When Should I Say No to a Prospective Client?

Strottner Designs

If you’ve ever had a customer, you know the old saying is not true. The customer is NOT always right. Whether you call them customers, clients or patients, it’s always a tough business decision. Do I bring them on? Do I fire them? It isn’t easy to turn away new business or to discontinue working with a current client, but sometimes it must be done.

Aziz is skeptical of my premise

Recognizing A Difficult Client Before They Become A Client

I get it, if you’ve just opened the doors to your business, you think you have to say yes to everyone, and you overlook the red flags. It took us a while to see the signs ourselves, and we started in 2002. Sometimes you’re so desperate for a sale that you’ll take on anyone…and that’s when the trouble starts. All money is not created equal. Here are some guidelines and client types you might want to take a pass on, or move on from:

I’ll try, Willy, I’ll try

  • The Burned Bridge Rule – this prospect has NOTHING good to say about whatever firm they worked with previously. If you’re in finance, their previous advisor was not only incompetent, but caused them to miss out on Google, Facebook, and sold their Amazon stock 5 years ago. In the case of a design company (ahem), their previous provider never understood their vision, or was more nefarious, refusing to deliver design files, locking them out of their website, didn’t keep up with Google’s algorithm changes, that type of thing. And it might be true…once. Beware of anyone that has had multiple issues with multiple providers. You might think that you can step in and save them, and really prove how talented you are. DO NOT TRY! This is a rookie mistake, as this person is impossible to please.

This Rule applies to prospective employees as well. Make sure you check references, and ask about previous employment during the interview process and while performing your due diligence. If they have had trouble at multiple employers…maybe it’s them.

May the bridges they burn light their way…

  • The Serial Discounter – depending upon your industry, this may not come very often. We recommend that you beware of the prospective client that immediately asks about discounts that you offer. Also carefully consider bringing on anyone that pushes too hard against your pricing. You set your prices where they are for a reason, stick with it. You are worth it. In our experience, the people that want the lowest price also want the most of your time. In addition, these clients tend to be the most demanding. We once had a prospect say, “Well, if you really want my business, you’ll work harder to get it, and drop this price.” My response was, “Thanks for letting me know, have an excellent day!” I said it with a great deal of charm, I promise. In reality, you can discount yourself right out of business…and you won’t make it up in volume.

You can also discount yourself into a poisonous relationship. You won’t feel like you’re being properly compensated, and it’s very likely you’ll begin to resent the client over time. You’ll know this has happened when the phone rings, you look at the Caller ID, and sigh…or swear.

  • The Deadline Destroyer – no matter your industry, your business has a maximum capacity based upon your current production abilities. A manufacturing company can only produce a certain number of units per day, per week, per month, etc. A service company can only handle as many projects as there is staff to complete them. This is why being open and honest about lead times is important. If you have a client that won’t respect your lead times you have a couple of options. One is the Rush Fee. Eventually they’ll get tired of paying it and get on your schedule. Or they won’t, and they’ll move on. Remember this, and remind people as necessary:
  • It’s important to be clear on this. You’ll have excellent clients that sometimes need things in a rush. For these clients you won’t even consider a rush fee, you’ll find a way to get the work done because they’re worth it and they will continue to be worth it. It’s the unreasonable client that consistently calls and says they need it “tomorrow!” A well-run company already knows what project is getting done today, tomorrow, later this week, and has lead times in place for this reason. You can’t shift everyone’s deadline because one client consistently and predictably waits until the last minute.

The Deadline Destroyer is often a Serial Discounter as well. I have no idea why, but it has a surprisingly high correlation.

And our newest additions, for your reading enjoyment…

  • The Backseat Driver, aka Dr. Google MD – everyone is familiar with the client. They have come to you for your expertise, but somehow they know more than you do. Perhaps they have a family member in your industry. Maybe they used to do a job tangentially related to what you do. It’s even possible that their father read a book on Search Engine Optimization while their mother was pregnant with them. In the medical industry this is the patient that has searched their symptoms on Google, and is convinced that they have a rare strain of Martian Influenza-Type Zebulon, and nothing the doctor says can talk them out of it. No matter what, they will work to control you, guide you and instruct you, just like the most nettlesome backseat drivers.

Dr. Gregory House summarizes our feelings perfectly.

  • The Time Burglar – I didn’t coin this phrase, if first came up when I was in the finance industry. Time is a nonrenewable resource, so spending it on non-productive activities when you could be driving business means losing out on opportunities. And spending time with clients that don’t actually buy anything, order anything, refer you business, etc. means you don’t have a client, you have a friend that bothers you during business hours. If they believe they are a client, figure out a way to reset the relationship.

We are aware of the fact that this is a second Simpsons gif

How Do I Get Out of Working with Them?

The truth is that you might wind up working with them anyway. But if you want to avoid the project, you should always be diplomatic, there’s no reason to create an international incident…or wind up with a bad review on Google My Business.

In the case of the Bridge Burner, suggest that their project is outside of your firm’s skill set, and perhaps they’d be more comfortable with a firm that matches their needs better. This will work well with The Backseat Driver as well.


The cure for the Serial Discounter is simple, do not compromise your pricing. Not a single penny.


For the Deadline Destroyer? Set the tone on the first project, and if they stick with you, make sure you honor the lead time that you provide.

But…nicer than this.

Where Time Burglar’s are concerned, often this behavior will show itself before they become clients. Carefully consider whether you want to add them to your customer base, as the return is not going to be there and the opportunity cost is significant.

We will revisit this topic over time, and encourage you to share your experiences. Visit our Facebook page to share!

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