As business owners and ambitious freelancers, we’re practically wired to say yes to every opportunity. Whether you’re a content coach, freelance writer, or another service-based provider, even the most talented and driven business owners occasionally run into a difficult client.

The old saying, “the customer is always right,” is mostly true, but saying yes to everything isn’t always practical or helpful. Sometimes the scope of work is outside your capacity, or professional boundaries are crossed, making continuing the business relationship no longer the right fit for you or the client. 

While all you want is to help the customer at your best level, there are times when you need to say no. 

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Establishing Expectations & Avoiding Red Flags 

There are a couple of telltale signs the business relationship is no longer viable. One reason is when you know that fulfilling their demands would put your company behind instead of ahead. Another is when fulfilling the customers’ needs is impossible without breaching company policies, including being respectful of your time. 

I once had a client called on nights, weekends, and even holidays (think during Thanksgiving dinner). In that case, the business relationship had crossed too many boundaries to continue healthily. 

You can avoid these common pitfalls. Establishing expectations before beginning work is the healthiest way to ensure a successful business relationship. This includes setting deadlines for deliverables, working hours, and prices. Outline all these points in a signed client contract before beginning work. 

A good rule of thumb is to only say no to a customer when you know what they’re asking for isn’t possible — but don’t end the conversation there. The good news is that you can say no to a customer without alienating them entirely from your business. 

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Five Tips for Saying No to a Customer without Losing their Business

  1. Be honest and thankful. False expectations and promises ALWAYS lead to unpleasant situations. Like all your other connections, your relationship with your customer should be based on truthfulness and transparency. Making promises, you can’t keep is the fastest way to disappoint your client and strain (or end) your long-term relationship. Instead, be honest about why you can’t complete the task. Is the project out of your wheelhouse, or is the deadline too tight? Be transparent. It’s the best way to show respect and gratitude. Rather than beating around the bush, only to eventually tell them that you can’t fulfill their demand, it is better to provide a straightforward explanation and say, “No, it can’t be done because it goes against my company’s policy.” This will save both your and the customer’s time. 
  2. Propose a different offer. If you can’t complete the job at hand, don’t just say no and end the conversation. Counter with a more realistic deadline or alternative solution to the desire outcome.  
  3. Give a recommendation. If your client’s request is outside your expertise or capacity, recommend your customer to a competitor you trust and who can fulfill their needs. The competitor will likely return the favor when the time is right—community over competition. 
  4. Ask for clarification. You are not a mind reader, and neither is your client. Getting clear on why the client is asking for this service will help you provide alternative solutions. Ask questions to get clarification on the real issue. As Solomon Thimothy, founder of OneIMS, a growth agency, says, this shows that you care about pleasing them, and you hear them. Have a conversation about the ideal outcome so you can provide better suggestions. 
  5. Always ensure that you keep a follow-up relation with your customer. Stay in touch with your customer and keep the door open for them if they need your services.

While you don’t want to make it a habit, it’s normal to tell a customer no when you can’t fill their request. Being open and honest with your customer about their needs, what you can provide, and how you can best help will show you’re a trusted resource for their business — even if you can’t deliver on a project or two. 

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