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How to Turn Down Clients Without Alienating Them

  • Jon AlfordJon Alford

New businesses will often take on every single client or customer they can attract.

If you’re still building your customer base, enhancing your reputation, improving the quality of your services or products, acquiring customer testimonials and developing a ground-swell of word-of-mouth support, then you’ll likely be exceedingly grateful for – and accept – every client walking in the door.

That won’t always be the case.

Over time, as you become more successful, you’ll get to a point where you’ll be able to (or may even need to) turn work down.

The very first time this happens to you, relax and enjoy the ride!  Rest assured, this is an extremely high class growth problem to address in your business.

One of the reasons this is such a coveted moment is that it’s usually time to start pricing smartly!

Give Yourself a Raise

This over-abundance of work is basic economics, a function of supply and demand.  It means demand has gone up for your time or effort beyond your ability to offer it, or beyond your interest in serving particular types of customers.

If demand for your service goes up, and a customer you’d rather not take on comes to you, then you have a choice.  If you choose to take them on, when you know that’s overextending yourself, then you’d have less time or opportunity to focus on the types of customers that will be most beneficial to enabling your future business growth, building your niche expertise, and more.

Ultimately, making the choice to turn down a client means you’re becoming more discerning, either about the clients you accept, and/or about how you spend your time.  That process of becoming more discerning can and should be accompanied by a raise – however small or large – to honor and mark the occasion.  That’s the first major benefit.

Do you believe a Turn-Down is Rejection?  Or Empowerment for Everyone?

It’s worthwhile to review your beliefs surrounding delivering a turn-down response.  Are you seeing this rejection of a client in a way that could be detrimental to your reputation  or lead to heated confrontation?  If you do think of turning down a less-optimal client that way, then you probably aren’t yet seeing the potential value for everyone involved.

By contrast,  if you view turning down a client as something valuable for all parties involved, then you create and enable new and rewarding value, optimism, growth, and enhanced networking, in a way that many people would never have expected.

If you turn down a less optimal client, here are some of the benefits you might not have considered, yet:

  1. You’ll get to focus your online business growth and serve your optimal clients in a more optimal way.  You’ll get to develop your expertise more, enjoy your work more, charge more, and create more satisfied clients who will then happily refer you to still other more optimal clients in the future, for all the right reasons.
  2. You’ll provide recommendations to the client you’re turning down for other providers better suited to the client, who may very well charge them less, or be more optimal for their specific-niche needs.  You’ll come across as an expert who has pre-screened those other providers, which minimizes or eliminates the client’s need to put in extra work to find someone else. And, in spite of the turn-down, you still deliver value (without a bill attached) and show you care about your turned-down client.
  3. The referred provider(s) will be immensely happy for the referral and work their tail off to deserve more such referrals from you in the future (whether or not you gain any referral or affiliate reward).  Smart people know the value of justifying your good recommendation.
  4. You’ll demonstrate how a turn-down doesn’t have to be a Rejection, or a No; instead, it can be a “let’s maximize everyone’s value” win-win-win-win proposition.  You win.  Your other clients win.  The non-targeted client wins.  The referred provider wins.  And everyone’s future customers win.

Do You Homework Before Turning Them Down

Before you turn down a non-targeted client, do a little homework.  Figure out the niches that match the people or businesses you often hear from and that you’re less and less interested in serving in the future.   Then go hunting for top-notch competitors in these target niches.  Make sure they’re not your key desired client niche(s).

If you don’t personally know these people, then I recommend you call or email them first, and tell them directly that you may have some people to refer to them at some point soon.  Tell them you’re starting to receive requests you don’t want to handle, and are looking for people to refer those potential clients to.

It’s entirely up to you if you want to ask about a referral business relationship (affiliate referrals) or not.  Don’t make this research project entirely about that, but if it comes up, you can discuss the matter.  Some professionals will tell you they’ll gift you with something, to show thanks for referrals.  Some want to formalize it, some want to avoid it.  In more traditional professions like doctors, lawyers, or psychologists, referrals are considered a professional courtesy and referral kickbacks should not be discussed.  In marketing, sometimes it’s a courtesy and sometimes there are business rewards explored.

Without question, if you clearly explain to a client you’re turning down that there’s no affiliate relationship, the absence of any affiliate reward coming to you elicits strong credibility and power, in terms of how you’re perceived by that client.   It says “I’m not taking you on, but I care about your success, and I’m sending you to someone I believe does good work;  I’m earning nothing for the referral.”

