How To Turn Down New Projects And Be A Hero

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When you start freelancing or you start a creative agency, at first you have to take every bit of work that comes your way. You need to do this for experience, for portfolio-building, and to develop your systems, processes, and ideal client profile.

Then, as your freelance business or WordPress agency grows, you’re going to get to a point where you need to turn down new projects to remain as profitable as possible. I know that turning down work to remain profitable sounds crazy, but it works.

When you take on projects that aren’t a great fit or clients who aren’t a great fit, you often have to modify your processes and systems, perform more manual work, and spend more time managing the project and the client. It usually also takes longer to move through the design phase of the project, to receive the content and items you need, and get the final project live.

Ill-fit projects and clients reduce profits, while ideal fit projects and clients boost profits.

This is why you eventually need to begin turning down new business that isn’t a great fit. When you say no to new business that isn’t a great fit, you make room for new clients and new projects that are a perfect fit — your dream clients and projects that make you happy.

They key is to turn down new projects in a way that makes you a hero for the prospect.

I know it sounds crazy, but some of my favorite clients have been when I decided to turn down new projects. You see, most of the time, I turn down a project because of budget, timeline, or project requirements that don’t align with my skills — not because the prospect might be a bad client. With that in mind, I always strive to never just say no and leave a prospect empty-handed.

sales funnel drawn in chalk.

Never Turn Down New Projects and Send Prospects Away Empty-Handed

Whether they found you through a referral, an existing relationship, social media, following you online, subscribing to your posts or newsletter, or through research, by the time you speak with a prospect, they have already decided that they know you enough to believe you’re a good choice, like you enough to believe working together would be a great experience, and trust you enough to reach out about investing with you. In some cases, prospects are even showing up as raving fans who are really excited to have a conversation with you about their project.

At this point you’re the hero and even if you don’t end up working together, your goal should always be to remain the hero.

No matter what the reason, whenever you let a prospect know that they aren’t a good fit and turn down new projects, don’t send them away empty-handed. Instead be kind and helpful.

Point them in the right direction, by providing:

A Few Tips Specific to Their Project

While you may not be a great fit for their project or requirements, I’m sure that you have some thoughts about what the prospect is trying to accomplish. To help them move forward and take action, provide some valuable and strategic tips that are specific to their goals and objectives.

Recommendations or Suggestions

When saying no to a prospective client, consider offering them recommendations of tools, solutions, or other things to look into that may be really helpful.

When making recommendations, try to provide not just paid or premium options, but free options too. For example, if a prospect is needs a specific feature for their WordPress site, I’ll usually provide them links to both a free plugin and a premium plugin, and I’ll provide a little information about each one.

Referrals to Another Freelancer or Agency

When you receive an inquiry from prospect who has budget, but the project itself isn’t a good fit for your skillset or timeline, it’s best to refer them to someone else you trust who is a better fit. Notice I said, “has budget.” When making referrals to others, you want to make sure they are quality referrals because your referrals will be taken more seriously and receive higher priority if you vet them first.

When you turn down new projects and refer the prospect to someone else, try to:

  • Provide two or three options so the prospect has choices
  • Provide the name of the person your referring them to and link to their website or directly to their project inquiry form.
  • Explain why you think the provider you’re referring them to would be a good fit

Direction for What to Say to the Next Person

Often, prospects don’t quite have all their ducks in a row when they reach out to a service provider to talk about their project. This makes it harder for them to get the estimate or quote they need as fast as they want it.

When making referrals to other providers, I’ll also often add a quick note at the end of the email giving the prospect:

  • Direction for what to say to the next person they speak to
  • What information they should have ready before they reach out
  • What information they should provide when contacting a service provider

Links to Valuable Content

If you have a blog, you probably also have content that prospects will find valuable. When turning away a prospect, provide them with a few links to content that will help them move the needle. Consider sharing links to blog posts, tutorials, videos, webinars, courses, templates, podcast episodes, ebooks, etc.

