How to Decline a Client Project When You’re Not a Fit

Michelle Hunter by Michelle Hunter

The polite way to decline a project and guide the client to a solution that doesn’t involve your services.

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As a marketing strategist, my work is focused on helping clients dial in their marketing message and approach so they can attract more of their ideal clients. We refine the ideal client profile, analyze the needs and buying behavior of the clients we target, and put systems in place to attract these potential clients and repel those who aren’t a good fit.

Ideally, the marketing systems we create, along with the tools we use to qualify potential clients, weed out those who aren’t the best fit for our services. But sometimes people get through the system.

The inquiry call (discovery call, free consultation, whatever you call it) is the last gate potential clients pass through before working with you. This call is a lot more than a provider interview. It’s actually a time for you and the potential client to evaluate one another and agree together to move forward. Sometimes you simply need to decline a client project.

[Side note: If you normally let clients interview YOU, we should talk. You can be much more effective, trust me!]

Recently, a client shared a concern with me as we discussed the inquiry call process. She agreed with the concept of vetting clients and determining fit, but she was struggling a bit with the application. She wondered how to politely decline a project if the client wanted to move forward, but she did not.

Oh my goodness – what a great question!

In my experience, fit is a mutual thing 90% of the time. Both you and the potential client will quickly realize you won’t enjoy working together for some reason. You will struggle to get through the call because of the lack of enthusiasm and energy. OR, you will both identify an obstacle (budget, scope, or availability) that you simply can’t overcome.

But sometimes- it’s happened to me a time or two- the client is really into it but I’m just not. They are eager to get started and all I can see are danger signs and red flags. My gut is telling me to say no, but I’m hesitant because I just don’t know what to say.

None of us want to offend. We don’t feel comfortable making a client feel they don’t qualify for our time and effort, especially if they are eager and singing our praises. But, moving forward in those moments is a path of pure frustration. Trust me, I’ve done it a time or two.

So, just exactly how do you decline an eager client? How do you close the door on a project opportunity in a polite, professional manner? Here are my thoughts…

Provide value before you decline the project.

Every potential client has a problem he is trying to solve. Every person I speak to in an inquiry call has given me the gift of her time and trust, even if only for a limited window of time. While the project might not be a fit for me, the potential client has identified me as an expert with the ability to provide a solution. I always want to respond with gratitude and generosity.

My marketing toolbox includes lots of helpful information and advice. During our conversation, I’ve gained a good understanding of this person’s challenges and concerns. I understand enough about the problem to suggest a course of action that will move the client forward.

Before I decline a project, I make a few recommendations that provide value. I might suggest a book or resource. I might discuss a tactic and bring clarity, or I may recommend an action step or two. More often than not, I suggest questions to consider or “homework” the individual can do to explore the problem more fully or isolate a solution.

You’re an expert too. The client engaged with your marketing messaging and reviewed your website, and felt confident enough to reach out. You have the ability to solve this problem – or at least part of it. Share a bit of your expertise with humility and generosity.

Give the potential client value in exchange for their time and effort. It won’t cost you anything… and it will provide real value to someone who reached out to you in good faith.

Offer expert reasons for declining the project.

Let’s be honest… you know why the client is a bad fit. Some of the reasons are professional, but some are based on personality or a bad past experience. Maybe you had a particularly difficult time with a client in the past… and this client reminds you of that situation.

My “red rope” policy (the policy that limits who I work with) includes factors like communication style, urgency, and chaos. Some people operate in 24/7 crisis mode, for example. These are not my people. Others have a stilted, reserved communication style or thrive in the excitement of frequently changing objectives and goals. These are not my people, either.

There’s nothing wrong with these people… but they aren’t a fit with how I prefer to work.

As an expert, I challenge myself to go beyond subjective factors like these to identify objective reasons why I don’t wish to move forward. Here’s what I mean…

  • The client with a habit of urgency will become frustrated by my unwillingness to work inside a tight deadline, respond in a hot minute, or provide unlimited availability.
  • The client with shifting priorities will not be able to pivot quickly if we work together. My more measured approach will limit this client’s creative energy and momentum.
  • The client with the reserved communication style will be easily overwhelmed with my candid, collaborative approach and may struggle to engage at the level I prefer.

