I'm sometimes asked whether I've ever either turned down a prospective client or started working with a client and then stopped the project part-way through.
The answer to both questions is 'yes', so here's why, and how I approach(ed) each situation.
Turning down a new client
When I started out as a freelancer, I took pretty much every job I could get. I told myself that I needed the money and I needed to expand my portfolio.
I ended up doing some work that I didn't enjoy, in areas I wasn't suited to, for clients I didn't like (who probably didn't like me in return).
Basically, that kind of mentality leads to crappy work. The kind of crappy work that you not only don't want to put into your portfolio, but is also likely to lead to very little work in the future.
I became miserable and wasn't making much money. I figured that if I was going to be miserable, I'd be better off at least getting a monthly wage, so I found a job with a company.
Over the next few years, something interesting happened. People were asking me to do work for them, and I was able to pick and choose because I was in full-time employment. Not only that, but I was doing work that really appealed to me and charging way more than I previously had done.
Over time, it became second nature, so I never really thought about saying 'no' to clients. I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I still occasionally turn down potential clients for a number of reasons:
1) I know I can't help them.
If a client is looking for things like a custom-built website, a huge installation or a fully-kitted out workspace, I know I'm in way over my head and I won't be able to do the work. It's better for both me and the client if I don't string them along by promising things I can't deliver.
2) We're not a good match.
Not everybody has the same tastes, and that's great. I tend to prefer minimalist designs, so if somebody's looking for the logo equivalent of a '90s Versace shirt, I'm not the best person to ask.
3) Moral reasons.
Thankfully this hasn't happened yet, but I wouldn't be comfortable doing work for arms dealers, abattoirs, rampant capitalists and others I don't like. Oh, and Donald Trump.
Turning down an existing client
Like any relationship, sometimes things don't work out and it's best to walk away.
Admittedly, this is hard because it can go arse-up if you're not careful. Not only are you turning down money, you're also leaving yourself open to the possibility of the client telling others you're not to be trusted.
The thing is, you could be doing both yourself and your client a huge favour by not dragging it out. If the client is demanding way more than you originally agreed on, say no. If, however, they're asking because you haven't explained things properly, perhaps you could give them the option of terminating the agreement (thereby saving you the job of saying no).
There are tons of reasons why you might want to say no to an existing client, so I won't cover them all here. However, here are a few reasons I've terminated agreements:
Having agreed on a price, one client suddenly started complaining about how much things were costing and demanding to know why (which I had already explained). Sensing it would only get worse, I decided to walk away.
Totally my fault, this one. When I first started out I thought I could do anything. I can't. One poor client found this out the hard way and I humbly - with great embarrassment - admitted I was way out of my league and skulked away with my tail between my legs. An excellent learning experience.
3) Personality clash.
I think I'm not that bad at judging character, but that doesn't mean I can't get it spectacularly wrong on occasion. When it's clear we're not only not on the same wavelength but seemingly not on the same planet, the humane thing to do is bid a fond farewell.
Like I said, it's not easy, but it can be liberating and ultimately rewarding for everybody involved.
Doing the deed - saying 'no'
I've found honesty to be the best policy here. That doesn't mean saying "you're a dick and I wouldn't work for you if my life depended on it", rather explaining the situation in an honest, polite, professional way.
I try to do the following:
1) Explain simply and professionally why it's probably not a good idea if we work together.
This could be any of the reasons given above, or that I'm busy or whatever else.
2) Be professional.
I can't emphasize this enough. This is your livelihood and reputation, so don't ruin it by coming across as arrogant, condescending and rude.
3) Suggest an alternative.
If possible, suggest somebody you'd recommend as a replacement, i.e. somebody more suited to their needs.
4) Say thank you.
It's polite, professional and is basic courtesy. If somebody has gone to the trouble of contacting you, thank them for it, regardless of whether or not you end up working together.
5) Leave the door open.
Just because one project hasn't worked out, it doesn't mean all future projects are doomed to fail. One client I turned down for design work (which was beyond my capabilities) hired me for writing and editing work just because I said "if there's any way I can help you in the future, please get in touch." It can be that easy.
6) Avoid bad-mouthing each other.
I find this to be very rude and unprofessional. It's fine to give a warning if somebody is being dodgy, but calling people names is unacceptable.
If you've got any comments, suggestions or questions you think could help people struggling with saying no, please leave a comment or get in touch. Cheers!