Myth: Turning down projects is only for established designers with long waitlists and huge budgets.
Turning down projects is a necessary part of running a business and protecting your time and brand. Carefully choosing what work you take on does not mean less work or less income, it means that you have created room for better work (that is to say, projects that are right for you and your goals). If you’re constantly busy with projects that aren’t a good fit, you won’t have time to take on the ones you actually want. Here are our tried-and-true recommendations for filtering inquiries and saying “no” with grace and tact.
Photography by Madeline Harper
Let Your Inquiry Form do the Work
The first line of defense for inquiries should be your online form. It takes an average of 1-3 hours to research, vet, and respond to inquiries. If it’s a good fit, then it’s worth it, but if not, that’s a lot of time wasted that could be spent focused on other aspects of your business or with your family and friends.
If you find that you’re constantly getting inquiries that don’t line up with your style, cost, or timeline restrictions, then it’s time to add some additional questions to that form to weed out any projects that obviously won’t work.
Don’t be afraid to be specific! Our favorite way to filter not-so-ideal projects is to have a dropdown option on the inquiry form in the “budget” category. It’s a subtle way to set a minimum project budget and let potential clients know up front what they should expect as a financial investment. They’ll know if it’s not what they’re looking for in terms of cost, saving us both some time and energy.
Saying "No" the Right Way After the Inquiry Process
Undoubtedly, some projects will still slip through the cracks. It might not be apparent at first that it won’t work out, but once it is, what do you say? The first and most important thing: don’t ghost them. It’s a bad look for your brand and just an inconsiderate thing to do.
We like to send an email that sounds something like this:
“Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out. We’re honored that you are a fan of our work! After careful consideration of your inquiry, we feel the following designers could be a better fit for your project based on budget/style/timeline needs.”
Feel free to tailor that last sentence to the specific situation so that they know why it wasn’t a good fit, if appropriate.
Photography by Madeline Harper
Set up a Referral Program
Follow this paragraph or similar with a list of two or three trusted designers that you have set up referral programs with. If it’s a small project you don’t want to take on, this is a great time to plug another designer’s e-design services.
If you don’t have any referral agreements in place with other designers, I suggest you start by reaching out to:
a designer who has similar style but at a lower price point (maybe someone with less experience)
a designer who specializes in e-design for smaller projects
a designer with a larger team that can take on projects with expedited timelines
A referral program is a win for everyone. It’s a great way to serve clients you can’t personally work with, help your designer friends land clients they most enjoy working with, and potentially earn a little cash. You’ll also get inquiries tossed your way that are more in line with your ideal client profile.
As far as the referral fee goes, there’s no right or wrong way to approach it. In our own business, we use a flat rate sliding scale depending on the services needed. A few hundred dollars makes it worth it for you, but won’t cut too much into the other designer’s costs.
Saying “no” can be so difficult, especially in slower seasons, but it really is so worthwhile to wait on the projects that most align with your vision and process. This is a lesson that so many small business owners—myself included—have to learn the hard way when they’re just starting out. It’s so tempting to fill your schedule with small projects that pay the bills until a big inquiry rolls in and you don’t have the bandwidth to take it on. We are all about working smarter, not harder and saying “yes” to things that take us closer to our goals. We hope these tips help you find your dream projects and feel better about saying “no” to the wrong ones in a way that still serves them.