When Is It OK to Say No to a Prospective Client?

Have you ever had this problem?

In your head you’re saying “No, No, No!!!” But then you say “Yes” anyway? Me too, me too…

I’ve been self-employed now for almost six full months.

I’ve found some “Golden Clients”, and I’ve dealt with some that have come close to making we want to go back to “Corporate America” (not really).

I’ve come to the conclusion that some clients are just not worth it. Sure, they may be paying you pretty good money to work for them. Sure, they may have respect for what you’re doing (sort of). But at the end of the day, due to their unrealistic expectations and/or their lack of understanding about what they purchased, they demand more and more for less and less, and they will probably not end up being one of those clients who refers you to all their contacts.

Why is this?

Is it because you didn’t do a quality job?

Is it because they don’t have a good business?

Is it because you lacked good communication skills from the beginning?

Or is it because they’re just down right bad people?

The answer is NO, it’s probably none of these reasons.

I worked with a client once who shared a great quote with me. In talking about sales, he said:

NO is the first two letters of NOT YET…

I think this statement is really applicable with the type of clients I’m talking about. Turning down a client does not mean you have to completely burn a bridge and avoid them like the plague.

Saying No may simply mean “Not yet…”

Here’s why:

  1. EDUCATION: The prospect needs a bit more education on what you’ll be offering and what expectations they should have. Unrealistic expectations are the most difficult thing to deal with. You I don’t want to tell the client “I can’t do that…” but in some cases, I just can’t.
  2. ORGANIZATION: The prospect needs to make sure they have all their “ducks in a row” before you dive into the complex world of SEO and Social Media. Do they have at least one dedicated employee who will be working closely with your team? If not, they need to get one. I’ve realized that my job is NOT to run their business or make their business decisions; instead, my job is to take what their doing and help get the word out there and optimize their efforts accordingly. Without a dedicated staff member who is teachable and preferably internet savvy, it’s going to be a long road and one I’m not sure I want to travel down.
  3. EXPECTATIONS: The prospect needs to determine what they what to achieve with your SEO efforts: increased brand awareness, more traffic, higher ROI, ORM, etc. If they don’t really know what they want to achieve, none of your efforts will completely satisfy. As I said before, unrealistic expectations are the most difficult thing to deal with and are a HUGE RED-FLAG. Using case studies of other clients you’ve worked with can help people understand what they should expect. If they don’t think what you’ve done is enough, then NOT YET is a perfect solution. Chances are, they’ll go with another firm and then possibly come back to you anyway.
  4. COMMITMENT: The prospect needs to fully commit to helping you help them. This is similar to organization. If a client expects you to learn their business or industry overnight, NOT YET is a good answer. If a client can’t give you any time to meet together, they just want you to run with it, NOT YET is a good answer. Clients have to be willing to dedicate at least some time and resources if your efforts are going to pay off.
  5. BELIEF: The prospect needs to believe that what you’re doing is truly of value. A lot of this goes right back to education: if they have no idea what SEO is or why they need it, but instead their buying from you because they know their competitors are using an SEO firm, they most likely don’t truly believe that what you can do is going to help them. I know, you may be asking the same thing I am – “Then WHY would they invest the money?” Good question! Just like the other points, though, if they don’t really believe they need this (and sometimes it’s hard to catch this right away), “Not Yet” is the best answer.

What have your experiences been with saying No (or Not Yet) to clients?

Have you passed the fear of turning down new business? or do you still say YES to everyone and then regret it over and over and over again?

Nate Moller, a self-employed entrepreneur, has been teaching clients how to start an online business for over five years. He’s worked with thousands of companies who are looking for answers in their online marketing journey. Follow Nate on Twitter and become a fan of Moller Marketing on Facebook!

19 thoughts on “When Is It OK to Say No to a Prospective Client?

