Awkward Business Conversations: How To Say No To A Potential Client

How to say no to a potential client

Welcome back! Previously, on Awkward Conversations Week, we talked about how to tell someone their payment bounced. Mmm. Sticky. Today we’re talking about telling a potential client you don’t want to work with them.

“How to say no” may well be the second most searched term in the history of the internet. (Second only to “how to flip an omelette”. Naturally.) Saying no is darn tough for many, even under the best of circumstances, and even when you’re declining something no reasonable person would agree to.

Saying no to a potential client is an especially weird animal because it is often very difficult for people to imagine anybody turning down paid work. There is a belief that freelancers, small business owners and service professionals would take anybody’s money, much like a bookstore or a cell phone company. But, of which you are undoubtedly aware, there are plenty of reasons an ittybiz owner might want to say no, and it helps to have some language handy.

This one has a few different subtypes with different associated concerns, and we’ll address each of those separately. The template, however – affectionately referred to as Thanks But No Thanks in our templates file – remains the same. We tweak for details, but the boilerplate is pretty solid.

Regardless of the subtype you’re dealing with, the trick to saying no to paid work is in making sure you communicate three specific things. Your communication needs to hit three success metrics, or you’re cruising for drama later:

1. You want to make sure your reasoning is credible and/or plausible.
2. You want to make sure your wording is sympathetic.
3. You want to make sure you don’t leave room for interpretation or negotiation.

Let’s get started.

How to say no to someone you know and like

This one is probably the hardest for most ittybiz owners, so we’ll tackle it first. That way, if your laptop blows up three minutes from now, you’ll have gotten the trickiest one out of the way. The rest can totally wait until you can get to the public library. (You will be going to IttyBiz at the public library, won’t you? While you’re there, make sure to leave 7 reasons I decided not to become a prostitute up when you leave the desk, okay?)

Telling someone you know and like that you don’t want to work with them is hard for a few reasons. First, you’re worried about offending them. Second, you’re worried about disappointing them. And third, it’s hard to find the words. It feels like telling a stranger would be a lot easier. (Sometimes yes and sometimes no, but that’s sure what it feels like when you’re in the situation.)

The first issue is pretty easy to tackle. Unless you have a legitimate disorder that makes knowing what’s offensive difficult – and we have several clients with Aspbergers’ who do find this very hard indeed – being generally non-offensive is relatively simple. Just don’t be an ass. Don’t be abrupt. Use enough words. Use basic human manners. (More in the scripting to follow.)

The second one is more challenging. Sometimes not working with you will be legitimately disappointing, and how you phrase it won’t change that. If you make gorgeous websites, and I’m super excited about you making my gorgeous website, and it turns out that you don’t do websites for people in my line of work? Well, it’s going to be disappointing no matter how many sandwich techniques you throw in there. You can’t stop someone from being disappointed.

(Also, some people are more easily disappointed than others. The sanguine will handle it well, the melancholic will handle it badly, and there’s not a whole lot you can really do to influence either. Bummer.)

You’ll also want to consider why you don’t want to work with them. If you don’t want to work with them because you think they’re going to be a nightmare to work with, that’s one thing, and finding the right words without lying can take a fine hand. Find a husband or somebody to talk out potentially plausible reasonings with, and plug them into the template as if they were your actual reasons.

(To my mind, lying here is perfectly acceptable and has no overwhelming moral component, but it might have unintended longer term consequences. If I tell a potential client today that we’re not accepting new ebook jobs, and next week their best friend comes in and we take them on, we’ve got an icky situation on our hands.)

If you don’t want to work with them because you can’t do so in good conscience, that’s a little easier. Take your actual reason and put it in the reason field. Ahhhh.

How to say no to someone you know and don’t like or don’t care about

If you don’t like them or don’t care about them, all you really need to do is make sure that you don’t say anything that could reasonably lend to them talking smack about you behind your back. It is tempting to simply ignore the request and hope they don’t follow up. Yeah. Good luck with that. The more you don’t like them, the more likely they are to follow up. It’s like gravity, baby. You can’t escape it.

Basically, send them the Thanks But No Thanks email and quietly dislike them on your own time.

