Gini Dietrich

AMA: When Do You Say No to a Prospective Client?

By: Gini Dietrich | October 23, 2020 | 
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AMA: When Do You Say No to a Prospective Client?Every Friday since the pandemic shut things down in March (here in the U.S.), we’ve highlighted communicators and marketers who at first were trying to figure out which part of the sky just fell on them in My Hot Mess. Then we shifted to those who are crushing the pandemic with Survive & ThriveNow it’s time to get back to business, even if it’s not totally normal. We’re going to do that with an Ask Me Anything series—an elevation of our previous Spin Sucks Question series.

Today, Katie Robbert asks, “As a small business, when do you say no, where do you draw the line? Let’s say you have the skill set to do something but it’s not the kind of business you’re trying to build. Do you accept the business and move on, or do you turn it down because it’s a distraction? How established do you need to be when saying “no” isn’t a scary thing?”

Welcome back to another Ask Me Anything, which is a new series where we talk to our friends, our viewers, and our community. about what they would like to know. The whole point is to stump me. If I don’t know the answer, I will ask one of my smart friends to join me.

If you can’t view the video, click here and you’ll be magically transported.)

Let’s take a look at the mailbag.

Today’s question comes from Katie Robbert. She asks:

As a small business, when do you say no, where do you draw the line? Let’s say you have the skill set to do something but it’s not the kind of business you’re trying to build. Do you accept the business and move on, or do you turn it down because it’s a distraction? How established do you need to be when saying “no” isn’t a scary thing?

First and foremost, it is always scary to so no. Always. I don’t think a business ever gets to a size that it’s not scary. Anyone who says it’s not is lying to you.

Now that I have that off my chest.

I’m actually not the right person to answer this because I have a very hard time saying no. However. What I have learned over the years, and as I have aged, is that you can look for red flags. When you see red flags, it’s a lot, a lot easier to make that decision—and lots easier to say no, Not necessarily less scary, but lots easier.

You can make the decision either that there are too many red flags and you should say no or that the red flag might be a distraction.

There are tons of red flags for you to watch for. Write them down.

Are You a Racist?

I had an experience earlier this year where a very long-term client unveiled his racism. To me, it was a very emotional experience. I did not handle it. I was not professional. I lost my temper. I yelled, which is not something I ever do, but I did because I was that angry. He said that I was fired. And I said he couldn’t fire me because I quit.

Yeah. I’ve been joking that we should add, “Are you a racist” to our list of questions that we ask when we meet the prospect. Of course, you can’t really ask it that way, but there are questions that you can ask to find out.

We’ll ask things such as:

  • What are your feelings on social movements?
  • Injustice movements?
  • Civil rights movements?
  • What do you think of brands that take a stance on these issues?
  • How have you handled it yourselves?
  • What do you talk about internally when employees ask about your values as they relate to these issues?
  • Do you offer paid days off for people to go vote or to march in a protest?

These types of questions are 100% allowable now—and the answers tell you A LOT about the prospect. The answers also might provide some massive red flags. I know that I do not a single client who will not lie down and die for their values. If someone were to tell me they don’t think their business should take a stance, that’s a deal-breaker for me. But it might not be for you—and that’s OK. The red flag questions are there to help you determine if the prospect deserves the opportunity to work with you. And to make it easier to say no.

Other Red Flag Questions to Make It Easier to Say No

Sometimes, through the process of conversation with the prospect over several meetings, you will easily find that maybe they’re not going to be the right client for you, or maybe they’re going to be a pain in the butt.

I had an experience earlier this year where I distinctly remember saying to our director of earned media, “This client is going to stretch our brains in ways that we have never experienced, and it’s going to be amazing work, but they are going to be so high maintenance that it may not be worth it.”

That’s not because of anything they said during our Q&A sessions. If anything, they had all of the right answers. Rather, it was how they behaved during the new business process.

So we added a pain in the butt tax to it and agreed to do the work. In some cases, it’s totally fine. Then there are one or two days a month that it’s not fine.

So there are lots of ways that you can say no—or at least be completely confident in saying yes. If you take the approach of writing down all of your red flag questions and if they pass your test, then you can pursue working with them.

I would add questions such as:

  • What are your expectations?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • How long do you expect that this will take?
  • What do you expect our work to do, in terms of results?
  • Have you worked with an agency before? If yes, what was your experience? Why are you no longer working with them?
  • If no, why are you pursuing an agency now?
  • How big is your internal team?
  • What other resources do you have?
  • What is your budget? (If they can’t answer this or say, “Tell me what it will cost and I’ll find the money.” ALERT! ALERT! ALERT!)

Ask Me Anything

It’s still not easy—or less scary—to say no. It’s definitely not comfortable. But if you take the emotion out by having a clear set of questions and know which answers create the red flags, it will make it lots, lost easier.

If you have a question that you’d like to stump me on or get one of my very smart friends to answer, drop a comment in the (free) Spin Sucks Community.

I will be back next week. I’m sure my intern will be, too.

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.