Notice what I’m doing here? I’m placing my concerns in the context of the client’s best interest. Sure, I will be annoyed or frustrated too. I will struggle to do my best work. These are MY problems… not the client’s problems. Sharing concerns from a self-centered perspective is rude… don’t do it.

However, sharing concerns from a client-focused perspective is not rude- it’s caring and professional. In fact, it would be unprofessional for me to accept a project where fit was an issue because I would struggle to do my best work and therefore the quality of results I delivered to the client would be compromised.

Use clear language when declining the project.

Women in my family are amazingly skilled at using vague language to communicate. We can use backhanded compliments to jab. We are masters at non-committal responses that are actually judgements. We can share gossip, trade compliments, and discuss the moral state of our children without anyone even getting a whiff of what’s really going on.

Not sure you believe me? Just ask my husband. I’ve clarified the true meaning of all that vague conversation while driving home from many a family party. We call this “porcupine speak” because it seems cuddly, but it can pack a nasty jab.

I mention all this simply to point out that vague, unclear language is actually NOT polite. It’s confusing at best and, more often than not, hurtful. Your potential clients deserve better from you.

Have the courage to decline projects using clear language that is polite, but not subject to confusion or interpretation. Consider options such as:

  • This is an interesting project, but I’m not able to accept it at this time.
  • I’m so glad we spoke today. Unfortunately, I’m not a good fit for this project.
  • Based on what we’ve discussed, I need to decline this project.

Make sure the potential client understands you’re saying no… don’t leave room for confusion or misunderstanding. Be respectful, be kind… but also be direct.

Help the client move forward after you decline the project.

Building a successful business is challenging, right? Many people have come alongside me to offer wisdom, guidance, and encouragement. Hopefully, I’ve done the same a time or two. In moments like these, you have the opportunity to demonstrate generosity and a helpful spirit, and impact others in a positive way.

Yes, I just said you can decline a project in a way that has a positive impact.

Connect this client with someone who may be able to help them. Refer them to another provider who does what you do (or something similar) and may be a better fit for the project. Be part of the solution, even if you turn down the project.

There’s a mindset shift that’s helpful here. Start thinking of the people in your space as colleagues rather than competition. Build relationships with the other experts in your industry who provide similar services and treat clients in a way you can respect and admire. Develop a pool of individuals you can recommend with confidence.

Does that feel foreign to you? Many of us pay close attention to our competition. We monitor their websites for design changes and new service offerings. We read their posts, watch their videos, and follow their social media campaigns with interest… and at times, with a critical or envious eye.

It can be quite a shift to see your competitors as an alternate method for serving your audience. Are you this brave?

Full Disclosure – -> I am darn good at what I do, but there are others who are equally good. There are others who have mastered aspects of marketing that I have only explored.

I gladly refer potential clients to colleagues who specialize in community building or Facebook advertising or launch strategy. I happily introduce potential clients to copywriters who specialize in writing technical white papers or product descriptions or direct mail campaigns.

Can I provide these marketing or copywriting services to clients? Sure I can… but my expertise lies in a different aspect of marketing strategy. My writing is best suited to a different type of format. Rather than compete, I choose to give potential clients my very best… and sometimes that is a referral.

You are the face of your brand. Always demonstrate your core values.

My business is built on a handful of core values- generosity, simplicity, candor, and gratitude are a few on the list. These values aren’t just a mantra I use as a part of my mission statement. They are the foundation of my team culture… and they are the center point of how I engage with others in my business space.

Clients and potential clients, strategic partners and colleagues, vendors and team members. I’m not perfect, but my hope is that anyone who interacts with my brand is impacted by these core values in some way. This includes those who are not a fit. I give to them generously, express my gratitude, and share my thoughts with simple candor. I find this is the best, most authentic approach to even the most difficult conversations.

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