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Client Relationship Management 101: Do You Know When to Tell a Client No?

client relationship managementWhen I was first starting my business, I would occasionally field requests from friends to work for free or discounted prices.

It was an awkward conversation. On the one hand, I wanted to say yes, because they’re my friends, and friends help each other out.

But on the other hand, I worked hard to develop my coaching programs and instructional materials. I didn’t want to give them away for free.

Finally, I reached out to Danny for some advice. He suggested that I quote my normal fee, and then say, “But for friends, I waive the fee.”

When I read that advice, a light bulb went off. Never accept low payments. Full price or nothing, I’m worth what I’m worth, so why devalue me? It clutters our relationship.

What liberating advice for managing client relationships with friends!

But When a Client Is Not a Friend?

As solo entrepreneurs and small businesses, we like to think of our clients as friends. Maybe not right away, but I will bet you that most entrepreneurs who’ve been around for a while have at least one very good friend who started off as a client.

However, sometimes people who claim to be clients are not. Sometimes, we encounter “the taker“.

The taker is ­­not a friend.

On the surface, it looks like she might be a friend. But when you take a closer look, you see that she’s constantly leaving empty comments, fabricating close attachments, and otherwise trying to get a foot in the door. She’s hung around so long, it only seems like friendship ought to be there.

The truth is, the taker doesn’t want to learn anything. But she does want you: your private email address, your phone number, and ultimately, your time.

How I Learned to Spot a Taker

The single biggest red flag when spotting a taker is the famous phrase, 'I really need help, but I can't pay.'Click To Tweet

I learned this lesson the hard way, with a client that we’ll call Frieda.

Initially, Frieda emailed me asking for “only a few pointers.” Caught without official free pages or blog posts to reference, I replied over email. It wasn’t long before her daily emails averaged seven pages! After many weeks of almost no improvement in her disposition, I awakened one day to a realization: She was calling us “friends” and “sisters”.

Bit by bit, Frieda had eroded the professional wall around my personal life. And I was angry; I considered terminating the relationship. But as a counselor, I knew I was the guilty one.

I should have used my client relationship management skills to recognize the manipulation pattern and address it right away. From the very beginning, I should have required her honesty.

Now, you’re probably thinking “Katharine, it’s so obvious that Frieda is never going to be a paying client. It’s time to cut her loose!” And you’re right – in hindsight, it was easy to see that Frieda had never been a good client candidate.

But every time I share this story, the people I’m talking with feel compelled to share their own version of Frieda. In fact, it seems like managing client relationships is a big topic for just about every entrepreneur I know!

When you counsel a mom for months and then discover her house still suffering, you’ve got a Frieda. If you work hard improving a website, only to find the client taking off in another direction, you’ve got a Frieda. Know the answer to a colleague’s engine troubles and he ruins his car, anyway? Tell a restaurateur how dirty menus drive off customers, and his remain sticky and greasy.

Frieda. Frieda.

Why We Make This Mistake

So why do we make this mistake? Why do we let the Friedas of the world sneak into our lives?

They sneak in because we want to believe that everyone is ready for and open to the kind of hard work we’re going to ask of our clients. Whether that work is completing the worksheets that accompany the training videos, doing exercises to improve their physical, emotional or mental well-being, or simply getting clear on what their website should look like – we expect our clients to be willing to do the work.

The problem with the Friedas of the world are two-fold. First, Frieda imagines she will do the work, and we want to believe her. Successful instructors and coaches care about helping people to become healthy, wealthy, or successful in their own right. Don’t we? We know what they need to know and we want to help them on their journey.

The second problem with Frieda is that she isn’t willing to pay. Just like we imagine Frieda will want to do the work, we imagine that, if we just give her a nudge in the right direction, she will be willing to pay for our advice, our help, our expertise.

Sadly, both of these reasons are why we make the mistake of letting Frieda into our lives. The mistake is that we don’t steel ourselves against hope, and force a client to give honest effort or go elsewhere. In other words, we don’t use any client relationship management tools.

Don’t Give Your Clients Free Fish!

Maybe you deal in counseling, computing, or crafts. Maybe you help bloggers, bakers, or bikers. Or maybe you hope your client becomes the next Danny Iny, or the next Dalai Lama.

No matter your situation, there’s one thing you shouldn’t do: do not offer free products or services to clients who will not use them!

It’s no fun to create products or services that your client might need, but will never use. Instead, focus on building in steps along your professional relationship that will weed out potential Friedas.

If you’re a coach or service provider, one of the easiest ways to do this is to require homework as part of the experience of working with you. And stick to your guns: if you require a piece of homework to be completed before moving on to the next step, do not allow your client to work ahead without completing their part of the work!

If you offer a physical product or training program, you could have a standard “In order to get a feel for my product/training program, you will have access to X for free. After you have reviewed X, these options will be available to you at the regular prices.”

