Professional development

Saying NO: How to turn away difficult clients

- November 8, 2022 3 MIN READ
refusing handshake saying no

Saying ‘no’ is not easy, but it is a skill we need to master. In this article you’ll learn how to politely and professionally turn away difficult clients.

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 after a few bottles of wine.

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”.

How to say no to a potential client – without burning bridges!

Every single time I have ignored my intuition, 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 is to let discussions go on too long.

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 mine. 

2. 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. Thankfully, in nearly all cases it has.

3. Rehearse your ‘no’ 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.”
  • “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!

4. Quote 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!

5. 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.

Hopefully you’ve now learned some strategies to help you say ‘no’ to difficult clients, allowing you to say ‘yes’ to the wonderful ones!

Article updated for 2022.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"