Sample Emails To Turn Down New Projects

The two main reasons I sometimes say no to new projects and turn away new clients is to protect my profitability and maintain my brand reputation.

  • Taking on projects that aren’t a good fit will be less profitable because they will require more of my time to manage.
  • Taking clients on who aren’t a great fit could result in a less than stellar experience and in turn, erode my brand reputation and the ability to gather amazing testimonials.

When turning down new business, my goals are to be as valuable as possible, to remain the hero or keep the respect they have for me and my agency, and to be profitable in my interactions when appropriate.

emails from a laptop on a chalkboard

Example 1: Small Budget Email

When someone contacts my web design agency, Bourn Creative, about a new website project, but has a very small budget, I respond politely and say something like:

“Thank you so much for reaching out and considering us for your exciting new project. While we would love to work with you, Bourn Creative isn’t going to be the best fit to help with you achieve __________.

Based on the information provided, I do have a few recommendations though:

Check out for a collection of beautiful and well built off the shelf themes that will let you get started with minimal cost. Then browse the StudioPress recommended developers page to find a whole bunch of vetted designers and developers who can help you customize the theme for your brand.
Alternately, you can checkout It’s an marketplace of freelance developers and a great place to start.
Also, here’s a blog post I recently wrote on the 9 things you should know before creating a new website. I think you’ll find it helpful.
And of course, if you ever need any advice or help along the way, or you just want a fresh perspective or feedback on an idea, I am always available for a consulting call.

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

Best of luck to you with your website project and if I can ever be of help in the future, please let me know.”

Example 2: Skillset Mismatch Email

When someone contacts us and has budget but isn’t a match for our skillset or their timeline needs don’t fit in our workflow, I respond with something like:

“Thank you so much for reaching out and considering Bourn Creative as your creative partner for your new WordPress website. [Detail shared] sounds really interesting and I can see it making a big difference. Unfortunately, while we would love to work with you, our schedule is jam-packed right now and we’re not able to take on your project at this time.

I do have a few suggestions of other freelancers and agencies that you could reach out to that I think would be a great fit for your project:

  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit
  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit
  • Referral Name, website link, why you think they’re a good fit

When you reach out, they’re all going to want to know the same things and need the same information to get you a quote in a timely manner:

  1. Know your budget
  2. Share your timeline and critical deadlines
  3. Communicate any requirements for the project
  4. Provide links to sample sites with similar features to what you want

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

Best of luck to you with your website project. If I can ever be of help in the future, I am always available for a consulting call, or if you have another project in [your area of expertise], I’d love to work with you.”

Example 3: Specific Solution Email

When a prospect reaches out and they have a very specific need that I know can be met with a specific solution, I share the solution with them, even if it means I turn down new projects.

“Thank you so much for considering Bourn Creative for your _______ project. We actually get a lot of inquiries from business owners just like you looking for similar features and functionality.

While I could provide you an estimate and complete this project for you, there is another solution I think you’ll love that will save you a lot of money.

  • Name of the solution
  • Why you think it’s a fit and how the prospect will benefit
  • Link to the solution so they can check it out

Thanks again for reaching and I hope this helps!

If you decide [solution name] is the better fit (because who doesn’t love saving money?!), please remember that I am always available for a consulting call to help you work through any details or strategy.”

Add Value To Every Interaction

As you can see, even though we decided to turn down new projects, we’re doing it in a caring, helpful way that ensures the prospect doesn’t feel like contacting us was a waste of time, but instead feels really glad they spoke to us and happy to have the recommendations.

This approach alone has landed Bourn Creative some of our very best clients who were referred to us by people we never ended up working with, but were so impressed with how we handled the inquiry and so thankful for the recommendations, that we remained heroes in their eyes.

So next time a prospect reaches out with a project that isn’t a fit, pause for a moment, consider how you can add value to their experience, and help them out. After all, as Anne Frank has famously said, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

See more articles on how to attract new clients, jumpstart your business, and more from Jennifer Bourn.
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