A few years back I was going through the “new client” dance with a chap who ran a telecommunications business. The topic turned to expectations, and he stated that he likes his marketing people to be on call all the time, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. He said he does his best thinking after a few bottles of wine and he wanted his marketing people to be on standby.
Now, there was no way I was going to spend my Friday and Saturday nights sitting by the phone, waiting to get a drunken call to discuss a range of crazy marketing ideas. But as ridiculous as his expectations were, I still found it very hard to turn him away.
Most of us have allowed a client to bully us into taking them on at some stage. Sometimes a poverty mentality steps in and a little voice says, “You need the money, take the job”. Saying ‘no’ is not easy, but it is a skill we need to master.Every single time I have ignored my intuition, and been bullied into taking on a client that I knew was going to be problematic, it has ended badly.
So, here are my hard-learned tips for politely and professionally saying ‘no’ to potentially difficult clients.
1. Nip it in the bud early
One of the biggest mistakes I have made in the past is to let discussions go on for too long. There have been several meetings, lots of emails and now, it’s just too hard to say goodbye. I have learned to say, “Thank you but this project is not for us” at the first meeting. I don’t waste their time and I certainly don’t waste my time.
2. Once you invoice you’re in – don’t rush this part of the process if you’re not sure.
I learned this wonderful lesson from a great friend of mine. Once we were looking to partner on a project and work with a large car dealership looking to float. We were into the process, I was billing, but she wasn’t. She was still doing the preliminary work but not charging and I asked her why? She said she was still deciding if you wanted to work with them – and she knew that once she billed them, that choice was taken away. Be slow to invoice if you’ve got concerns (and for the record- she was right, they were a nightmare client).
3. Have a good system for referring clients on
I have a really good referral network, and I use it. Just because a client may be potentially difficult for me, doesn’t mean they’ll be difficult for someone else. I know the personalities of my valued referral partners, and will only refer if I think the business relationship will work, and thankfully, in nearly all cases it has. In the past when I didn’t have a good referral network it was hard for me to say no to a new potential client, because I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to work with them. Being able to refer to someone better suited to their needs is a great way to pass on working with someone who you really don’t want to work with.
4. Rehearse your ‘it’s not you it’s me’ speech
Rather than getting caught out, I have a few “It’s not you, it’s me” speeches in my head, ready to pull out on demand. Some of my favourites are, “Thank you for the opportunity, but we are so heavily committed that we can’t give your project the time and attention it needs.” Or another one, “Thank you for the opportunity to work on this project, but it doesn’t align with the direction we want to take.”
These formal, structured responses leave little room for argument. But, if the client does argue persuasively, keep going back to your rehearsed statement. Be a broken record!
5. Quote high (as in nosebleed high)
Quote high. I mean, really high, so they make the decision to move on. Now, this can backfire – they might still say yes. Just make sure you are paid upfront, and if the client turns out to be a nightmare, at least you can afford appropriate medication or a holiday to recover!
6. If you crack under pressure, buy some time
It is easy to crack, don’t worry, we all do. When faced with this, buy yourself some time. I say, “I’ll get back to you with my thoughts by Friday”. This gives me time to really think about the pros and cons of the project, and to prepare an appropriate response. Getting pressured into making a decision on the spot can be hard and it’s easy to buckle. So take this pressure away.
7. Be the broken record.
This is the last resort, but sometimes we can find ourselves in a situation with a potential client who is really determined to have you work with them. The key here is to be a broken record. You simply have to keep saying no, regardless of what they say or do. The line here is “thank you for the opportunity but this is just not right for us because……… I’ve had very persuasive people try to convince me to say yes, and as they get more persuasive, I dig in more.
Hopefully you’ve learned some strategies to help you say ‘no’ to potentially difficult new clients. Most importantly, listen to your intuition. If you think they are going to be hard work, and you’re not looking for hard work clients, back away.