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Saying No to Clients/Customers

July 21st, 2011 by Emira · 4 Comments

Over the rest of July, I’ll be answering some questions that were raised during our Small + Successful webinar we ran last month with GoToWebinar. We had several excellent questions, but sadly ran out of time to address them all. You can see the previous Q & A about bad reviews here and another about sharing your passion with your customers here.

The specific question here was “If you have a service business can you say “NO” to some people knowing it may cost you that client? If you feel in your heart you will be better without them is it good to just let them go?”

The quick answer: yes. Let them go.

The longer answer is how you let them go in a professional manner and how you assess when it’s time to say no.

To tackle the first: letting go of work in a professional manner one great way is to actually have another provider you can refer clients to. This runs counter to a lot of business wisdom which sees other providers as the competition and not people you would collaborate with, but I challenge you to think differently. First, it depends here on why you’re saying no. It may be because you’re currently far too busy (and if that’s an ongoing trend you may want to look at ramping up your internal resources so you can handle more business instead of just saying no) or it may be because someone isn’t quite the right fit for you and your services. In the case of the former, try to form a reciprocal relationship with a colleague where you send business to them when you’re too busy to handle it and they do the same. This doesn’t need to be a formal agreement, more of a handshake as it were. We have colleagues we respect and admire who we send business when we’re too swamped and we know they do the same. Being able to say no to potential work, but actually assist that person in finding someone who can help them rather than just shutting the door in their face, will in fact leave them with a positive impression of you, which may, in the very long run come back to you. Over our nearly 12 years in business now, we’ve had to regretfully say not to some clients and, as I say, pass them on to colleagues. There have been more than a few who a few years later call us up for another project noting that we were always their first choice (for whatever reason) and asking if we now have space to take them on. Having been helpful that first time they called by making a solid referral helped cement their positive impression of us. Now if you’re saying no because someone isn’t quite the right fit — for example we often have people asking us for some services we simply don’t offer, though they’re closely tied to what we do — then it really does benefit you to help them find someone who is a better fit. For us, that can mean the skillset doesn’t quite match with our studio or it might be the size of project. In either case, again helping them find the right provider and being helpful about connecting them — to their best of your abilities, you don’t need to go the distance here — will leave them with a positive impression of you.

What if you’re saying no because they are actually a problematic client, ie/ you can sense they aren’t going to be a good client or you’ve worked with them before and know they aren’t a good client. Well, this should be easier but often it’s harder. It can be really hard to turn down a person when there is an existing relationship, that said, if you know it isn’t good for your business (or your happiness levels) then saying no is imperative for the health of your company. Here you can be in a bit more of a pickle as referring them to a friend or colleague, if you know they’re not a good client, is not going to win you karma points. So what do to? You basically have two routes here: be honest (but professional) or be evasive (but professional). In the first instance, find a way to let them know that you haven’t had a good working relationship, something like “I don’t think that we’re a good fit creatively” or “If we’re going to work together again I’m going to need to charge you $X more given that our last two projects together have gone significantly over budget” or whatever the problem is. The professional bit here is that you clearly can’t say “I don’t think we should work together because I think you’re a bit of a whack job” so you need to find a way to get to the business conflict at hand, not the personal one. If it’s not possible to get out of things in a business-like fashion as described above, you may need to be evasive. Using something like “I’m currently too busy to take you on” or “I’m no longer taking on projects of this nature” or what-have-you is one way to go. The danger here is that if you are in fact still looking for work or taking on projects of that nature then you now have a person out in the world who is perhaps telling people that you are too busy/no longer providing that service. So make sure your evasive excuse is one that isn’t going to bite you in the rear.

So how do you assess when it’s time to let go of a project and say no, particularly if it means ending an existing client relationship? At it’s core, you’ll know in your gut. But, as business people we often like to have a little proof before making decisions that can impact our bottom line. So here are a few things to ask yourself:

  • Is this client causing me undo stress/emotional upheaval that is sucking the joy out of my work? Sounds overly dramatic? It isn’t. It happens.
  • Is working with this client preventing me from taking on other work that would be more fulfilling/make me happier/make me more money? Sometimes freeing  yourself up to take on more lucrative/rewarding work is exactly the kind of risk you need to take to bring your business to the next level.
  • Am I ever going to be able to make this client happy? If you answer no to that last one, end the relationship. It’s dangerous spending all your time and efforts on a client that you know in your gut you’ll never please. It will both wear you out (see the first bullet) and it will mean that you are losing the opportunity to build a client base that will advocate on your behalf by giving glowing testimonials about your work. That latter piece can be quite a liability in terms of garnering you new work over the longterm.


Tags: Business Advice

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Wise (@DigiFemme) // Jul 29, 2011 at 8:07 am

    There is a term “toxic client”.

  • 2 Kara Buntin // Aug 1, 2011 at 7:08 am

    It’s not only demanding clients that require you to say “no.” In my business (wedding cakes) clients sometimes want me to do something that I know is impractical or just won’t look the way that they want it to. I’m not afraid to tell clients that I won’t do certain things because that final product won’t be what they want, and I know they’ll be unhappy with the result. It’s my reputationon the line with each cake I deliver, so if I know that something won’t work, I won’t do it. The client is hiring me not only for my product, but for my expertise. If they don’t want to accept that there could be limitations to what can be done that’s fine, they can go to someone else who will yes them to death. They just need to be prepared to have a sub-par product delivered at the end of the process.

  • 3 shivangi // Aug 19, 2011 at 10:35 am

    OMG!!..what a helpful post. I am right now in this dilemma of whether to let go off a problematic client with whom I have worked for past 3 yrs coz they are sucking the happiness out of our lives. But din’t know how to – as my hubby calls “wean them off :))”. This article has some great ideas!! thanks for posting.

  • 4 Elaine Koyama // Oct 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    I am in a marketing seminar this week, and topic of firing a customer has been a hot topic. It’s tough to do, but sometimes really necessary.