How to say hell no to a client (nicely.)

Once upon a time, we did a series of posts called Awkward Business Conversations Week. In it, we gave templates for sticky email situations. One of them was about how to say no to a potential client. It is full of big and detailed and nuanced tutorial-y stuff about how to handle that very situation.

The thing is, there’s “no”, and then there’s “HELL NO”. Today we’re going to talk about the latter. Our original template was developed in response to long, detailed, or rambling requests for work. Today, we’re going to tackle an email we got that was short, and the level of “NO” could not be measured using existing Earth technology.

Recently, we got the following email through our contact form:

Do Naomi and Dave do product launches in following Jeff Walker’s LAUNCH style?

I am a branded media personality interested in hiring a small firm to assist us in our first seed launch.


Please let me know if your team can help!


Well, now. This is a tricky one.

This woman, let’s call her Angelina, is asking a very reasonable question. She has heard of a certain kind of launch style, and she’s wondering if we can do one for her.

If you’re new, here’s a quick definition of terms.

1. Jeff Walker created a product MANY years ago called Product Launch Formula. Numerous new editions of the product have been made since. Many people believe Product Launch Formula was the father of the digital product launch. Many other people believe it was the final nail in the world’s coffin. I’m somewhere in between the two.

2. When people write to us asking us to “do” a launch, they usually mean a full-service, “done for you”, extremely high-profile launch, which means the service provider takes on full responsibility for every aspect of the process. They write your every tweet, they upload your launch content into your website, they call your hosting company in the middle of the night to fight about loading speeds. The sales page alone is probably a 40 hour job.

They are usually a full-time job for at least one person for several months. In this day and age, for this kind of client, I really can’t imagine this kind of job being done for less than 30 grand.

So, back to Angelina. She’s asking if we do these kinds of jobs. We don’t. (This is because, in my religion, suicide is a sin.) There is truly no money on earth to make me want to do one of these things ever again.


That is not Angelina’s fault. She doesn’t know I’d rather remarry my first husband than do this job, nor should she be expected to know. Like I said, it’s a reasonable question.

A lot of client-facing ittybiz owners have a really hard time with emails like this.

Sometimes the request itself makes them get all the wrong kind of goosebumps, and that tends to come out in their response and they sound really cranky. Or they go so far in the other direction and don’t actually say, “Um, no” and they end up getting into a month long relationship with this person. They pussyfoot around the “no” and the would-be client takes it as a “maybe”, or worse, as a “yes”.

Worst of all, some service providers try to solve the whole unpleasantness by lying and saying something like “Oh, I’d LOVE to, but we’re fully booked right now. Cheerio!” Imagine what happens when Angelina’s best friend Neil writes in with a much more desirable request and the service provider says yes. Neil talks to Angelina, and our hero is exposed for being the lying liar they are.

We live in a very interconnected world. Lying’s bad for business, no matter how good the intentions were.

So, you want to say “no”, you want that “no” to be completely un-open to interpretation, but you don’t want to lie, and you want to keep the possibility for referrals she might make to any future Neils.

So! How to handle it?

Here’s what we sent back. (She wrote to the ninjas, so the ninjas were the ones who replied.)

SUBJ: Thank you for your enquiry regarding your product launch

Hi Angelina,

Thank you so much for getting in touch regarding your launch! Unfortunately, as far as Naomi and Dave’s style goes, their approach is quite a bit different than Jeff Walker’s. We won’t bore you with a bunch of industry jargon – that would just be boring and mean – but if you’re interested in something that fits that formula, we’re probably not the best firm for what you’re looking for.

Again, thank you – we appreciate that you considered IttyBiz, and if there’s anything else we can do to assist, please let us know. That’s what we’re here for! :)

Wishing you the very best of luck with your launch,

How you can steal this template, should the need arise.

Of course, it would be lovely if you could just steal what we wrote, but that wouldn’t work for a number of reasons, first among them being that your would-be client’s name is almost definitely not Angelina. So we’ll go through a quick best practices and you’ll be saying “Hell, No!” on your own in no time.

1. Boring subject line and introduction.

People overthink this part, and it’s totally unnecessary. You’re not giving them a terminal diagnosis and you’re not telling them their dog is ugly. Someone made a request knowing you could say no, and you’re saying no. Just start the email like it’s a normal email. Not simpering nice, not cold stand-offish.

2. “Unfortunately”.

Unfortunately is the universal code word for incidentally, the thing you are about to hear involves the word “no”.

3. Good reason they wouldn’t want you.

The perfect thing to say here is something that no reasonable person would respond to with, “Wait, PRETTY please? Pretty please with a cherry on top?” You want to say something that assures them they do not want you anymore.

(Of course, some people are masochistic and if you don’t want them, they want you even more, but if I could predict that, I could make a lot of money as a dating coach.)

If you must, overtly state that you’re bad at what they’re asking for. Fall on the grenade and call yourself an idiot. Say, “You wouldn’t want me doing your SEO campaign – I’m absolutely terrible at it” or “The last time I ran a full service launch it took 14 times longer than expected and went way over budget.” It’s pretty refreshing when people do that, actually.

4. No desperate greed.

Once upon a time, I was looking at an apartment to rent, and when it came time to get serious, I wanted to confirm if I could smoke on the balcony. The rental agent’s eyes swelled like dinner plates as she realized she was going to lose a commission when she had to tell me “no”. Bummer.

After I left, she called me several times to follow up. She left three messages. Each time she (really sweetly and nervously) suggested I take up smoking e-cigarettes so I could still take the apartment. (They were virtually unheard of at the time, and expensive, so this came off as a kind of, “Sorry you don’t fit into the pants, but if you lost a lot of weight you could fit into them! I looked up the local Jenny Craig for you!”)

Don’t do that. Do not try to convince somebody to change what they want to suit what you can offer. Don’t do it with boys, and don’t do it with clients.

5. Thank them.


6. Genuine best wishes.

Just because this person wants something you have no desire to give them does not make them a bad person. You don’t have to get all “these are my personal boundaries” on them. They were asking nicely. Respond nicely.

[the invisible and silent last step] 7. MOVE ON.

In all likelihood, this person put about four minutes of thought into emailing you. Don’t put much more than that into emailing them back. Yes, I know that society has trained you that saying no is hard. But stop thinking about it. Obsessing makes you wrinkly.

And there you have it. How to (nicely) say “hell no”.

Want to see how to handle more awkward business conversations? Of course you do. Check out:

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