How to Turn Down a Project

As a small business owner, I realize that there are only so many hours in the day. Not enough on some days, too many on rare occasion. I thought that when I left behind my Corporate America days, that I would be in control – control of my work hours, my work place, my company culture, my clients, and my workload. For the majority of that, it is true .. but not entirely.

I’ve written many times in the past about establishing boundaries – physical doors & walls for your home office, conveying your work hours to your clients, etc. But what happens when an existing client sends a project your way that you simply cannot do? Easy! You say no.

I can hear your gears spinning. “I can’t say no to a client!” Yes you can when it’s appropriate. Don’t worry – I’m going to show you how!

First off, never say something as banal as, “I don’t want to do that,” even if it’s the truth. How you say something is just as important as the message itself.

When you remove body language and verbal nuances, such as when you write an email, it is so important to choose your words wisely.

Scenario #1: When You Are Short on Time

Virtual professionals work with a variety of clients in a variety of niches. It is completely plausible that your time is currently being utilized for this client, or another client. Here’s two ways to handle this scenario (and always keep in mind that this is in my writing style; adapt as needed):

Hi <client’s first name>,

I received your info for the XYZ project, however I am concerned that I cannot get this completed within the time frame you requested. Here’s what I have allocated for you this week:

:: X-hour(s) on ABC project
:: X-hour(s) on DEF project
:: X-hour(s) on GHI project
:: X-hour(s) on JKL project

Should any of the above be moved to next week, or next month? I can always re-prioritize, but as you know, I’m a maven with my time so I want to ensure that we don’t go over in your retainer hours.

Drop a line as time allows .. and have a great day!!


Hi <client’s first name>,

I received your info for the XYZ project, however I am bogged down with a special project for another client, whom I’ve already allocated time for.

You know I’m a stickler for time, so if I should re-prioritize any of your current daily/weekly tasks to accommodate this, let me know.

Have a great day!!

Scenario #2: When the Project is Fluff

Sometimes a client will have a “Eureka!” moment with some great idea that they just have to implement. While some ideas are worthy of proceeding with, others may not be. Your intuition as a seasoned virtual professional will aid you here. Here’s how to convey it:

Hi <client’s first name>,

I received your info for the XYZ project. This seems like a drastic derivation from the plans and goals we established for this year, so maybe I’m not connecting the dots. Can you shed some light on this? I just want to ensure that we’re moving forward cohesively and all on the same page, so drop a line as time allows.

Have a great day!!

Scenario #3: When the Project is Clearly Not Something in Your Skill Set

Back in the day, I seem to recall job descriptions said something along the lines of “.. and other duties as assigned.. ” which pretty much meant that you’d inevitably be unable to ever say, “That’s not part of my job description!”

However, if your current contract does say something along those lines (perhaps that is something to change going forward) and the project assigned is not within your skill set, here is an example of how to extricate yourself from it:

Hi <client’s first name>,

I received your info for the XYZ project. To be honest, I don’t really have the skills to make this happen for you. I have no experience with XYZ and the learning curve could easily eat a significant chunk of your retainer hours.

I can reach out to some of my other VA contacts, whom I trust for XYZ, and see if they can help out. Should I have them contact you directly, or pre-screen them and send you one name to chat with?

Drop a line as time allows .. and have a great day!!

At the end of the day, you, as a virtual professional, should be aligning your goals with your clients’ goals .. and moving forward all the time. If their newest idea doesn’t align, speak up. If it’s outside your skills, speak up. If you don’t have enough time, speak up .. and consider contracting a fellow virtual assistant help you.

About Out of the Office Virtual Assistance:

logo1bAt Out of the Office, we offer ideas and ways to increase your productivity, decrease your workload, and work more efficiently. We nurture a successful business relationship, while continuing to grow as your business partner. We are focused on streamlining your administration, social media planning and execution, and offering creative solutions for your business success.

Image credit: PeteLinforth | CCO Public Domain