If you client truly can’t pay, but you know that they are genuinely interested in doing the work, consider some sort of installment plan or a limit on what is free, and then incrementally work your client up to your standard flat rate.

This policy is a tried and true combination of generosity and wisdom, giving those who cannot pay in dollars a chance to pay in sweat equity. It’s a bit more work, but the results are worth it.

3 Guidelines For Saying No to a Potential Client

No matter what your business does or who you serve, there will be times when you flat-out do not want to work with a client.Click To Tweet

That happens to every entrepreneur, coach, or service provider. But, if you don’t make preparations for this ahead of time, you could very well end up with a Frieda on your hands.

Here’s what you should do:

1.  Before you need it, create a set of rules you believe in and will abide by, that you can e-mail at will. Do not display it anywhere on your site.

2.  Use good judgment and research before offering free work.

3.  In terms of “free advice,” only give what you want to afford. Never explain why you must say “no”. Just say you cannot, at this time, provide the support they need. If you feel comfortable doing so, you may want to refer them to someone else, or suggest an alternate way in which they could get the help that they need.

Silver Linings

If you do pick up (or have previously dealt with) a Frieda during the course of your entrepreneurial career, there is one silver lining. Those pages of email communications or long phone calls are a wealth of material for future blog posts, FAQ pages, even instructional material for a new coaching program or training course. At the very least, you’ve learned how to spot a Frieda the next time you encounter one on your social media sites or in your inbox.

What about you? Are you struggling to keep up with a Frieda? Or, have you experienced a Frieda in the past? How do you say no to clients that aren’t a good fit for you? Let me know in the comments below! And if you’re currently struggling with a Frieda, feel free to ask for my advice.

About Katharine Trauger

Katharine Trauger is a retired educator and a women's counselor. In past lives, she managed a home and school for children who would otherwise have been homeless and was contributor and/or columnist for several small professional magazines. She blogs at: Home's Cool! and The Conquering Mom, and tweets at Katharine Trauger (@KathaTrau).

33 comments

  1. Katharine~
    I love this advice. It is funny, when you have an inclination to help those in need, it is easy to let yourself be taken advantage of. After years of tutoring and not establishing boundaries, I finally had to set them. I had taken on so many clients that I could no longer be everywhere for each one. Lacking the ability to bilocate, I had to set boundaries. I dreaded doing it, as part of me thought that by doing that I would lose their business or their respect. As it turned out, it increased their respect, and the children did not suffer. they learned they had to plan ahead or suffer the consequences. With new clients, I lay out the standards and boundaries before agreeing to take their business. The bulk of the new ones agree readily to the terms. If they “forget” the terms, a gentle reminder from me is all it takes. the ones that do not want to agree to my terms move on to find another provider that has no boundaries. GREAT post.

    1. Dear Kate!

      Don’t I know what you’ve been through! I certainly can sympathize and thank you for this comment and apologize for my late reply!

      It is amazing how many folks are totally content to be rational, isn’t it.

      I love helping people who actually want help and make good use of it, especially children, don’t you? And the joy of watching the “lightbulb com on” is, alone, payment enough for us, isn’t it!

      Which is the main reason we need the client to be working with us, trying to succeed, doing the homework, so the lightbulb will come on.

      It’s no good doing all the “pro” when there is no “bono” following.

      Thanks, again, for sharing your wisdom, here. 🙂

  2. I’ve dealt with a couple Friedas in my time. The longer I work as a freelancer the more confidence I gain. Posts like this really help though because everyone has their own way of identifying Friedas.

    Reading this made me realize that I still have some things to learn about qualifying my clients though. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks so much, Chris! I totally get that–the troubles of doing business can come from varying angles, can’t they!

      I think the main things for us to realize about each instance are:

      1. Do I actually WANT to help folks financially, if I can?

      2. What are the things that I will require, in return?

      3. Exactly how will I word my refusal/rejection, when I find I cannot.

      And it is SO important to have the refusal/rejection ready to click-send, so we don’t hem and haw about what to do. It’s that preparing, ahead of time, during moments of real clarity, that makes us truly prepared, as in a fire drill or a play rehearsal.

      After that, it only remains to stick to our guns. 🙂

      1. That’s a really good point too. Having a refusal statement prepared would probably save me a lot of time and stress. I know you mentioned it in the article but I didn’t really think about it until you mentioned it in your reply. Thanks again Katharine,

  3. Great post! I am actually planning to write a SOMEWHAT similar post on my business blog about how to trade services and not get taken advantage of. When I first started my business, I had people asking for strange trades that did nothing for me or I would have people calling to “pick my brain” about anything and everything. Every. week.

    1. Hello, Jamie, and thanks for the compliment. Great minds think alike?

      I should read that post you’re writing! Getting an equitable trade seems to me like it would be an even harder thing to do right.