So, collect names of people who do great work in target niches different to yours, so that you can build a referral list for the future.  Call them and let them know you’d like to send them people.  They may very well eventually also want to send you people in your niche; you never know!

You’ll want these names handy later on, when you turn any less-than-optimal client away.

How to Write a Client Re-Direct Email

You’ve done your homework ahead of time, and now you have decided to send a non-targeted client to someone else. What does this valuable client-redirect email look like?

Dear [Name],

Thank you for your interest in hiring me to help you X Y & Z.

I’m going to choose to decline your request for a simple reason:  I’m not sensing an optimal match between my niche services, and your business {or requested service} niche.

I don’t take every client, because my choice of whose projects to take on isn’t just about money; at this point in my business growth, it’s mostly about a strategic fit in both directions. 

I deeply appreciate that you think I’m a strategic fit for you — I take it as a BIG compliment – and also,  I don’t really feel there’s a strategic fit from my own perspective.   This is unfortunate for both you and me, because I always hope every incoming request will be requesting the work I’m most excited about doing. 

But I always think of every business choice and potential customer email as an opportunity to create ideal or next-to-ideal solutions. 

I’ve gone to some measurable effort to find a list of high quality people I would recommend who do similar work that I do, who I think might be a great fit for you.  Here’s that list:

  Name – Phone/Email – Skills, Specializations – what type of client they like

  Name – Phone/Email – Skills, Specializations – what type of client they like

  Name – Phone/Email – Skills, Specializations – what type of client they like

  Name – Phone/Email – Skills, Specializations – what type of client they like

If I were you, I’d start by calling [Name 1], then [Name 2], then [Name 3], and just go with the first person in that order that lights you up.

You can let them know I sent you, or not. It’s up to you. This isn’t an affiliate recommendation and I’m not seeking to profit from the referral.  I do want you to become more successful and I’m seeking to ensure someone terrific takes care of you, who will likely be a much closer fit for your business.

Best regards and to your success,

[Your name]

P.S. I’m always interested in updating my list of recommendations.  So after you’ve had an experience with any of the above people, please drop me an email letting me know about your experience, whatever happens (pro or even con).  From my perspective, I’m expecting great results for you!

Making Your Turn Down a Success

An email like this hits all the right notes!

Any customer prospect receiving an email like this will obviously not be pleased that you said no, but will have an enormously hard time being angry or upset at you.  They will still respect you, hold you in high regard and speak highly of you to others.

Finally, once they follow your advice and find someone else in your recommendation(s) list who delivers high quality services to them, they WILL be happy, and they can’t help but attach that feeling of happiness directly back to their memory of you. This is a key ingredient in your future business growth, so take the time to refer your non-targeted clients the right way!

Over to You

Have you turned down a non-targeted client in the past? If so, what happened? And, what will you do it differently based on what you’ve read in this post? Leave me a comment and let me know!

13 thoughts on How to Turn Down Clients Without Alienating Them

Umar Saeed

Customer is the king of business so while capturing a client never forget to deliver full satisfaction. A satisfied and returning client is the big asset. Thanks

Marcy McKay

I look forward to the day this is my problem, Jonathan! I especially like having back-up suggestions; makes it more of a win-win. I’m curious…how many clients/potential clients have you had to turn down?

Jonathan Altfeld

Hi Marcy,

Thanks for joining the discussion. To frame my answer, I’ll share with you that I’ve been doing what I do (in general) for ~16 years. (My career before that was in artificial intelligence, a different story altogether).

Since becoming a trainer and coach, 16 years ago, I’ve begun to think about my customer ‘turn-aways’ as fitting two periods. Before-Niche, and After-Niche.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve turned away at least 100 potential students, clients, and customers. Many of which (prior to tightening my niche towards business uses of NLP) have nothing to do with a non-optimal fit between what they want and what I offer. I’ve even fired a small number customers and clients. Mostly that taught me how to turn away people who weren’t going to play well with others at courses (life is way too short).

Since I slowly began focusing more towards business niches within my field, about 3 years ago (and I tightened the focus further last year), I’ve turned down ~30% of new requests. I just checked my email records and it looks like I turned down 4 prospects in March, and 2 prospects so far in April.

And it’s not only me doing turn-downs. Once in a while a prospect will learn more about my niche areas and then opt-out on their own. Once in a while they don’t like my billing rate, and they look for someone that fits their budget more closely. All of this is fine.

So it’s not an everyday thing presently. Although when it becomes that, then that is another high class problem, suggesting it may be time to hire or outsource gatekeeping, and also raise rates.

– Jonathan

Marcy McKay

Wow, Jonathan. Thank you for such a detailed response. You’ve had quite a career. Your insights have really helped me. Thanks!