  1. Dan Patterson says:

    When I worked agency SEO there were a several clients that I wish the sales people had said no to. It’s easier to say no when you’re the one doing the sale, but another thing entirely when you’re in an agency and someone else sold the deal 🙂

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  3. Nate Moller says:

    @Dan Patterson
    LOL – I have to be careful how I comment about this comment (but I agree with you 110%). Try working with a client on the phone who’s deaf, 75+ years old, and who doesn’t know how to copy and paste…

    Thanks for your insight Dan! Sales is where the virus can start and it can be a tough pit to dig yourself out of if you have to fulfill someone else’s sale. That’s why I love making my own sales and fulfilling what I get myself into.

  4. Nate Moller says:

    @Mat Siltala
    I’m glad you’re helping me realize that all the time. Saying no will really save you SO MUCH MONEY, TIME and HEADACHE in the long run.

    Question: what are key indicators for you that a client is a NO, or at least a NOT YET?

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  6. Monty says:

    Thanks Nate i appreciate the heads up as we move into a more formal structured agency setting. Your article will be a great help when assessing a companies commitment to needing, let alone investing in SEO work.

  7. June Young says:

    Every contract needs commitment and I guess saying yes for the sake of compliance might jeopardize your business or your clients. I say be critical and rational and do not take contracts you can’t deliver. This is a good post!

  8. Glenn A says:

    I’ve found that 90% of the time when I have the urge to bolt during an initial meeting, it’s been for a good reason. Clients can be bad for numerous reasons — and yes you can “fire” them later — but the biggest is non-payment. I cannot remember a single case when my inner voice said not to take a client and it all worked out for the best. As they say in boxing, protect yourself at all times when it comes to ensuring payment.

  9. Trent Jessee says:

    Great article Nate meister. I’ve personally seen people being the asset and the liability to my businesses online for sure. I just finished reading Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness..” where he talks about the principle of ALIGNMENT. When you mentioned the quote above of “No” being the first two letters of “not yet” that reminded me of how important it is to still be nice to customer who are not aligned with your company/personal value system. The customer who are not aligned with how you run business could very well come around one day to be an asset to you and your company.

  10. Nate Moller says:

    @June Young
    I like what you say about jeopardizing both your business AND the other companies business. Sometimes saying “Not Yet” can be the best two words you’ll ever say to a prospect because it will cause them to prepare a little better, do a bit more research, and at the end of the day you’ll all be better off in working together. Thanks for the comment June!

  11. Nate Moller says:

    @Glenn A
    It’s so hard to always trust that inner voice but I agree – it is right 100% of the time. The downfall to saying yes even though the inner voice is saying otherwise is that when you have to “fire” them (or they “fire” you), no one is better off: you won’t get referrals and you’ll have planted a bad seed in their minds regarding SEO in general, even though you may have provided a KILLER SERVICE.

    That “If You Build It, They Will Come” voice is a great partner to have IF you listen to it!

    Thanks for the comment!

  12. Nate Moller says:

    @Trent Jessee
    I just got that book at a conference one of the Zappos big-dogs was at for asking him a question during his speech; excited to read it.

    It is so important to try to NEVER burn a bridge, even with a client you mistakenly said YES to and they’re mad because they want more for less. Instead of being a jerk, give them as much as you can and then just tell them more will be an additional Million Bucks! Then it’s THEM saying no and not you 🙂

    Hope you’re loving life Trent! Thanks for the comment!

  13. Lauren Bennett says:

    Indeed a tricky question to answer, as I myself have issues with this situation (I more often than not say yes to any prospective client), perhaps the main reason is that I’m up for the challenge, and it’s sort of hard to measure if a prospective project can help you learn more or grow or if it would just be a waste of time and effort.

  14. Shivam Garg says:

    Hi Nate,
    Great article.Its true that some clients always asks too much or you can say unrealistic.They don’t understand the complication.Being a freelancer i find it very difficult to turn them down but at the end of the day i always try to find positives in turning them down.

  15. howler says:

    Nate, I agree with you 100%, no matter how successful your business is you still have unhappy Clients. I read somewhere that it’s considered excellent if percentage of such Clients doesn’t exceed 10%. So in other words, it’s a waste of time to try to make those 10% happy.

  16. Matthew says:

    We’ve found its important to discuss budget upfront too. Its a great way of gauging how serious the client is about their project. And saves time for everyone in the long run.

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