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Saying No to Clients Without Losing Them

Saying No to Clients Without Losing Them

As a small business owner, you’ve likely heard the adage “The client is always right” more times than you’ve cared to. And you’re wise enough to understand that customer relations are the crux of survival for any business, but particularly for businesses that generally have a smaller customer base.

But, what happens when they’re not right? What if they want something from you that either (a) you don’t offer as part of your products or services or (b) would be in contradiction to your current policies and procedures? How do you tell them “no” in a way that doesn’t make them want to walk out of your life forever?

With so much competition in this world today, consumers know that they always have options. If they choose to no longer use you as their product or service supplier, there will always be another business knocking on their door offering to fulfill their every need.

However, people are also very habitual—and a lot of them loyal. So, as long as you let them down in a way that makes them feel respected and cherished, they will continue to come to you and close the door on your competitors. How do you create these feelings even when you have to dishonor their request?

Stay Professional

We’ve all had times when a client has requested something and our first thought was, “Are you kidding me? You want me to do what?” While it is normal and natural to feel that way from time to time, the last thing you want to do is say it. Well, not to them anyway.

Staying professional, even when you have every reason not to, is a sign of character and integrity and these qualities can differentiate your business and truly set it apart. Don’t compromise your reputation by responding out of anger. Instead, try to understand where they are coming from and, at a minimum, give yourself time to calm down before issuing a response.

Start With a Positive or Neutral Statement

Even though you are going to be telling your customer that you’re not going to honor your request, you don’t want to start your correspondence with a negative tone. This can put him or her on the defensive which means that you’re going to be the bad guy no matter what you say next.

Therefore, you want to begin out by pointing out your intention to keep them as a lifelong customer, commenting on a point that you both agree upon, or sharing good news if you have it. Just be careful that you don’t build them up too high or offer empty praise as both can backfire. Another option is to stick to neutral statements such as sharing something positive about your product or service or by reviewing the sequence of events that have led you up to this point in time.

Share Your Reasons for Denial

Once you’ve opened with something positive or neutral, your next step should be to present the facts or reasons that have led you to declining their request before stating the denial specifically. Oftentimes, an explanation of why you’ve said no is enough as it helps them understand why you can’t do what they’ve asked. It also add validity to your denial, as opposed to saying no without providing supporting reasons.

For instance, a short while ago I had a client ask me if I would prepare a review for him. He has provided me with a lot of work in the past and my concern was that he would find a new freelance writer if I told him no. However, once I shared that I don’t write the particular type of review he wanted because it was in a tone that I don’t write well (thus he wouldn’t have a stellar product), he understood. He also shared his appreciation for my honesty and for looking out for his best interest. He is still a valued client today.

Offer a Silver Lining

This isn’t always possible, but if you can pull a positive out of the denial, that typically helps soften the blow to your consumer. Maybe you have an alternative solution that they would find suitable, or perhaps there is something they haven’t asked for that you can provide as a way of telling them that you appreciate their loyalty even though you aren’t able to do what they ask.

An example of this would be a cable TV company providing a coupon for a free movie rental or a restaurant offering a coupon for a free dessert. Not only do people like free things, but these types of actions keep them involved with your business in the future.

Follow these simple guidelines when telling your customer “no” and you’re more likely to keep them happy despite your denial. And they will appreciate your business even more than they already do.


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by Christina DeBusk // Freelance writer, author, and small business consultant committed to helping entrepreneurs achieve higher levels of success.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.