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How to turn down a client (politely!)

Saying ‘no’ to a client can be tricky. When you’re in business, it can feel wrong to turn down work.
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The thrill of a new client approaching your company never wears off. It's amazing to know that your skills and reputation are noteworthy and recognised, and you’re in demand. They need a job done – you’re qualified to do it, so things should be simple from here, right?

Not necessarily. There are going to be times when you need to turn down a client. This will usually be a new client you haven’t worked with before, but sometimes it may be a long-standing client.

Saying ‘no’ to a client can be difficult and awkward. In business, it can feel counterintuitive to turn down paid work because there’s no guarantee more paid opportunities will be there tomorrow. From the client’s point-of-view, they already see you as the ideal match, so they’re not anticipating rejection. Some clients may even take ‘no’ as a personal rejection. However, if you can navigate this situation and let them down gently and politely, it can help safeguard your reputation, and may provide an opportunity to reinvigorate the relationship at some point in the future.

Why turn down a client?

Just because a client contacts you with a job, doesn't mean you have to take it. There are many reasons why you might decide to turn down a potential client.

Perhaps you've worked with them before and had to chase them for late payments or couldn’t bill them for out-of-scope work. Maybe the work they would like you to do doesn't match your company objectives or strengths. It could be that the client's company doesn't align with your values or that your schedule is simply too full.

Whatever the reason may be, the conversation may still feel awkward and difficult to navigate. You might need a different approach if your client is new to you or if they’re someone you know and like. Saying ‘no’ to a client you already know can potentially be a much harder situation to deal with, especially if you’re afraid of disappointing or offending them.

Remember that turning down a client is a business decision, so treat it as such. Be direct and polite and don't allow emotions to influence your decision-making – you may regret it later.

How to turn down a referral

You have done an amazing job and have secured a referral which is one of the greatest compliments in business. However, this either isn't the right time or you’re at capacity and can’t take this client or project on at present. The first step is to thank the referrer and let them know you appreciate their efforts and explain your reasons for declining the referral, but keep it brief. Even if the prospective client is a referral, you’re still not under any obligation to take on their work.

Nevertheless, it can still present you with an awkward situation. One of the best ways to approach this is to send an email to the inquiring client without delay. Thank them for the consideration and let them know the reasons for not being able to work with them. Be polite but direct.

Hi [name],

Thank you for taking the time to contact us and for your interest in working with our business.

Unfortunately, we are unable to fulfill your request at this time [provide any relevant information as to why you cannot fulfill this request].

We appreciate your consideration and wish you all the best in your business endeavors.

Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Yours sincerely,

[Insert your name]

How to turn down a client, say ‘no’ or decline a project

Most business coaches recommend an email template, like the one below, that you can use when you need to say ‘no’ to a new project. This can save time if this is a regular occurrence. Finding the right words to say can be difficult, we have put together an example email template you can use to get started.

Hi [name],

Thanks so much for getting in contact about your project. We appreciate you offering us the chance to work with you.

However, at this time we’re unable to proceed as your supplier. Unfortunately, this project isn’t a good fit for our team [insert a brief explanation, if the situation demands].

[Referral name] at [referring business] is highly experienced with businesses in your industry and may be a better fit. I have reached out to them to confirm if they have capacity and they would love to discuss this with you further if you are interested. You can contact them at [referral contact details] – feel free to let them know I referred you.

[If your rejection is simply a capacity issue then in this paragraph you could suggest a month they could return to ask about the project again.]

I wish you all the best of luck with your project. Thanks again for considering us.

Yours sincerely,

[Insert your name]

Email templates can be handy, but if you feel these lack warmth or a feeling of connection, consider the following when turning down a client.

  1. Return the message in the format it was received. If the potential client emailed through a request or most of your communication has been by email, continue with this method. However, if you've spent time with the client in person or on the phone, then consider having an in-person or phone conversation with them. An email will appear impersonal.

  2. Give the prospective client an answer as soon as possible. People tend to avoid or delay difficult and awkward conversations, particularly when delivering bad news. Ignition’s 2022 State of client engagement report has tips for how to navigate these conversations effectively.

  3. Thank the prospective client. Even if you have no interest in the project, thank them for their consideration. This is polite and ends the conversation on a good note.

  4. Give a reason, but don't go into detail. Justifications and excuses can make it look as though you're not telling the whole truth. State your point concisely and professionally. Be clear, and leave no room for interpretation. If the client presses for more information, try to keep your answer brief.

  5. Consider suggesting an alternative. You might consider suggesting another company or professional who could be a better fit for the project. But be cautious with this approach. If you’re a CPA in Australia or an accountant or other professional in the United States, there could be unintended consequences for providing referrals. These may expose you to potential liability for negligence. For accountants in England and Wales, these resources can help guide you through the referral process.

  6. Keep your responses professional. You've acted professionally and offered a simple explanation. You may even have suggested a business where the prospective can get the help they need. Most of the time, they will accept your answer and continue to look for a company they can work with. However, occasionally, a person will take your refusal the wrong way. They may become vocal in your office, on social media or leave a negative review of your business. No matter what they say or how they respond, retain your professional dignity and reiterate your reasons concisely and without resorting to argumentative language.

  7. Reassess how you obtain new leads. If you frequently have to turn down potential clients, then you may be attracting the wrong type of leads. Assess your lead generation tactics and content, as well as the way initial communications are conducted, to see if you can better qualify potential clients.

Over to you

Turning down a client can seem like a difficult task, but it doesn’t have to be. Keep it simple and professional to avoid misunderstanding and give yourself the option of keeping the door open to future collaboration.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on January 29th 2019 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Meet the author

Michelle Timperley

Account Manager (APAC) 

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Published 24 Nov 2022 Last updated 30 Dec 2022