Learning how to handle rejection is paramount for your freelance success. When you are at the beginning of your freelance career, rejection will often come in the form of declined proposals or lack of response to your cover letters, not getting invited to interviews, and not landing the job after a great interview.
Don’t take it personally. A single YES makes it up for all the NOs along the way. But until you get it, it’s important you don’t give up; that you learn from the rejections and keep on trying.
The seven steps that helped me learn how to handle rejection when I was a starting freelancer.
Give yourself time
It’s ok to hurt once you have been rejected. No matter how many times you tell yourself it is not personal, it always hurts. That’s natural. It’s your ego speaking. Allow yourself to heal, so to speak.
We handle pain differently. Some cope best if they keep themselves busy with more work. Others need some alone time away from everyone and everything to think over why they got rejected. And yet others handle rejection best by going out with friends and having fun till sunrise.
Whichever type you are – indulge yourself. Give yourself some time to handle it as you wish but never ever take rejection personally. For once, the saying “it’s not you, it’s me” might have been righteously said by the client when serving you the NO answer. 😉
Don’t go overboard blaming the client though. While it’s not your fault to get rejected per se, there must have been something that triggered the rejection. Think about what went wrong. Find out what was so incompatible between your ideas and the client’s needs.
Did you not understand their project requirements? Did you suggest a tactic which was not in line with their company values? Did you just do not-good-enough job drafting your cover letter? Was your price too high? Did you not communicate your value proposition well?
Ask for the reason your prospect turned down your proposal
Asking yourself why you got rejected is good but assuming you know the reasons is not a healthy practice. It often leads to wrong conclusions which may influence the way you build your freelance career.
Let’s pretend you got turned down on a social media marketing project. You thought you were a great fit to bring the client’s business up to date with the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing. You put some thought into their project. You already envisioned how you’ll approach the strategy planning for their business. You were excited to start working on this.
You sent your cover letter, only to find a big fat NO in your mailbox the next day. The client didn’t give you any reason whatsoever, which left plenty of room for speculation.
You could start playing different scenarios in your head as of why you didn’t make it to the short list of candidates to be interviewed – did you ask for too much money? Probably not – your plan was brilliant. You deserve every dollar you asked for.
Then, maybe you didn’t explain well why the client needs your services and how your plan will get their business to the next level in the next six months? Could be.
Or maybe they didn’t like your approach altogether because they don’t like change and don’t really understand this whole social media madness that seems to have taken over the world… Yes, this should be it – no other way.
Then, what can you do? Should you change your approach? Maybe you shouldn’t give any ideas or details to the client unless they ask for them. Maybe you should even start applying with a standard cover letter without customizing it and make it personal only after you get a reply from a client? Now you understand why so many freelancers apply with recycled cover letters. They are the smart ones.
And before you know it, you will have made a decision to drastically change the way you apply to jobs, based solely on an assumption why that one cover letter got rejected.
That’s not healthy. You know why?
Because there was nothing wrong with your proposal. Your plan was flawless. That client liked your approach and work ethics. They could even afford hiring you. But what happened was that the SMM strategist planner who just quit the company had a change of heart and decided to stay. So the client no longer needed a new SMM strategy planner. They needed someone to manage their day-to-day activities which you clearly stated you were not interested in.
It’s the client’s fault that they didn’t communicate well the reason for their rejection – that’s ineffective communication right there, but most clients are not effective communicators. That’s why you should be.
Instead of speculating and drawing conclusions based on wrong assumptions, just ask for feedback, analyze it to the best of your abilities, and move on.
If the client doesn’t give you a good reason even after you ask politely, just move on. It probably wasn’t a good fit, not that there was something wrong with you or your work.
Don’t over-think and over-analyze the rejection or the feedback
Many starting freelancers obsess over rejections. They are filled with self-doubts, especially if they have applied to projects for a few weeks without any success. They get paranoid they are not skilled enough to succeed. They over-think and over-analyze both rejection letters and received feedback. They start to fear rejection and to dread the whole cover letter writing and sending process. And eventually, they quit.
Learn to move on. I know it is easier said than done but think about it – do you really get anything out of thinking too much about it?
When you do get feedback as of why you didn’t make it to the interview, write down the weak areas the client pointed out. If several clients share the same feedback, that is definitely something for you to work on and improve.
Go back to the cover letters you sent to those clients. See what they have in common. Did you misread all of their company values and goals? Did you not explain clearly what the benefit of your suggested game plan was? Did you come off too demanding? Did you ask too many questions?
Find the pattern and work purposefully to improving that area of your cover letter writing. You will start seeing fewer rejections for that same reason.
Sometimes your proposals will get rejected because of something you did. Let’s say you like asking a lot of questions in your cover letters. But you come across a prospective client who is a man of a few words. He is put off by your questions and decides not to proceed with you because if you ask so many questions as early as now, he could only imagine what it would be like if they hired you.
In reality, you like real-time voice calls as much as he does. When it comes to addressing questions, it’s even better to do it in real-time because you have instant opportunity to ask a follow up and find everything you need on the spot. You would have made a great team with this client but you missed the opportunity because you misread his personality.
You should have known from his brief job post that he knows what he wants but doesn’t like reading and writing. You should have seen the signs he is a great communicator but on the phone, not via email. Should you have left all your questions for the interview and asked only a couple of the most important ones in your cover letter, you might have gotten a YES instead of a NO.
Make a mental note to yourself – learn more about clients from their job posts and decide what the best approach is on a per-project basis. Then move on.
