How to Sprinkle Magic on a Big Fat “NO”

In advertising, bad clients can suck the soul out of your team. They should be avoided at all costs. But there’s a problem—sometimes you don’t realize you are getting a bad client until after you’ve built a relationship and made a significant time investment. You’ve spent weeks (or months) talking about your agency, building value in your strategic approach and showcasing your brilliant execution. Then you have a moment of clarity and realize the potential client is going to nickel and dime you to death. Even worse, you realize they don’t know how to run their business and marketing isn’t going to help. As a communication pro, you can only do so much to inject new life into a withering brand. Many times, the real problem is in operations. If a client doesn’t have their house in order, there is nothing to market except shitty food, poor presentation, and awful service—which means there is nothing to market. If you find yourself facing a moment of truth and decide to go with your gut, how do you say no? How do you essentially reject this person you’ve been pursuing, while making them feel good and keeping the door open for future conversations? Let me tell you a short story.

After weeks of selling, I had to say no. Except I made a mistake (I’ll get to that part). The potential client had what appeared to be a decent business, but on closer inspection I saw major problems. Also, even before I wrote a contract, he was grinding me on price details. It just didn’t feel right, so I had to say no. Here’s how my team decided to sprinkle magic on a big fat NO. The potential client was cherry picking and wanted to utilize less than half of the suggested services. We had to figure out a way to say no, keep the relationship alive and make the person feel good. The approach I used focused on our company, not his. In communication, it’s good to talk about how you feel and not make it about the other person (or business). My conversation went something like this, “It’s been exciting to learn about your business and we really appreciate your openness. Like we talked about, our company is expanding and as part of that growth, we have to make sure we are adding clients that can utilize a broad scope of our services, so that we can offer as much value to your business as possible. As you know we offer strategic planning, graphic design, web development, and video production. Just like you want to keep your kitchen staff busy, we want to make sure our team has a steady workload. That’ why we feel that, right now, a client-agency relationship isn’t the best fit for everyone involved. We certainly wish you the best of luck and hope that our conversations have given you some valuable information. I will send you a list of several trusted resources that can help with the projects you outlined. If your needs change in the future, we’d love to talk again.

What just happened?

Here’s a breakdown of how to engineer a magical rejection:

1. As you can see, I focused on the fact that he couldn’t utilize the majority of our services. Find what does not fit with your business model and use that to build a case against the relationship. Another good phrase is, “We want this to be mutually beneficial.”

2. We related the issue of keeping our staff busy to their restaurant business. People connect with what they know. He needs to keep the kitchen staff busy and we need to keep our team busy. Focus on your audience and figure out how to use their frame of reference to communicate your point.

3. Dale Carnegie said you should give people a reputation to live up toBy using the phrase “Just like you” we prevented the us-against-them mentality that could have emerged. It made him feel like we were all in this together. If you need to say no, think about how you can make people feel like it’s a decision both parties are making together.

4. To keep the door open we framed the rejection as an issue of timing—our company is pursuing this direction and your company needs these services and unfortunately things just aren’t matching up. Also, in the closing we kept the relationship alive by offering something valuable—we promised to send a list of trusted resources to help with his needs. That small gesture shows you are classy, connected, and not just motivated by money. Finally, as an added vote of confidence in the relationship we said, “If your needs change in the future, we’d love to talk again.”

Now, back to my mistake.

After writing down how I was going to say no, practicing my talking points and delivering a stirring performance, everything backfired. There was one factor I didn’t account for—the rejection actually made him want us more. The potential client couldn’t take the dismissal and suddenly we were the object of his desire. “Shit,” I thought. “How do I handle this?” It was a classic example of reverse psychology, except I didn’t mean to employ the technique. He all but begged me to reconsider and I told him that I needed to talk with my team. After some deep thinking, we decided to accept him as a client. That was a mistake. We should have stuck to our guns. Go with your gut and avoid dead ends.

Although the results weren’t good, the situation gave me a roadmap for sprinkling magic on a big fat NO—and I learned a lesson about being prepared for the aura of desire you might create during the rejection. Have you crafted a successful, or unsuccessful, no? Tell me about it in the comments section.

2 thoughts on “How to Sprinkle Magic on a Big Fat “NO”

  1. Good article. In a world of disagreement we are basically saying no most of the time. It would be nice to make my no sound like a “not right now” or something that would be better received.

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