Whether you're working for an company or on your own, the thought of saying 'no' to a client can be panic-inducing. It can be especially stressful if you're starting your own business or trying to grow your new business. The good news is that there are particular situations that actually call for a resounding negative response. When you say "no," you can feel like you're doing what's right for you and your business.
Is the customer always right? Here's when and how to say 'no' to a client.
When to say, "I don't know..."
Before we look at situations that require a "no," let's clarify when the best response might be "I don't know."
There may be situations where your client will ask for something that might be out of scope of your agreement or a request that your company may be able to fulfill at a future date. If you're not sure or you need more time to research, it's okay to say that.
If you're struggling with understanding your client's request, perhaps they're using unfamiliar terms or aren't exactly sure what you're providing, take a step back to ask for clarification. You can use phrases such as:
- If I'm understanding you correctly, you're asking...
- I'm not sure I understand. Can you clarify exactly what it is you're requesting?
- I'm going to have to get back with you on that. Let me do some research first.
Otherwise, if the answer isn't a hearty "yes!" then you may need to check your boundaries and agreement to ensure that the client isn't asking for something you're unable to deliver.
See also: How to Set Boundaries with Clients
When to say, "No"
If you say 'yes' to every request from a client, you may find that you're overwhelmed and underpaid. It's not only okay to set firm boundaries with clients, it's required to be successful. Learning to say no is important to your job satisfaction and use of available resources.
Here are situations where it's necessary to tell a client 'no' and some suggested phrases for turning them down:
When they don't pay for your time and resources: How often are you asked if someone can "pick your brain"? Or how about when you've sent a proposal and they ask for a lower price? Unless you're getting something in return or you have room to negotiate, go ahead and say 'no'.
- I'm pretty busy right now. Did you have a quick question?
- I can meet but I'll have to charge a consultation fee. Are you still interested?
- Okay, I can offer this, instead of that, for a different price. Would that work?
When they're not the right fit: If you've been in business for a while and you have an idea of the perfect client, you know when a client isn't a good fit. Saying no will benefit you and them in the long run.
- My company doesn't offer what you're asking for. Perhaps Company X would be a better fit for you. I'll set up an introduction if you're interested.
- I'm actually pretty busy right now. I can suggest another great company to take on your project. Does that work for you?
When the request is out of scope: At the beginning of your client relationship, it's important to set clear expectations of what you're providing and when. If the client's request is outside of that, you can turn them down or ask for more.
- I can take care of that for you, but it is out of scope of our original agreement. I'll send over a proposal for it. Also, it may delay the project a bit.
When they owe you money: When your client is 30 days or more behind on payment, it's okay to refuse further services until they pay. Consequences and payment terms should be specified in the contract and on invoices. Download some friendly payment reminder templates here and COVID-specific payment reminders here.
- According to our records, our last invoice hasn't been paid. Once we get that squared away, I'd be happy to continue working on your project.
When they're asking for something inappropriate or illegal: Unfortunately, it happens. A recent internet search that lead to this blog asked, "how to say no when a client flirts with you." Yikes. If a client request goes against your ethics, definitely let them know that it's not okay.
- Instead of doing that, how about if we approach the situation differently? I don't want to get you or me in trouble by doing something that could cause legal troubles later.
- If we can help, let's move forward. Otherwise, I would prefer to keep our relationship strictly professional. Thank you.
Set Boundaries and Still Maintain Your Business Relationship
When done correctly, with empathy and care, saying 'no' will benefit you and your client. They may be inexperienced in working with a partner like your business. They may not have a full understanding of what you're providing. They might even be unaware that they haven't paid their invoices on time! If you can approach them with that knowledge, and confidence that your time and services are valuable, you'll be setting boundaries and still maintaining a positive business relationship.