Jonathan Altfeld

It’s becoming increasingly important, when establishing referral relationships either by phone or email, to make clear early on that you’re someone who also does similar work, and that your primary intent is to refer good customers who aren’t an optimal fit for your niche, over to other quality providers.

I mention this only because I’ve received ample emails in recent years from ‘online directory owners’ that are essentially fishing for willingness to pay them referral fees either on unqualified traffic or on unqualified prospects. There’s nothing wrong with paying a thank-you bonus for traffic or prospects or customers. But there are too many people making it ‘about the money first’ and not ‘about the value first.’

What you’re offering is to send pre-qualified prospects on to someone who can deliver what someone needs. If they can establish what you’re offering, and you can establish they’ll serve your referrals well, then a subsequent discussion of referral reward is a very easy conversation to explore.

– Jonathan


I’d say for business call or email them first, and tell them directly that you may have some people to refer to them at some point soon.


Yeah of course homework is really important for business growth as it would make work easier and faster.


Corey Pemberton

Fantastic stuff, Jonathan. I appreciate that you included an example email as well; I’ll have to incorporate the idea of adding in referrals.

I think it’s hugely important to remember that the client/service provider relationship is a two-way street. It’s easy to forget that when you’re just starting out and trying to nail down work. But I think it’s healthy to tell yourself “I’m screening this client as much as they’re screening me.” Seems weird at first, but you’ll develop the right mindset for when you have more clients than you can handle.



Jonathan Altfeld

Hi Corey, thanks for chiming in and sharing.

I’m glad this was a good reminder for the 2-way-street of business interactions like this. Admittedly some new business owners may still have to take on work slightly outside their preferred niche, but going through these sorts of motions enables those new business owners to avoid leaking ‘desperation’ that could end up scaring the client away anyway.

So yes — its always useful to screen clients even when someone *only* takes on 100% of the clients that contact them!

– Jonathan

Lynn Silva

Hi Johnathan,

Although I’m not at a point where I face turning clients down (yet)…my inability to say no put me in severe ‘crunch’ mode week before last. I had already committed to 3 guest posts and immediately after, 2 paying clients requested articles within 3 days. Normally, that turnaround time would’ve been no problem, however given my previous 3 commitments, it overwhelmed me. I’m new enough that I can’t just pop quality articles out on a dime (yet). By Thursday of that week, I did complete all articles, but it was very stressful for me.

It made me realize that I really need to know my capabilities and be organized for when (not if) I have too many paying clients needing things all at the same time.

Your article is exactly what I needed and I LOVE the email sample you provided. This post is bookmarked and I will refer to it often. Thanks so much.

Jonathan Altfeld

Hi Lynn,

Thanks very much for your response! Good to hear the email and the article will be useful even peripheral to its primary intended focus.

I think what you’re describing (and you can steer me back on course if I’m off…) comes down to knowing what you can produce in a given timeframe. If there’s any hint that you might not be able to deliver something by requested deadlines, then you either say no or reply to explain your backlog and find out how flexible that inflexible deadline might actually be (wink).

Lots of requestors will say “I need it done yesterday,” but when you say “then I’d have to say “no” on this occasion, you might find out that they really meant was “Oh, well, don’t lose sleep over it, but as soon as you actually can, would be great. I still want you to do this!”

You’re welcome and thanks to you as well!

– Jonathan

Andi Enns

The phrase “I always hope every incoming request will be requesting the work I’m most excited about doing” seems needlessly offensive. If a prospective client reaches out about her project (which means she’s probably consumed with passion about it), it seems rude to say you’re not excited about it, especially after such diplomatic opening paragraphs.

Clients are reaching out to you because you’re perceived as an expert. If the expert thinks the project is a dumb idea and not exciting, that can feel crushing to some clients – especially if they’ve faced other rejection for it already. The line feels very out of place in an otherwise very polite and helpful letter.

Jonathan Altfeld

Hi Andi,

Fair enough, and thanks for your thoughts. It’s useful to customize any such emails or letters to match each person’s voice, gender, audience, and cultural style (if relevant). If one of the bits seems or sounds inappropriate or a sender would worry about including that, then it can be omitted or rewritten. 🙂

One could just leave that phrase out, or possibly rewrite that phrase as follows: “I do hope every incoming request will match the business niche I’ve chosen to focus on.”

And if you’re worried about an email turn-down response dampening their enthusiasm, you could add something like “I do think it’s an exciting project and of course wish you the best success bringing it to fruition.”

– Jonathan

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