound to be someone else you can work with, and work with well.

Angie Colee helps creative entrepreneurs grow their businesses. She's coached and run creative teams for companies like Lowes, Product Launch Formula, Copy Chief, and Orzy Media. She also hosts the Permission to Kick Ass podcast.