4 Times It’s Okay to Tell Your Client “No”

Whether you work for an agency or as a freelance developer, telling a client “no” can be awkward or even risky. However, the old adage that “the customer is always right” isn’t true in every case.

In fact, sometimes saying “no” is a necessity. Fortunately, if you turn clients down respectfully and explain your reasoning, these potentially difficult interactions can end up strengthening rather than harming your relationships.

In this post, we’ll discuss four times when it’s best for you to tell a client “no”. Then we’ll give you some pointers to help you handle those conversations effectively. Let’s get started!

1. Fulfilling Your Client’s Request Would Harm You in Some Way

As a web developer, it’s unlikely that a client will ever make a request that could put you in physical harm. However, there are times when they may ask something of you that would negatively impact your mental or financial well-being.

For those in professions that place a lot of demands on their time, burnout is a serious concern. Web developers tend to work long hours to meet version releases and other deadlines. Plus, if you’re a freelancer with an unpredictable income, you’re more likely to feel stressed about your job. These realities can make web developers particularly susceptible to burnout, depression, and anxiety.

Clients can definitely add to your stress, and put a strain on your mental health. If a client is demanding that you put in more time than you’re able to without experiencing a mental breakdown, it’s best to discuss alternative solutions with them. For example, you might ask them to extend their deadline, or offer to pass the project off to another developer.

Similarly, if a client is demanding large chunks of your time, you’ll have less availability for other projects. If meeting a client’s demands will impact your ability to generate income or fulfill other obligations, it’s probably not worth it to do so.

Any time you tell a client “no”, you risk losing their business. However, a client relationship that puts your well-being (or your other clients’ projects) at risk probably isn’t one you want to keep around anyway.

2. What Your Client Wants Is a Clear Violation of Their Contract

Some people like to think that the rules don’t apply to them. Whether it’s a request for services you don’t provide, a lower rate, or some other previously-agreed-upon term, there are clients who will try to get around their contracts.

It can be tempting to turn a blind eye to this behavior, for fear of offending your client. However, if they don’t want to hold up their end of the deal, you’ve earned the right to draw the line and refuse to let them take advantage of you.

The nice thing about this scenario is that you can pull up a copy of your contract to show the client. Reminding them of what they agreed to will be enough to get most reasonable people to back off, and be content with what you’re offering.

However, this obviously relies on you getting everything down in writing before the project starts. This is why it’s crucial to have a standard client contract written and ready for any new leads who decide they want to work with you.

3. Your Client Wants Something That Will Negatively Impact Their Own Project

Chances are high that most of your clients don’t have a lot of experience with web design or development. That’s why they’ve hired you. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes they’re going to ask for things that just aren’t smart ideas.

This could be something as small as a terrible color scheme, or a more problematic request such as poor layout and navigational design. Whatever the issue might be, if you know a client’s request is going to end up hurting them in the long run, it’s best to speak up now.

At the end of the day, if a client’s website fails, they’re going to turn to you either for answers or for someone to blame. You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by advising against requests that will harm Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or conversion rates as soon as they come up.

Some clients will defer to your expertise and follow your lead, easily solving the problem. Others may insist upon having things their way. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with avoiding further conflict by giving in.

However, that initial “no” is crucial. It protects you if the client comes back later and complains that their site isn’t performing well. In that scenario, you’ll at least be able to remind them that you warned them about the problem up front. If nothing else, this may lead them to take your advice more seriously the next time around.

4. The Request Your Client Is Making Goes Against Your Personal Ethics

Hopefully, you’ll never have to experience a client asking you to do something illegal. However, even if a request is technically within the bounds of the law, it could still conflict with your personal sense of right and wrong.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that you discriminate against clients and refuse to work with them because of their personal beliefs. We’re more concerned with specific actions clients might ask you to take that would conflict with your morals.

For example, let’s say that a client asks you to include some images on their home page, and you find out that the images are copyrighted. Telling your client you can’t use them is in the best interests of you, your client, and the person who created the images.

Other problematic requests could include spammy behavior, hidden links, ‘invisible’ text, and similar deceptive tactics. In some cases, your client may not even realize the issues with what they’ve asked for.

If that’s the case, this could be an opportunity to educate them (politely). On the other hand, if they do know that what they want is not necessarily ethical, it may be time for you to part ways.

How to Say “No” to a Client (And Maintain a Healthy Relationship)

The scary part of telling clients “no” is that it could impact your business. Freelancers in particular need to maintain solid client relationships, in order to land new projects and maintain a consistent revenue stream.

However, not every client will react badly to having their request declined, especially if you approach them in the right way. The next time you have to say “no”, consider these tips for smoothing out the conversation that follows:

  • Be firm, but not harsh. Phrases such as “Regretfully, that’s not something I can help you with” will make your point clear, without insulting the client.
  • Make sure to explain the reason behind your response. This can help the client see the situation from your perspective, which may make it less likely that they’ll feel frustrated or upset with you.
  • Educate and empower your clients. Particularly with requests that go against best practices or are morally questionable, it’s key to clarify for the client why their request isn’t in their own best interests. Focus on how the request could hurt them, and you’ll have their attention.

In some cases, these practices may not only save your relationship with your client – they could strengthen it as well. Clients who understand that you’re telling them “no” but still care about their project and its success should appreciate your honesty and dedication.


Following the motto “the customer is always right” can actually get you into hot water. Although it may be uncomfortable, it’s sometimes necessary to turn down clients’ requests in order to maintain healthy relationships with them.

In this post, we looked into four situations in which it’s best to tell your client “no”:

  1. Fulfilling your client’s request would harm you in some way.
  2. What your client wants is a clear violation of their contract.
  3. Your client wants something that will negatively impact their own project.
  4. The request your client is making goes against your personal ethics.

Have you ever had to tell a client “no”, and how did you handle it? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below!

Image credit: Pexels.

Tom Rankin is a key member of WordCandy, a musician, photographer, vegan, beard owner, and (very) amateur coder. When he’s not doing any of these things, he’s likely sleeping.

The post 4 Times It’s Okay to Tell Your Client “No” appeared first on Torque.

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