Now, if the reason you don’t like them is because they’re an abrasive bully who isn’t likely to take no for an answer, that’s a little bit of a different story. Your initial email is the same – don’t make assumptions and pre-punish a bully-to-be for something they haven’t done yet – but you’re going to brace for more follow up. You’re pretty sure they’re going to come in and harangue you, and you have to accept that going in. But there’s no point in giving yourself a heart attack finding ways to be extra aggressive in your initial email when it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference anyway. Cool your jets, Boundary Girl.

People who don’t respect boundaries are people who don’t respect boundaries, and there’s pretty much nothing you can say in the initial conversation that will influence that in any way. Say what you’re going to say nicely, and prepare to repeat yourself using fewer words each time.

How to say no to a stranger off the street

This is the easiest, because you don’t have to worry about any emotional issue other than your own internal drama. If you just hate saying no, or if you have a sinking feeling that you’re leaving money on the table, or you’re thinking anything that starts with “I should”, well, that’s a separate issue. You don’t just need a template – you need a template and a Xanax.*

The presence of your hanging shingle does not mean you need to take every possible client, and if you’ve got stress and drama around that fact, the best advice I can give you is this – they’re not taking this nearly as seriously as you are. They’re just shooting out an opening volley, and if you don’t want to work with them, they’re probably going to be fine with that. And if they’re not fine with that? Well, you don’t know them, and you’re refusing to work with them, so you don’t really ever have to deal with it. Let them hate you.

This stranger-off-the-street thing happens to us a lot in the wake of the IttyBiz profile in The $100 Startup. We get some pretty kooky people wandering in, certain that we are their only hope for, naturally, world domination. Some of them we’re thrilled to work with, some of them we can work with, but many of them we don’t want to or can’t.

Sometimes they send desperate emails back saying that there’s nobody else they can call. This is likely true, and for that, they have my compassion. The fact that it is true, though, does not make it our problem. We’re a consulting and training company, not a halfway house.

*Xanax sold separately, see store for details.

How to say no to someone who came referred

This last one we file under Seems Harder Than It Is.

If somebody comes in referred from someone else – whether that someone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, or a cherished friend – it feels like you’re not allowed to say no.

You’re allowed to say no.

You just need to remember that whatever you say will get back to the referring party. This might happen verbatim – they forward the email – or it might be a paraphrase. That paraphrase might be an accurate representation of what you said, or it might be a gross bastardization that slaughters your professional reputation.

Hmmm. Tricky. You’ve got to cover your ass here.

Here’s what we do.

We send the “Thanks, but no thanks” email to the inquiring party. Then we forward a duplicate to the referring party, but we delete the inquiring party’s original email for privacy. I’ll start the forward with a heartfelt thank you for the referral and a BRIEF explanation of why it didn’t work out. Then below that they can see what we sent to the referral if they want to, or if it becomes a drama later.

Then I send them a present. Usually it’s a plant.

Thanks But No Thanks, the Template

So here’s what we say. It needs modifying for the specifics of the situation, but it’s a good enough start. (Highlights are for things you’d need to edit).

Hi [name],

Thank you so much for your email about working with you on X. We’re so grateful [honored, if that’s more appropriate] that you thought of us.

Having looked at your situation, it seems like you’re looking for something that’s outside the scope of what we do well. [It’s okay to take the blame here. You’re turning them down, remember?] I can see you’re looking at a strong social media focus for your marketing campaign, and that’s not really our area of expertise. We tend to get the best results with strengthening a company’s home base, email marketing, launches, and copywriting. It seems like you’re going to be better off with someone who can make magic in 140 characters, and that’s not really where we shine. I wouldn’t be comfortable taking your money and knowing you’re not getting our best work.

Unfortunately, I live under a bit of a rock these days, and I don’t have any current ideas for referrals. [If you have ideas for referrals, this is where to put them. We usually don’t, so we take the hit and honestly tell people that we’ve got nothing. I used to say “if you need any ideas for referrals, let me know”, but then people took me up on it and I was screwed and stressed. So we don’t do that anymore.] You might want to look at Elance or try a few weird Google searches to see if there’s somebody who can give you specifically what you’re looking for.

Dave and I both wish you the very best of luck with your [book / new / upcoming / launch / charity / who cares, just find a damn adjective] project and we look forward to hearing a great success story.

Yours, etc.

So that’s what we say. Twist and steal at your leisure. Next, we’re going to talk about how to fire a client or customer.

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.