What do I do if I have to cancel a booking?

06 May
What do I do if I have to cancel a booking?

As a freelancer, how do you handle it when something unexpected and important comes up – and I’m talking about those rare events like illness or a household emergency – and you have to postpone and cancel jobs that you’ve already booked in?

Last week, something happened to me which happens very rarely (thank goodness). I had the flu, and I was so ill that I could not work. At all. Couldn’t get out of bed. Had to have my husband send messages to clients on my behalf via my phone.

Look: it happens to everyone. No one is immune to all illnesses. However much we plan and back-up, life happens, things happen, and sometimes, as I did last week, we have to cancel jobs we’ve already firmly booked in. While I’ve been recovering, I’ve been thinking about how we can make the effects as minimal as possible (and how we can plan to a certain extent). Here’s what I’ve come up with – but I’d love to hear any points you’d like to add, too.

1. Accept that you can’t do it

I’d been ill for a while. I did reschedule some jobs the week before when I started to feel unwell, but I now wonder if I should have been stricter with myself at that point. Anyway, there’s no point railing against it and raising your temperature further. If you can’t do something, you can’t do it, and you need to work out what to do next, calmly and methodically.

2. Be honest

Like you, your customers are human. I contacted people with whom I had jobs booked and told them: I’ve got the flu. I can’t get out of bed; I’m too ill to work. I’m really sorry, I’m not sure when I’ll be fit, but for the time being, I can’t do your job.

3. Apologise but don’t make a big deal out of it

If you cancel a job, your client has to find someone else to do it. A brief but heartfelt apology with an explanation is fine; no one wants paragraphs of self-loathing and squirming. Keep it professional and honest, and brief.

4. Offer an alternative

For one client, I just could not offer an alternative – it’s a job I had to be trained to do and I don’t know anyone else who does it. I told them as early as I could, explained I couldn’t really take a delayed deadline as I didn’t know when I’d be better, and left it with them. For the others, I suggested they contact my wonderful colleague who covers me when I’m on holiday (having previously warned her).

This leads on to some planning stuff …

5. Have back-ups set up in advance

I’m very lucky in that I a) have a group of people I can refer work on to, b) have a good friend and colleague who covers my work when I’m on holiday or unavailable (I do the same for her, obviously!). This is something that it’s much better to have set up in advance, so you know that you can contact them in an emergency and ask for their support, and your clients are used to occasionally using an alternative person to you. In the end, my cover lady couldn’t take everything, as she was busy, too, but she was able to cover a new customer and some stuff for an on-going one. If you don’t have a back-up person set up already, I strongly recommend that you do so. Have a formal agreement on not stealing customers from each other if you wish, but set something up. You won’t regret it.

6. Maintain good relationships with your clients

I am lucky to have good relationships with my clients, which means I can occasionally ask them to bear with me.

Scrap that: I’ve worked hard to build good relationships with my clients, etc. They know I’m super-reliable, and they know I’m honest and will keep them informed. This goes a long way to smoothing over any issues that might suddenly arise. Obviously, I’m not going to do this often, but when it happens, having good relationships will make it a lot easier.

Right, back to the situation at hand. A couple more tips.

7. Keep people informed

First of all, I put an Out Of Office reply on my work email which stated that I was unwell, that regular customers should consider using their named back-up, and that I probably wouldn’t be able to help new customers (but they should look at my Links page for alternative service providers).

I also then let those clients who I had had to let down know when I was well again – this was particularly important for the ones who regularly send me work and needed to know when they could start sending it again.

8. Be realistic about your recovery, whatever form it takes

I’ve been very careful not to take too much on since I was so badly unwell. It’s important to get better, not to plough straight into a full work schedule again. Similarly, if you’ve had a personal or family crisis, a bereavement or an issue around the house, there will be stuff to sort out practically, and stuff that you need to take on board.

In my case, I made sure that I was available for my regular clients again, but have turned down work from anyone new that needs to be done straight away, and will continue doing so until I feel 100% fit again. There’s really no point running yourself into the ground.


So, that’s what I’ve learned from having a think about how I should – and did – handle a health emergency. Is this helpful to you? Any other hints and tips or examples from your freelancing life? Do share using the buttons below or write a comment if you’ve got something useful to share. Thanks!


Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Business, Organisation


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3 responses to “What do I do if I have to cancel a booking?

  1. Nordie

    May 6, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Maintain good relationships with your colleagues too. You were able to offer alternatives for most of your clients because you had other people in a similar role who would be willing and able to pick up the slack (if you have enough contacts, one job per colleague should not be too disruptive).

    Not only are they likely to pick up whilst you are sick (or on an unexpected holiday), but if they are local to you they can also provide a level of general support. As self employed people, it is far too easy to remain cocconed in your work room. A regular meeting over coffee that forces you to get dressed, brush your hair and leave the house is a necessity not a luxury!


    • Liz Dexter

      May 6, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Yes, indeed – that’s what saved me here, having those relationships in advance so I could refer people on to someone they already knew. The local people thing is a good one in general and would be useful for people who are location-specific like gardeners and decorators, so that’s a good point.



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