Have you ever worked with a difficult client? (As someone who waited tables throughout college, I know I’ve dealt with my fair share of impossible-to-please customers!)
But the beauty of owning your own business is you get to choose who you want to work with. Turning down work isn’t limited to rejecting “difficult” clients, either. Sometimes you just don’t have the bandwidth to take on the scope or scale of a particular project. Or, the project may be something out of your wheelhouse, the pay may be too low, or you might have ethical concerns about the work or company.
For me, it's not so much working with difficult clients per se. But because the work-at-home realm is so littered with scams, I’m often faced with a judgment call. I often turn away business because I don't feel comfortable promoting certain business opportunities or products to my audience. While turning away a potential client is something I don’t enjoy; I know it’s essential to maintain trust and integrity with my readers. Over the years, I’ve gained a lot of experience in turning down clients and work (without burning bridges or harming my reputation).
Whatever your reasons or apprehensions may be, there’s a fine art to turning away clients and customers professionally. Here are a few tips and strategies I've learned along the way to make the process of turning down business clients easier.
1. Be Decisive
When a job is proposed, you can often gauge from one or two conversations whether it’s going to be a good fit.
- Are they going to pay you what you’re worth?
- Does the job fit your skills?
- Is this going to be a pleasant client to work with?
- Do your values align?
If you have reservations, don’t let guilt or fear rule your decision. When you get a “gut feeling” about a client or simply feel as though the work proposed is too much to take on, listen to your intuition and trust it. Feel confident in your decision and follow your instincts.
2. Act Quickly
Make the decision as quickly as possible and let the client know right away. Many of us drag our feet on bad news, but it’s actually kinder to all parties involved to get it over with and move on. This allows time for the client to search for alternative solutions, and it shows professionalism and respect for their time. Stringing a client along for days or even weeks while you consider your response could result in an angry client who gives you and your business poor lip service.
3. Keep Perspective
Most people dread confrontation or rejection. But remember, in the professional world this is a natural part of the ebb and flow of business. You probably won’t be the first person to deliver tough news or turn down your client, nor will you be the last. It’s far better to be upfront and honest than attempt a job when you’re the wrong fit. Either the quality of your work, your attitude, or your stress levels will suffer (and possibly all three). You’re doing the client a favor by being honest so that they can find a better match for their work.
4. Keep it Short and Sweet
When turning down a client, it’s best to be polite, prompt, and to the point. A simple and direct statement should suffice. Be upfront and let them know you can’t tackle this job right now, as it doesn’t fit your skillset or workload capacity. There’s no reason to extend the conversation with justifications, excuses, or rationalization. Keep it brief, concise, and courteous.
5. Offer Explanations When Asked
If a client asks the question, “Why won’t you take me on as a client?” briefly explain why you won’t be able to assist them. Remember to be as polite and delicate as possible, because many people will take this rejection personally. Be honest, but it’s also perfectly fine (and professional) to say, “I don’t feel I’m the right fit for your project,” or “I’m not able to dedicate myself to providing the work you need.”
6. But Don’t Overshare
There’s no reason to offer extensive feedback to a client about why you can’t take on their job. Perhaps your personalities clash, you don’t like their management style, or you can tell they’re hard-to-please. Maybe you just don’t agree with or like the project. By sharing your opinions with them, you aren’t going to change their approach (or their personality). If anything, you’ll put them on the defensive. If they display a dire lack of professionalism, it’s acceptable to let them know you aren’t comfortable working with them due to their behavior and end the conversation. There’s no reason to belabor the details.
7. Say Thank You
Thank the client for the opportunity and for considering you for the project. Even if you’re not interested in the potential project at all, still thank them for the consideration. Using politeness and gratitude helps smooth a myriad of tough messages. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Keep your interactions courteous and kind.
8. Suggest an Alternative
If possible, offer alternatives. This isn’t only helpful to the client, but it leaves them with the feeling you tried to help them. Firmly close the door if you aren’t interested (don’t give them false hope), but offer ideas for their next step. It maintains an amicable relationship with the potential client, as you never know where future referrals and opportunities will arise. If this is a desirable client, see if you can pass them to another trusted source, they will appreciate the referral and your willingness to assist them.
9. Always Remain, Professional
If a client starts to step over the line and starts name-calling or acting unprofessional, as tempting as it may be to strike back, never engage in this sort of behavior. Remember: you have the control to simply cut off communication and end it. You never want to burn any bridges or add any fuel to the fire. Sometimes the most professional action is to walk away.
10. Keep Your Opinions to Yourself
Even if the client throws a fit, seems high-maintenance, or you simply don’t like them, keep your feelings to yourself (or at least out of the professional world). Business circles often run small, and you never want to malign someone’s reputation. The client you find challenging might be a perfect fit (or a friend) to someone else, and gossip can spread like wildfire. Just move forward and put the interaction behind you.
Turning down a client can be a difficult undertaking and a stressful decision to make. But remember: by following these guidelines, you’ll certainly minimize your long-term stress, freeing up your mind to run your business better!
Have you had to turn down a business client? How did you handle the situation?
Originally published on April 9, 2010. Content updated November 7, 2017.