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Setting professional boundaries by saying “no” to work

In an industry where productivity is paramount, knowing when and how to set boundaries at work can be your superpower, whether you’re an agency owner or freelancer.

Illustration of person multitasking on a keyboard with four different arms.

In this article, we’ll delve into the how, when, and why of turning down projects that may not align with your business’s strengths. We’ll also share invaluable data from the 2023 Mailchimp & Co Benchmark Report, made exclusively for agencies and freelancers like you with your fellow marketers’ insights.

According to the findings from the 2023 Benchmark Report, a whopping 60% of agency respondents say they rarely or never turn down projects that aren’t the right fit. The assumption driving this pattern is that every project, no matter how ill-suited, can be a stepping stone to success. But is that true?

The fear of saying “no”

According to the Benchmark Report, responding agency owners tell us they fear that turning down work will lead to a reduction in revenue. And that makes sense, seeing as saying “no” could mean missing out on potential income streams, client relationships, and ultimately, a potential steady flow of projects. But this hesitation isn’t merely about numbers on a ledger; it’s about the essence of running an agency.

For agency owners, saying “no” can understandably feel like balancing the scales between immediate financial gain and long-term sustainability. You might decline a project that helps pay the bills today but puts you at risk of burnout or compromised quality tomorrow. On a deeper level, confronting the fear of turning down work and actually going through with it, can mean running the risk that your agency fades into obscurity.

Contrary to agency behavior, saying “no” strategically can help catapult your marketing business to new heights. In fact, our research uncovered a surprising revelation—those who set professional boundaries by saying “no” were more likely to double their chances of growing their revenue, compared to those who rarely decline work.

Responding agencies aren’t the only one’s facing the dilemma of declining work; the freelancers we surveyed tell us that they grapple with it too, but in a different way. 36% of responding freelancers say that they follow their gut when it comes time to set healthy boundaries by turning down projects. This approach helps freelancers channel their energy into clients and projects that resonate with their goals.

Just remember: It’s important to recognize that this fear is not only unfounded; it’s a testament to the dedication and ambition that helps agencies and freelancers reach for the stars—even when the night sky seems full of uncertainty.

Illustration of a target with email arrows targeting it.

A strategy for success

Now, let’s delve into a strategy for saying “no.” Every agency owner should strive to feel more comfortable (and confident) turning down or passing off opportunities that don’t align with their vision. While it’s easier said than done, it’s a skill that can make all the difference.

Defining your ideal client

Getting comfortable with saying “no” begins with defining your ideal client. Imagine you’re working with clients who align with your agency’s vision and values. What characteristics make them a dream to work with? Is it their industry passion, their collaborative spirit, or their innovative problem-solving approach?

69% of agency respondents tell us that client enjoyability is their top criteria. For another 50%, it’s about potential profitability, while 49% value the potential for repeat work. Clearly, there’s more to a successful working relationship than managing client expectations and earning a paycheck.

Marti Kerner, Mailchimp pro partner and founder of Spring Ahead Media Solutions, shared who her ideal clients are and what makes them preferable to other clients.

“Collaboration is so important. I want to work with clients who understand what makes their businesses valuable; clients who know their limitations and value my expertise. I don’t necessarily need to learn every detail of every business and they don't need to know the latest email marketing trends. So long as they have a vision of their own, I can help execute it.”

— Marti Kerner

Identifying the wrong fit

The next step in the art of saying “no” is learning how to identify the wrong fit. This could be a project that doesn’t align with your areas of expertise, or a client whose values clash with your agency’s mission; your workload might be at capacity, or you might know someone in your network who would be a better fit. Maybe you simply don’t connect with the product or service being offered. No matter the reason, recognizing these misalignments—and acting accordingly—has the power to help you preserve your resources for the right opportunities.

Having the confidence to say “no”—and actually saying it

Once you’ve identified the wrong fit, it’s time to cultivate the confidence to actually set your boundaries and decline. Having a crystal-clear vision of your ideal client and projects can help you find this sense of assurance. Crafting a personable, honest, and straightforward message that helps you decline an offering, while maintaining a positive relationship, is crucial.

Below, we’ve included an email template that not only has these qualities but can also help you say no with confidence. Use this as a starting point:

Hi [prospect’s name],

I hope you’re doing well!

First off, I want to say thank you for considering me [or agency name] for your project. I’ve [we’ve] enjoyed getting to know you and learning more about your project and business. After some reflection, I don’t think I’m [we’re] the best match for your needs based on [insert a high-level, but direct, explanation of why you’re saying no.] This wasn’t an easy decision, but I believe in making sure that everyone involved gets the best out of our collaboration. I know there’s someone [or an agency] out there who’s a better fit for your unique needs. In fact, my connection [name] might be interested, if you’d like me to make an introduction. If things change down the road, or if you ever want to grab a (virtual) coffee and discuss more, I’m here to help, even if it’s just for a friendly chat or to help point you in the right direction.

Wishing you all the success in the world with your project and everything you set out to achieve.

Take care, and thank you for thinking of me [or agency name].

Cheers,

[Your Name]
[Agency name, if applicable]
[Your contact information]

In conclusion

Establishing boundaries at work by saying “no” isn’t just about turning down opportunities; it’s about making space for the right ones. It’s crucial for agency owners and freelancers to know when and how to do this for work that doesn’t align with their creative vision—it can significantly boost your revenue and overall satisfaction with your work.

Sign up for Mailchimp & Co, where you’ll become part of a community that’s ready to help you find your perfect business match. This network serves as a valuable resource for exchanging leads that align with your agency’s capabilities, making it easier than ever to decline projects that don’t align with your strengths.

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