Just say no: How to decline a request to work for free

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Just say no: How to decline a request to work for free

There is no reason why you should work for free. After all, you are a professional and your time is money, and you should always, always charge for your work!

But that doesn’t mean you will not never be asked to work for free. Sometimes you may even be tempted. It can look like a dream client and a good way to get your foot in the door. Or it could be a valuable existing customer that keeps pushing for more and you’re worried about losing a lucrative account.

In these cases, a simple “no” can be a bit abrupt. After all, you don’t want to burn bridges. So how do you stop clients from expecting free work without jeopardizing your relationship with them? Let’s have a look.

With new customers: State your policy, but also your values

You receive an email from a potential customer. Your heart starts racing when you realize it’s the dream job for a client you’ve been wanting to work for. But the catch: They can’t pay you. Maybe they promise “exposure” or even hint that this could be the start of more…

What is your job?

It helps to make sample responses to activity requests free (and spend some time thinking about your own policy). For example, you might decide you’re going to do a certain amount of free, not-for-profit work as a return to your community.

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But when a large commercial client asks you to work for free, you should have a standard answer that confirms your rate. This eBooks from FreshBooks has several starting points (for this and other conversations).

But don’t leave it there. Explain the value of your work not only in terms of the cost it brings to them. Here is an example:

Thanks for contacting! I would love to work with you on this project.

It’s my policy to work for nonprofits for free, but for businesses like yours, I always charge for my work. I have attached my price tag/estimate for your information.

What will you get in return? You can expect excellence [assets] that promotes excellence [results] for your business. Similar work I did for [clients X, Y, Z] condescend [quantified results].

With existing customers: Set expectations right from the start

Early and often is the general rule for managing your customer’s expectations. Think of it as training: On the first few projects you take on with a new client, be a daredevil about the macabre requirements of scope.

This is where strong documentation can help. Set yourself up to make this easy by providing a clear estimate or recommendation at the beginning of each new requirement or project. That way, when they ask for something more, it’ll be clear to them if the item is within the scope of the job.

Project Estimation helps you take the guesswork out of customer relationships. They provide a breakdown of services, costs, and project lengths. More importantly, they kick-start good practices and ensure everyone understands the work involved.

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Be diplomatic to preserve the relationship. Take a moment to explain the time and resources it takes to complete their request so they understand it in clear dollars and cents. This way, they feel like they have a choice in the matter and can agree to decline or waive the request.

Make an exception: No Nickel and Dime are a good relationship

While charging for work is important, it’s equally important to determine when a free offering can be beneficial.

You want to build long term, Positive customer relationship. You don’t want your customers to think you’re the one making every penny. So be sensible, maintain a long-term view and be ready to let things slide. Consider that sometimes you can get more out of that interaction in the long run – that free person or that unique favor – than the initial monetary benefit you get.

One practical way to do this and show your generosity in the name of that relationship building (but make it clear that a fee often applies) is to add a discount to your bill.


There’s nothing wrong with giving a loyal customer a freebie. But it becomes problematic when customers start expecting it. And, if you’re not careful, you could find yourself doing a great deal of “free” work with no money to show for your efforts.

Failure to correct this situation can lead to resentment. And that’s not fun. Thankfully, fixing this situation is easy, and you don’t have to burn bridges with customers. Just take charge and train them to stop expecting it.

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Do you have clients who expect free work? How do you deal with it?

We hope you don’t need these, but if things are getting out of hand, here are some tips to help you break up with a client.

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