      I’ve found there are two types of followers, those who admire you for what you are or represent, and, those who admire you because you are an easy hit.

      I’ve been the latter for far too lone! (once is enough! )

  4. Excellent post. When it comes to creepers like Frieda, my boundaries with strangers are very strict. In general, I don’t do freebies that I don’t specifically, consciously select for a very clear reason. I usually sleep on thought before I commit because I have put myself in some really stupid situations in the past.

    My personal favorite hideously stupid move–the one I use as a regular reminder–is Alice’s $1200 newsletter that I ended up doing for free. Why? Well, we “didn’t need a contract because we were practically family, since she had been friends with my mother since they were children.” It was an expensive but valuable lesson that I will do my best to remember for the rest of my career.

    I have developed my own little stock set of responses when asked for freebies and discounts:

    1) While I appreciate your interest, the time I allot for pro bono work is booked for the remainder of the year (or whatever time frame you wish to use).

    2) My friends and family discount? Add 40% to my fee. You haven’t met my family or their friends.

    3) No.

    1. Ah, Marygwyn! I had to chuckle at #3!

      I think those of use who’ve learned the hard way have more fine-tuned radar for the future. And it took me a long time to recover from the hard feelings! So I was almost ready to tell ALL clients #3!

      I would do pro bono again, I am sure. It’s in my default program; just cannot stand to see folks suffer. But I now have some requirements set up that I think are failsafe, of doing the homework or forget it.

      Live and learn.

      Or, if we’re smart, learn from others’ mistakes! Right?

    1. Thanks for such complimentary words, Rajkumar! I’m happy you find this post helpful!

      Absolutely, we must tend to the relationship with a client, as if the relationship, itself, is a warm fire in the fireplace that needs nurturing or it could die.

      A relationship, like a fire, also can grow dangerous, therefore, much caution is also needed.

      And just as we have rules for fire safety, we also must create rules for careful dealings with our clients.

      This is especially true, as you say, for the long term.

      Thanks again!

    1. Good morning, Dave!

      Frieda and I parted on pretty good terms. Thanks for asking!

      It was complicated, but I think everyone is better now, so–lesson learned, no?

      1. Indeed. At least both of you can focus on other things without so-called holding each other back.

        Lesson learned the hard way, but a lesson learned well.

        Thanks again.

  5. Thank you, Katharine! This topic is exactly what I needed to read today. I’ve learned to stop giving my time and expertise away, but in setting that boundary, I’ve also been able to stay open to choosing a few projects that I can do for free–and under circumstances that fit my boundaries. So far, I’ve extended myself twice (time and cash)–and both have paid back unexpected benefits that were worth waiting for because when I actually got paid, it was a surprise! It felt like making a good investment! In the one really bad non-payment experience I had, something out of the ordinary happened–a dear friend of mine knew the client’s lawyer! She intervened! I got paid and learned a lesson about boundaries. The next question is how should I value my time and expertise? The answer must be in figuring out how much money I need in some sort of math relationship to how much money I want! What kind of math is that? I think algebra solves for x, but what happens when there are two x-es?

    1. Mary, I am not good at math. But I’d say from watching my mom do business many years ago, just figure what your actual costs are, such as paper, ink, rent, salaries, etc., and triple it.

      Then compare to your competitors and if it’s low, raise it some, but don’t price yourself out of business.

      That is what my mom always did. And I did that when I was doing more measurable services: catering. Every thing I spent I mentally tripled.

      I then quoted what my competitor would have charged and shot a price below that which I was sure would cover triple my costs.

      But someone with more math expertise should jump in here! We deal in such intangibles! 😀

      Thanks for your attentiveness and for sharing so much from your experiences! The more we share, the better picture we get of how much of this is out there!

      It sounds like you really know what you are doing and after a few adjustments, will take off flying!

  6. Katherine, I have met/dealt with an extreme version of Frieda. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, especially because I reached out in compassion for her difficult situation, and I bent and compromised EVERY ONE of my individual professional boundaries to accommodate her and her family’s need. Only to have it backfire in the worst possible way.

    Never again. The impact it had on my family and me was too much. It’s not worth it, but it was a lesson I am now glad to have. When we know better, we do better.

    Thank you for this great advice. I’m sharing it with my fellow doulas/childbirth educators.

    1. Oh, how sad, Tiff!

      Childbirth has to be the most desperate and compassion-inducing experience in the world. And rightly so.

      And how wrong to abuse that expected compassion!

      But we rise again, don’t we! We learn and we prepare.

      That helps us not be hardened, because we know it does not have to happen again. Wisdom wins.

      And life goes bravely on.

      Thank you so very much for your transparency, here. May your future hold many joys.

  7. There’s was a time I ate a lot of Oreos dealing with the Freidas of the world. Now, I know better. It’s still upsetting, but I’d rather them be angry at me for “breaking up,” than me be mad at me for not standing up for myself.

