Saying No: How to Balance Your Workload as an Indy

Written by Nicola Brown on January 9, 2017

It’s an exciting time when business starts to pick up and you experience some real growth as an independent contractor. You’re getting your name out there, making solid connections, learning how to balance your workload and winning new work successfully. Go you!

Then, something happens: You begin to get more work than you can handle. Sure, you’re used to putting in odd hours, and you know about the realities of the productivity ups and downs of being all hands on deck one week and idle the next. Being busy is a good thing, right? If you put in that overtime now, you’ll reap the rewards later. Well, maybe.

One of the hardest things to do as an independent contractor is to learn how to say “no.” It feels counterintuitive when you run your own business to say no to new work. But, sometimes, when you’re scrambling to figure out how to balance your workload, it becomes necessary.

The Need for No

You only have so much time and effort to dedicate to your business. You have a responsibility to your existing clients to deliver the same quality of work as you grow, and new clients are interested in your business because of that quality of work you’ve previously delivered. Taking on too much will make all your work suffer, and sloppiness isn’t a trait you want to be associated with for the long-term health of your business.

Other times, you may need to say no on principle. It can feel tempting, when business is slow or you’re in the early stages of building your client connections, to cling to the first piece of low-hanging fruit that comes along. This may be a job that pays below the value of your skills and experience, or it may be in an area that’s outside your expertise.

Here, you’ll need to get good at making judgment calls. Accepting a rate that fails to match with the expectations of the work can be demoralizing, but it can also undermine the dynamics of the freelancing world. When clients come to expect they can find desperate indys and get work done on the cheap, they’ll stop paying fair fees for the work, and the market will begin to devalue the services of independent contractors. When you accept work that’s outside your area of expertise, you run the risk of overpromising and under-delivering to your client, which won’t help your reputation in the long run. Be realistic and honest about your ability to deliver on the client’s requirements.

One of the hardest times to say no is in response to a phenomenon some call “scope creep.” This is when a client suddenly starts adding to the list of agreed upon services or the required time commitment for a project. Even when you’ve signed a detailed contract with a client, scope creep can add a great deal of tension to the relationship. Knowing how to handle these situations will guide you through the inevitable ups and downs of freelancing.

How to Say No to Clients

  1. Prepare ahead of time. It’s always best to prepare in advance for difficult conversations or breaking negative news. Make sure you’re ready to deliver a response that’s clear and concise, but not dismissive. Anticipate the client’s reaction, and be prepared to talk through their questions and concerns.
  2. Don’t just say “no.” While you may not be able to take on the work right now, make it clear you’re keen to maintain open communication and a long-term relationship with your client in case things change in the future. This will ensure they don’t write you off for future potential work.
  3. Offer an alternative. If you’re unable to take on the full scope of the work your client is seeking, or you’re not happy with the rate, offer an alternative project scope or propose a smaller fraction of work you’d be willing to do for the offered compensation.
  4. Suggest another freelancer. Guiding your client in the direction of a freelancing friend who might accommodate the work is a great way to build trust with that client. Even if you’re unable to do this project, they may end up coming to you again in the future, because they know you’re a useful resource. It’s also a great way to build relationships with your freelancing friends. Next time something comes up that they can’t handle, they’ll think of you first.

Saying “no” can be one of the hardest things to do as an independent contractor, but it’s one of the best things to get comfortable with as you learn how to balance your workload. Know your limits, honor the highest caliber of work you can provide and work on turning down excess work with grace — and being okay with doing so.

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