How to Say “No”


After my last Parker’s Points ( went out a reader, a financial planner wrote me this question:

“I love your time management tips, especially the one about saying “no.” I wonder if you have ideas for exactly how to say no to a client who is not right for my practice.

In a few cases I have taken on a troublesome client and lived to regret it. In every such case, I knew in my gut that I should not have done it, but I did, and then struggled with the relationship – often for years!

Usually I can spot these situations up-front, but because the person appears to have nowhere to turn, and I want to help, I take on a task that drains my energy and time resources. And if the person is not a good fit for me, he or she is unlikely to be a good fit for another professional in my network that I might otherwise send them to.

Recently a professional acquaintance called to say she recommended me to a person who has no money, is unemployed and has mental health issues. She hopes I can help this person. So far the person has not contacted me, and I am living with dread! The description of the potential client is not someone I want to work with, but I expressed gratitude to my colleague because I appreciate her thinking of me, and now I feel trapped! I know I should educate potential referrers about the types of people I want as clients, and I do try, but sometimes people just don’t “get it” and they think anyone with money problems is a potential client for me.”

This is such a good question.  Who hasn’t taken on a client that they lived to regret?  For me it is the ones whose husbands, wives, significant others, mothers or fathers think coaching would be a good idea for their loved one.  They tell me the person wants a coach but doesn’t have the time to research coaches.  That is a red flag for me.  The person him/herself needs to want to be coached and that person will make time for the research.

So what do you do?  We are all doing this work because we like to help people but we must remember we have to help ourselves first.  Here are 3 ways to handle the situation:

  1. If you have clearly defined your target market then find criteria that the client does not meet and explain you only handle this particular type of case.  Have a name(s) of another attorney(s) to refer the person to who does the kind of work the potential client is seeking.  For the financial planner she could have a financial threshold below which she does not take clients.  She says for obvious reasons she doesn’t want to refer this person to anyone else.
  2. If money is an issue for the potential client as it was for the person referred to this financial planner she might find free financial planning clinics.  Mental health clinics probably know of some.  Law schools are a good place to look for clinics for low income clients with legal problems.
  3. Knowing about local courses for people who have legal problems is another resource to consider.  Often new attorneys run classes for potential clients and they are looking for the experience rather than the fee.  The financial planner could do the same if she felt the client was able to do that.
  4. The financial planner definitely needs to talk to all her referral sources.  As your practice grows your criteria change.  Your referrers need to know who is a good client for you now.  Have a cup of coffee with each of them and update them.

It is best to be proactive on this.  Have a list of others in your profession, free clinics or classes ready so that you can say to the referrer and/or the potential client, “ I really appreciate your calling me but I am sorry I am not able to take your case.   My suggestion is that you would be best served by calling this attorney or taking this course.

Having the list of attorneys accepting referrals and your “no” answer well prepared next time will make it easier to say the words say and I hope both you and I will have the courage of our convictions!!  As they say on the airplane, take care of yourself first.

Have you got a way you say “no” to an inappropriate client?  Please share your ideas so we all can learn from them.


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