    1. Marcy, I’m really sorry you had unfun experiences like mine. However, I wish I’d known about eating Oreos as an option! We need to talk! Oreos never once occurred to me. Nuts! Probably because part of my counsel to Frieda included health-giving eating habits?

      Thanks so much for sharing that!

      Anyway, I wonder: Do you have a secret plan in queue, for nipping the troubles in the bud BEFORE you have to make anyone mad? Would that work in your life/business/action plans? I hope so, for a “wait and see” policy can save lots of disappointment on both sides!

      Here’s to happier days for us both!

      P.S. Was it Oreos and milk? (Shame on me, I know!) 🙂

  8. It works the same way with potential “partners”, who you want to help out or even work with but who just suck your time away until you want to throw something through a window.

    Case in point: Today, I received this message: “Hi, thinking a meeting would be a good idea. I have options, and I am a master Jedi when it comes to Marketing. I see you have a firm and I have most angles covered. I would like to explore what you do, and what I do and see what fits.”

    Now let me say, when a self-identified marketing guy can’t even explain his value proposition, you’re already in trouble.

    Three years ago I would have entertained this request simply because I was desperate for work and looking everywhere to find it. Today? Not so much. This person may want my knowledge, services, or expertise, but I don’t understand why or how either of us stand to benefit. So I’m out.

    It’s about recognizing the red flags as early as possible, and handling situations before they escalate.

    1. Zowie, Jessica! Is it me? Or is it a little warm in here? I’m so glad you did not feel like partnering with that one! Whew!

      You are right about “handling situations before”!

      Even before the occasion presents itself, I’d say.

      The firm knowledge that if you build something of perceivable value, they’ll come, like the crows picking corn seed out of my garden right now, will put a person on guard better than I was with Frieda.

      Having that plan at the ready is such a wise move! You go!

      And thanks for sharing. I’ll try to remember not to stand outside your window for awhile…

        1. Tell me!

          My husband once shot off a tomato plant aiming at one of them. It’s a lose/lose situation.

          But we keep trying.

          As we must keep trying with our business/client relationships, which are worth so much more! After all, it is the fellow-human element we work with…

          Thanks for understanding! Keep up the good work! 🙂

  9. Katherine, I can relate to your post but in truth I learned a long time ago to spot those who always wanted me to do something for free. When my kids were little and we put in a pool, I stopped the lineup of neighborhood kids asking to swim by insisting they bring a parent to watch them.
    We have to respect ourselves, whether we’re talking about our work or our free time. Your suggestions are excellent and will encourage people to value themselves in business as well as in personal relationships.
    A couple of family members hinted that I should give them my historical novel but I just laughed and told them about the six years that first book took and they got the point. Thankfully, most people will not put us in this position but for those who try, we must value ourselves.

    1. Elaine!

      Don’t I know about that lineup! And dripping, half-dressed kids with muddy feet who just HAVE to use the facilities! HA!

      We used to know a grocer who placed a sign over the exit of his store that read:

      “My friends pay CASH–My enemies don’t shop here much.”

      That about says it. I think I have learned that fine line, too, and hope my mistaken ignoring of rules I should have heeded will go a long way toward helping someone else avoid a painful experience.

      Thanks for your comment and for “getting it”!

  10. This is a great topic for anyone offering service work of any sort. I have found it to be completely true, anyone who wants your services for free will get out of them exactly what they put in to obtaining them – nothing. They don’t take the advice, read the ebooks, or apply the wisdom. There is no need to feel guilty about saying no. In fact you are saving yourself and them the wasted time! I really like your idea of offering a certain amount of free resources then asking for some accountability from the client to confirm they are benefiting from the material before moving on. You could even phrase it as a positive for them by saying it is an opportunity to make sure your material is a good fit for their needs before they invest more time with you.
    I did notice the link at the beginning of the article to “recognizing manipulation patterns” is not working. As a biblical counselor, I’m interested in hearing what you have to share about understanding people better!

    1. Hello, Susan, and thanks so much for these kind words! Yes, there is a broken link and I’ve requested a fix. Guess it’s time to make the announcement that a fix is coming but hasn’t arrived yet. So sorry.

      In the meantime, here is another attempt at that link:

      http://katharinetrauger.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/what-to-do-if-you-are-under-a-manipulator-part-2/

      When you get there, do look around. There is much I have not included here.

      I think sometimes it is right and good to help someone, and I do that. When I see a person making lovely improvements out of a tiny boost, although it will not put bread on the table, it does put a wonderful glow in my heart. If a poor person asks, and I have the resources, as measured in time and finances, I usually am happy to help.

      Some people, though, just do not want discipline, though, and therefore pretend a friendship, in order to avoid it.

      I learned though!

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