Over the last few months, my company has gotten a lot of client requests.
We’ve turned down almost every one.
Why? Because they weren’t the right fit for us. Often, they were the right fit in some ways, but not the right fit in others, which made it difficult to say no.
But one of the things I’ve learned about serving clients for the last four years is this: it’s never worth taking on a client that’s not the right fit. And usually, if you have a gut feeling they’re not the right fit, they’re not.
It took me about three years to learn this. Well, that’s not completely true. I did learn it early on, but I had to learn it several more times before I finally acted on it.
At first, I didn’t act on it because it didn’t matter whether the client was a perfect fit; I needed the money, so I took every client that came my way.
Later, in what I think of as Phase 2 of my business, I didn’t act on it because even though I was making enough money, I always worried I would lose a client, so I still took whatever I could get. And, to be honest, I was probably still figuring out at that point who my perfect client was anyhow.
Then there’s Phase 3, where I was still taking on clients that weren’t the right fit. Sure, I did turn down some opportunities at this point, but I always leaned toward saying yes.
By then my reasons had shifted: I’d scaled the business a bit, transitioning from freelancer to business owner, and my team was doing most of the legwork while I focused on strategy. We were bringing in a comfortable amount of revenue, and I knew who our ideal clients were, but I kept signing with clients that weren’t right for us because everyone told me we should continue to grow. We were players in an in-demand field (content marketing) and lots of people wanted to work with us; why wouldn’t I grow this into a big company?
Except that’s not what I’m after. While scaling was on the table for a while, I’ve realized by now that I’m not in this to grow a big company. I want to do meaningful work on my own schedule, help my team members learn and grow, and earn enough income to support the lifestyle I want. Those are my priorities, not growth.
Enter Phase 4. And here we are, turning down clients each week. Which is ironic, because right now we’re actually looking for a new client.
Many of the companies and individuals that approach us want our help with social media, but that’s not our core service anymore. We focus on blog management: writing, editing, optimizing and publishing up to 15 posts weekly for our clients, sometimes adding social and email marketing on the side. But taking on a project outside of that focus simply doesn’t make sense.
Why? Because we have solid systems in place for blog management, and we do it really well. Adding clients who want results outside of those systems means having to create new systems, which isn’t efficient. Inefficiency means stress for me and my team. And feeling stressed out undermines my reason for having the business to begin with.
Taking on the wrong clients also closes the door on the right ones, something I’ve had to learn the hard way. When you’re dealing with a stressful client — and stress can come either from the client’s attitude or because you’re still building systems to do that type of work — you often don’t have the energy or capacity to work with someone new.
Of course, just because you know all this doesn’t mean you won’t doubt yourself when you turn down a potential client.
In fact, that’s why I’m writing this post: because we turned down a project a few days ago. It was a great opportunity, and I’d say 75 percent the right fit. And though I know from experience how important it is to hold myself to 100 percent, I’m still in that phase where I’m wondering, Was that the right decision? Will a better-fit client really come along when we want it?
Saying no can be scary the moment you do it, and that’s what I’m reminding myself now. It’s often not until days, weeks or months later, when you have the right client on your roster and more time to work on important projects, that you can look back and see with absolute clarity that you made the right decision.
When was the last time you said no to an opportunity?