The Born Freelancer on Turning a No Into a Yes

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


When selling your freelance services one of the greatest assets to possess is the ability to turn a “no” into a “yes”. Of course, sometimes a “no” really means “no” but more often than I ever realised when I was starting out it can sometimes mean “maybe”. If I had to relive my freelance career over again I wish I would have been better at following up all those “nos” I received that I felt could be turned into a “yes” if only I knew how. Today I am going to share with you what I wish I had known all along.

The secret is basic but easily lost in the day to day freelance sales struggle. It is simply this: To turn a “no” into a “yes” you must first get inside your prospective employer’s head. You must see your possible engagement from his or her viewpoint. They have a problem that is our job to solve with our services. If we can’t or if our suggested solution causes them more problems in turn then we will be stuck with a “no”. But if we can solve their problem without creating any new ones we stand a good chance of turning their “no” into a “yes” all things being equal (assuming you are a pro who does excellent work, etc.)

To begin, it’s necessary to distinguish between a definitive “no” and a “maybe no”. The latter is usually identifiable by the language contained within the rejection. It is sometimes a bit “softer”, a bit more vague. “It’s close…” or “Not quite what we are looking for…” or “Not at this time” are all clues that you need to immediately get back in contact and do a follow up to try to get them to clarify their needs and identify the true nature of their objections. Once you have done this you will have the tools you need to develop strategies to solve their problem and make a sale – if you also possess the necessary determination to see it through.




Of course you have done your homework and thoroughly investigated the show’s/publication’s approach to their target audience. Even so, you may find that you need to further fine tune the subject matter accordingly. Some objections may be based on the lack of “timeliness” in your approach. In which case, you will need to find an anniversary or time related factor to act as a anchor. Another objection might be that you have focused too broadly and not specific enough for their audience. An item on pets for a seniors’ publication might sell more readily with a title like “Best Pets After 65” than a more generic “Top Ten Pets”. Also: is the meta-message of your item consistent with your employer’s guiding message or stated goals? A thorough review of their corporate mission statement will clue you in at once.


You have thoughtfully anticipated your workload and submitted a reasonable fee. They still object. If you start reducing your proposed fee it is a slippery slope into oblivion. Very few clients will respect you. (And never ever offer to do “this one for free” on the basis that when they can afford you they will do so next time. Chances are next time they will go with someone they couldn’t afford the first time.)

However, for non-unionized gigs you can always be creative in your costing. Assuming no extra work is required from you, you could suggest that they run your work over multiple issues or broadcasts, effectively amortizing your fees over several installments. If extra work is required then you must be paid appropriately but it might still be less expensive for them than contracting completely separate items. I’ve also heard of freelancers willing to be paid in kind (although it still must be declared on your taxes). One freelancer who did advertising work for a local diner got their meals “gratis” for several months equivalent to their full fee for the copy writing that they did.

I’m not necessarily advocating for this arrangement but in the case I’m thinking of it worked out well for everyone. (Caveat: What you receive in return must have real and practical value to you.) Finally, you could offer to remove “value added” features in your package to reduce your fee without reducing its actual value. If you were pitching a travel feature including your own original photos that is too costly, you could propose to offer the text or photos separately at a reduced fee. The point is to never allow your work to be knowingly undervalued or to offer it at cut-rate fees. That way you will lose all respect and consequently almost all future possible sales. But its value can still be acknowledged and the final cost managed in varying creative ways.


I once had a potential corporate client object to a series of articles I was going to ghostwrite for them. I sensed there was a specific issue to be addressed but it baffled me. It wasn’t cost, it wasn’t relevancy. What on earth was it? When I delved deeper I discovered it was this: My client-to-be felt it was dishonest to pretend to have written something that they had not. Their relationship with their customers was sacrosanct. They felt if they lied about this they would never again be believed. Wow, talk about integrity! I was forced to be creative in my problem solving and came up with several possible solutions including: a promise in writing never to reveal my part (cold); the option of using the old “as told to” approach to mitigate my role (warmer) and finally suggesting the articles be attributed to the company’s inanimate brand mascot which was part of their corporate logo. As a solution to their problem it was attractive, it was original, and it addressed their ethical concerns (it wasn’t claiming to be by them). Red hot!

Have you got the right person?

Sometimes you get a “no” because you have inadvertently approached the wrong person. This seems unlikely but trust me, it happens much more often than you might imagine! Every organization has a slightly different kind of hierarchy and it’s up to you to find the right person who can “pull the trigger” on your pitches. I once pitched a production company again and again and again with topical satirical sketches for their weekly broadcast show and constantly received “nos”. But at the end of the season a different producer contacted me and said he had discovered all my pitches filed away somewhere and would’ve happily bought at least some of them if he’d read them in time. It seems that in my blissful ignorance I was pitching to the wrong person but they had never told me. They had the right title (seemingly) but in that organization the title was alas meaningless. If I had been more aggressive in my follow ups, rather than simply accepting the rejection and moving on to my next pitch (my misguided strategy at the time and for far too long after that), I would’ve made quite a few more sales. It was a hard but invaluable lesson to learn.



Freelancers are either problem solving or problem making for a potential employer. And you always want to avoid being cast into that second group! Our problem is identifying their problem and offering a viable solution. If working with us is a greater hassle than staying in-house we will not make a sale. We must always be able to provide a specific solution that is less hassle than any other alternative.

Knowing when a “no” is a “maybe” comes out of experience. When in doubt, assume it is so until you have definite proof otherwise. Naturally, there are other times when you are unable to get further information on your rejected pitch, or there is no one you can reach for clarification, or the rejection has been made in absolutely clear unequivocal language. In those cases, of course, move on right away.

But when a rejection is “softer” or more ambiguous as I’ve described and you have both the determination and the ability to keep in touch and follow up, do so. Don’t ever be confrontational, however, as that will surely end in a definitive “no”. Assuming your work itself is of a high standard, ask for help trying to clarify what was wrong with the direction or execution of your pitch and how you might learn from their thoughts for future pitches or indeed for modifying the current one. Make it seem worth their while to help you help them. Once you can get into their heads, see your pitch from their point of view and understand how they need your work to solve a specific problem you are well on your way to turning your next “no” into a “yes.”


Have you ever managed to turn a “no” into a “yes” with a client or publisher? What techniques did you use?


Posted on June 20, 2014 at 8:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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