It’s Okay to Say “No” – When to NOT Work with a Client

It's okay to say no

By Dr. Sarah Rubinson Levy

As small business owners, we often have the power to choose with whom we work. For some of us, it’s actually one of the main reasons we went down this path. And, with that power comes responsibility because we, then, are responsible for knowing when to (or when not to) work with a client. And in case you aren’t taking that in, I just want to reiterate that you do, in fact, have the power to NOT work with a client. And sometimes, you really shouldn’t.

But how do you know?

Aligned values

My core business values are curiosity, excellence, passion, and authenticity. Everything I do is grounded in these values – from how I approach a project to my standards to a final product to the kinds of interactions I have with people. These values are posted on my website and included in every proposal I send to potential clients, in part because I want them to know who I am and what differentiates me from others, but also because I want to work with others who share similar values so that we can work together from a shared understanding. While you and your clients don’t have to be soul mates, sharing values can lead to smoother working relationships – What are your values? What are the clients values (stated and lived)? Where would these values come into play and how might they impact your working relationship?

Compatible Communication Styles

I’m an emailer. My best time to work starts at 5 am, and much of the country is not yet awake then (perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors to why it’s my most productive time). So I send emails. And I appreciate responses within 12 hours (and get frustrated with responses beyond 24 hours). I once worked with a client who would ignore my emails for two weeks and then request a meeting to go over everything she didn’t read in the emails. That was challenging. I once worked with a client who would respond to every one of my (emailed) questions with, “Let’s hop on a call” and then list his phone number. Also challenging. While it’s not essential that you have the same communication style as your clients, it is essential that your styles are compatible, and only you know what that looks like – Are you comfortable hopping on the phone to get answers? Do you want to schedule regular Zoom check-ins? Can you adjust your communication style to meet the needs of a client or is that a deal breaker?


They say hindsight is 20/20; it’s when we say things like, “I knew I shouldn’t have worked with them!” Well, if you knew you shouldn’t have worked with them, why did you? It’s because you didn’t listen to your intuition. While, yes, there is value to giving others the benefit of the doubt, there is more value to trusting yourself, and you know who will be a good client for you and who won’t. Sometimes we can articulate the red flag when someone cancels three meetings with you or you heard they don’t pay on time or the work they want you to do just isn’t what you want to be doing…and sometimes it’s just a feeling that something feels off. It doesn’t matter because, either way, you know when you shouldn’t be working with a client, and don’t let louder voices convince you otherwise. 

I fully recognize that sometimes saying “no” to a project or a client can be seen as a luxury (there are bills to pay, afterall). And working with those who aren’t a good fit can cost you so much in the long run – from hours that you hadn’t built into a proposal to headache. 

If you’re on the fence about whether or not to work with a new client or take on a new project, here are a few baby steps you can take to test out the fit:

  • Give-to-Get – Is there a free or low-cost opportunity you can use to start building a relationship with the client while, also, secretly gathering data on fit? We often talk about the know > like > trust continuum that our potential clients move along (and providing something helpful and of use to them for free or low cost certainly helps with that), but we also move along that continuum ourselves in respect to each potential client, and a give-to-get opportunity can serve that purpose for us as well. 
  • Start small – Is there a small project you can use to dip your toes into the working relationship before engaging in something bigger? Consider the products or services you offer and the goals and needs of your clients (and potential clients) and build in an opportunity for something small where you can both show your value and test drive working with the client.
  • Work in phases – Can the larger project be chunked into phases that have natural break points where you can assess fit? Being locked into a large, time-consuming, expensive project can be amazing if it works well (hello security!), and, if it doesn’t, it can be a long, painful time period. Building in natural transition times into the project can give you flexibility while still being professional – just make sure to build the wording about when/how you will move into the next phase of the project or end the project without moving onto the next phase into any contract.

Ultimately, being a small business owner is an ongoing process of learning, and we can certainly learn a whole lot from working with the wrong clients. And there are plenty of other, less painful, ways to learn!

Dr. Sarah Rubinson Levy, founder Sarah Rubinson Consulting and Contracting, has been involved in education since 2001 – working, teaching, consulting, and writing in the areas of supplemental, day school, adult, and experiential education. She has an undergraduate degree in business and sociology and holds a Master of Jewish Education degree from Hebrew College, a doctorate in education from Northeastern University, and certificates in Advanced Jewish Studies, Day School Education, and Jewish Educational Leadership. Most recently, she was a founding head of school for Einstein Academy, a progressive private school in Denver, CO. Sarah’s approach integrates empathy and curiosity with research to work with the organization in a way that is both realistic and aspirational.

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