When and how to say no to a potential client


Improve customer service and employee satisfaction by declining some business.

Saying “yes” to a customer feels good. It feels really good. In fact, we say “yes,” even when we want to say “no,” we know we should say “no,” and we have no idea how we’re going to fulfill our, “Yes!” In contrast, saying no is scary. We’re in the service industry, so more customers served means a better bottom line, right?

The truth is, we say “yes” far too often. We say it to make our customers and ourselves feel good because we’re afraid of missing out on an opportunity. Overpromising may net short-term gains, but the consequences could be irreparable. Overworking staff, earning bad reviews and dealing with inefficiencies are three negative results of not knowing how or when to say no.

When to say ‘no’

If someone asked you, “What’s most important to your company?” you may reply, “To grow profitably by providing excellent customer service and taking care of our employees.” It’s a good answer. Of course, growing profitably depends on pleasing customers and caring for your employees. Pleasing customers and caring for your employees depends on knowing when to say “no” to an opportunity that’s either not a good fit for your company or would stretch your resources too thin.

Pleasing your customers depends on giving them your best. If you promise to take on a job only to have it fall to the bottom of your priorities list, your clients will feel unappreciated. In the internet age, unappreciated clients leave bad reviews, and online reviews are forever. In the end, both you and the customer would have been better off if you had said no.

That’s why it’s vital for company owners and managers to prepare a list of qualifying characteristics that define the right customer. When the entire company knows the right questions to ask to qualify a client, employees can confidently decide whether or not to pursue a project. If you can’t immediately list your company’s qualifiers, gather your associates and have a meeting.

Salespeople, company leaders and production managers see a potential job from different perspectives. Owners and managers want to make sure the company has a healthy backlog of work that will keep employees busy. Salespeople may be driven primarily by the potential price tag of a job. Production managers may be focused on the job’s location, site accessibility and whether or not the job fits into a challenging schedule.

All these perspectives are valid, and understanding them makes it easier to define your job qualifiers. Coming up with a solid list of qualifiers enables quick and confident decisions the whole team will be happy with.

Remember, taking on new work is not always a positive thing. Project your current workload, and only take on new work when you have control over your commitments. Decide what an appropriate workload is for your company. Design/build companies are often in situations where their backlog of work means a new client cannot be serviced for two or three months. This may or may not be acceptable. When your backlog gets too long for your comfort, it’s time to rethink your project qualifiers and make the tough decisions to distill the best jobs from the rest. Shorten your backlog to what’s appropriate for your business model and your customers. Of course, this means saying “no” more often.

How to say ‘no’

If we must decline business, how do we do it so we don’t turn people off? The purpose of saying no is to make sure the company and the customer are best served. No one likes to be rejected, so it is important to communicate to every potential customer that you appreciate their interest in your company, and you want them to get the best service and value possible. That may mean sending them elsewhere.

First, ask a lot of questions. When a prospect calls you for a service, unless he or she is seeking something your company doesn’t do, don’t be too quick to say “no.” Dig deep, even if you’re 90 percent sure the client isn’t right for you. The prospects will appreciate that you took the time to seriously consider their needs, and the information you gather will allow you to explain why they’d be better served elsewhere.

Before you send them away, leave them with a parting gift. This is as simple as offering possible other solutions to their problems. Because you spent time asking a lot of questions, you already understand their needs. As a sign of appreciation, offer them advice about how to solve their issues and provide a list of other companies that may be able to help them. Too little time considering clients will leave them feeling slighted or underappreciated. Send them away with the feeling that even though you’re not the right fit, at least they gained something from reaching out to you.

Saying “no” to a potential client shouldn’t be difficult or stressful. If you know your qualifiers, understand your commitments and can show the customer that you appreciate their interest in your company, declining business can work in your favor. Our industry exists to provide a service. Every company has a sector of the market it serves best. Know your ideal customers, and stick with them. Show appreciation for those who don’t meet your qualifiers, but send them away with a polite “no.”

For a list of potential qualifying questions, click here.

photo: ©istock.com/g-stockstudio

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