When It Makes Sense to Turn Down Potential Clients

February 23, 2015

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.

On learning this lesson the hard way

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.

New freelancers are always juggling.

New freelancers are always juggling.

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.

When the doubt creeps in

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?

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8 Replies to “When It Makes Sense to Turn Down Potential Clients”

  • Interesting post! Just as you describe, I do sometimes end up saying no to prospective clients. With that said, I am doing it less and less now that I’ve developed a more detailed answer to the question – Who is my ideal client?

    To begin answering that question I created what I call a market-defining story. This story was a basic sketch of the type of person I’d be serving, their situation, and the benefits they’d experience as we started working together.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    “Kris has been working as a self-employed consultant since 2011. Although her income meets the immediate needs of her family, her business is a lot less profitable and fulfilling than she hoped it would be when she started working for herself.

    Kris is determined to do better. She believes that improving her sales strategy might solve her problem ““ but she doesn’t have a background in sales or a firm grasp of what steps to take.

    In her search for better sales ideas, Kris downloads my free LinkedIn guide. Shortly afterward, she reaches out to me to get some personalized sales and business guidance. By the end of our first conversation, Kris starts to see a clear path to a more profitable and fulfilling business life. She feels more energized and optimistic than she has in years.”

    This story helped me to create a useful context for myself. My sales and marketing efforts were now focused on “Kris” and her situation ““ not on a textbook concept of a target market. Based on that distinction, I’m able to connect with “ideal” prospective clients in a more personal and direct way. At least for me, this means saying no a lot less.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      This is great, Stephen! Thanks for sharing in detail!

    • Rick says:

      Spot on Alexis.

      One of the great things about building up my new business slowly while I keep my “day job” is that I don’t feel like I have to take any potential client that comes along. I learned that lesson in my first business — we could usually tell from the first meeting which clients were going to be 80% of the work, and they were rarely the most profitable.

  • Alicia Rades says:

    I’m a freelance blogger and get pretty picky about who I work with. I generally turn offers down when 1) they’re asking for something besides blogging content (I’ve been asked to do press releases, and I have no experience writing them) or 2) they’re asking me to blog on a topic I know nothing about. I recently turned down someone who was asking me to write for a church. It’s not that the deal was bad. I just didn’t know enough about their church or faith to feel confident writing for them, so I forwarded some info from a writer I know who could do a better job.

    Thanks for the article!

  • Kathy says:

    Your perspective resonates with me deeply. I’m presently at capacity with my consulting work but still feel anxious when turning down new projects. Finding the right balance between taking on enough but not too much work takes trial and error.

    You’re doing the right thing by carefully selecting new clients. It’s right for you, your staff and ultimately for clients you’ve turned away and those you’ve accepted. To thine own self be true.

    Wishing you continued success!

  • What a refreshing article to read! One of the strategies I wish I had learned earlier is to turn away clients who are a good fit. Often they wind up taking too much time with very little reward. Saying NO is very scary, articles like this help keep up my confidence. Thanks for sharing!

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