When You Simply Have to Say “No” To New Business, or a Potential New Client

By Linda Pophal

Have you ever turned down new business or said “no” to a potential new client? It may seem hard to believe (especially for very new businesses), but there are definitely times when saying “no” is the best thing to do. Doing so effectively, though, is a bit of an art, and it may take a while for you to determine the types of clients and projects that make the most sense for you to tackle—and those that simply don’t make sense.

I started Strategic Communications in 2008. As with any new business, in the early days there may be a tendency to “take all comers,” and I generally did just that. Over time, however, as your business becomes busier (which it hopefully will), you will discover that you have limited time/resources to serve everyone. At that point, you have some decisions to make: will you add more staff, hire contractors or turn business down? If so, what type of business will you turn down?

All businesses must grapple with developing the right mix of customers/clients to optimize their resources. From a positioning/branding standpoint, it’s also important to have a clear focus in terms of what it is that you provide, who you provide it to, and why you provide it (your mission). Having that focus can then serve to help you make decisions about which customers to serve and which not to serve. Importantly, it is never a good idea to take on a project/client/customer who you cannot serve well. That will only tarnish your reputation.

No business can serve everyone, so you must be selective.

Strategic Communications serves service-related businesses—healthcare organizations, business consultants, attorneys, etc. We don’t work with retail businesses; we don’t serve the hospitality industry. That’s just not our niche.

But there have been occasions when we have turned down companies that are in our niche for various reasons:

  • What they’re asking for is not part of our current skill set, and it would take too long—and cost too much—to build that skill set. For instance, if a client is looking for website development, we might have to turn them away. We don’t do that. We might we someday, but we don’t right now and couldn’t serve the customer well—so we refer them to someone who can.
  • From our discussions, we get the impression that they might be a “problem” client—they may not be able to convey a good indication of what they are really looking for, and this can often be an exercise in futility. It’s hard to satisfy customers who don’t really know what they want. Their tone/personality may be abrasive or somehow not aligned with our values. In these cases, again, we might refer them to someone else we feel could serve them better. Or, if we’re not entirely sure it’s a fit, we’ll submit a proposal that we feel is on the high end; sometimes they come on board, and sometimes they don’t. When they do, having that extra cushion to work with helps to cover the additional time that may be needed to deal with a challenging account.
  • We have too much going on at the time and won’t be able to serve their needs effectively. Again, if this is the case, we’ll make a referral to another consultant/organization.

It really doesn’t serve your customers, or you, to take them on if the fit isn’t there or you don’t have the specific skill set to serve their needs. Learning to say “no” doesn’t come easily, but over the years, we’ve learned that it is often the best thing to do.

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