You will learn what areas need improvement by analyzing the reasons for the rejections you get. You can and should improve on a daily basis – by doing better research, writing better cover letters, being more creative, learning new tricks in your niche, and so on.
Don’t give up on an idea only because it got rejected once. If one tactic didn’t work for that one client, it may be suitable for another.
This does not mean you should apply with a recycled cover letter. Neither it means you should send out the same material (blog post, strategy plan, newsletter content, etc.) to multiple prospects.
Let’s say as a result of weeks of research, you reached the conclusion that a sponsored announcement in magazine X e-newsletter will have great impact on the bottom line of companies in the health industry. You even reached out to the magazine and found out rates and work process for inclusion in the newsletter.
You had a prospective client in the health industry and you pitch them this idea. You include numbers and all – budget needed, time-frame for execution of the campaign, estimated ROI, and so on. This is an innovative idea for the company and the project manager is a conservative man. So he refuses to go along with your idea, feeling afraid it won’t yield the results he is after. He chooses another contractor over you – a freelancer who goes more on the beaten path of digital marketing. No experiments, just good old tactics that have brought average results to everyone else in the industry.
This doesn’t mean your idea was bad. Go look for another client in the health industry. Do your homework better this time – make sure you find a prospective client who knows that innovation and experimenting helps them get ahead in the game. Also, find the right person to pitch your idea to. A project manager who is worried about his seat at the table may not be as good point of contact as the VP of marketing or the small business owner. After all, the project manager’s objective is to achieve their target. The small business owner’s goal is to become a market leader.
Contact only those clients who have a proven track record of innovation in their niche. Chances are that same idea that got rejected by the conservative project manager will be embraced by the young startup enthusiast who is all for experimenting and unconventional thinking.
Learn to see an opportunity in every rejection
It’s not all bad. And it toughens you up!
When a client rejects you, don’t hate them for it. Instead, try to build a relationship with them. Visit their website, comment on their blog regularly, send them a birthday card, inquire about their wellbeing once in a while, congratulate them for something you like or they achieve, etc. – do that only if you really want to work with them, of course.
Relationship building does pay off. If a company which you really liked and wanted for a client rejected you once – build a relationship with them. Eventually they will see you for who you are and what you can bring to the table. They may give you a second chance, you know – because they like you 😉
Jeannette Paladino (@jepaladino) says
Diana — excellent post and we all get rejected if we are in the client service business. Another reason for rejection is that the business was “wired.” That is, they already knew who they were going to choose for the assignment but possibly company policy requires they obtain three bids. Or, they want to see some other ideas. Some freelancers are afraid to give away their ideas in proposals but it’s unlikely you’ll get the business with a generic proposal. Also, if they “steal” your ideas they probably won’t do as good a job as you could for them. Your good ideas can always be updated with a new twist for another client.
Diana Marinova says
You make excellent points, Jeannette – thanks for adding so much value to the conversation by sharing your experience!
Diana, I certainly like your ideas at the end of this post. Relationship building is important, although I can’t say I would relationship build with those who didn’t like my proposals in the past. I think I would prefer those who say “maybe” or “I like your ideas; I’ll add it to my do list.” When I think about some proposals that didn’t work out, I realize I probably wouldn’t have done well with most of those clients.
Diana Marinova says
You are right, Leora – I got similar feedback on social media discussions and I am afraid I might have not communicated well my last tip. Let me give an example to illustrate the relationship building advice.
Say you try to work with a client and you offer them social media marketing strategy. However, this client doesn’t know you and they are reluctant to award such an important part of their project to a stranger. Besides, they already have ongoing SMM activities which somewhat work for them so they reject you. If you build a relationship with them, they will get to know you and they will see how great you are as a person and how good of a job you would do. So when they decide to update their SMM strategy and bring their business to the next level, they might award the project to you because you are no longer a stranger to them.
Hope this helps clarify my original idea.
Other than that – yes, I agree with your assessment that if you got rejected by a client because they didn’t like your approach, for example, it is unlikely to do a good job with them anyway. 😀
It was a wise man who said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
Diana Marinova says
Thanks for joining the conversation, Xerxeska – persistence is indeed needed to succeed 😀
Elna Cain says
Diana – great post. Rejection is something every one goes through, whether you’re working for someone else or working for yourself. I feel rejection hits harder when you’re working for yourself, especially if you had originally relied on that job prospect.
I think for me, my rejections stem from my rate. Freelance writing rates are highly variable and many businesses don’t understand the value of a writer who knows online writing, SEO and social media. It’s our job to prove to them our expertise justifies the rate. But, sadly, many prospects don’t go beyond my rate and stop communication.
When this happens, I just think, they are not the client for me. There’s no need to lower my rates, because there are clients that value my writing.
Great discussion Diana!
Diana Marinova says
Amen to that, Elna – lowering your rates for clients who don’t appreciate the value is never a good tactic to succeed. This is a concept and lesson, so to speak, which is VERY hard to understand for starting freelancers and I am always glad to see when a fellow freelancer (like yourself) stands up for him or herself, knowing there are plenty of good clients out there. More power to you 😀
Ah, I had to learn to handle rejection in my sales career. It took some time to not take it personally. I thought I had mastered rejection until I n=became an author! LOL! Now THAT is a whole new ballgame! But no matter what the profession, you have offered some seriously good tips for handling rejection. I’ll continue to re-read them!
Diana Marinova says
Thanks for the positive feedback, Jacquie – I have always admired you for being a successful sales person. I am so bad at sales, it hurts. Maybe that’s why I developed good marketing skills through the years – so that I never have to sell anything LOL.
More power to you and less rejection 😉