Saying “No,” Losing a Client

The year I worked for the newspaper was the year of no Thanksgiving. Oh, the holiday was there, but my family brought me a sandwich at work because no one else would work that day.  I was scared of my supervisor, and the people who worked for me weren’t scared of me. I figured my family would forgive me. I still haven’t forgiven myself.

Saying No. Torn paper collage.©

Saying No. Torn paper collage.©

Now that I own my business, I get to choose the path–and the consequences– because I’m the CRO (Chief Responsibility Officer).

This past week I said “No” to a client. I didn’t start from that point, I wanted to say “Yes.” The first email asked me teach one of my classes, and I agreed, subject to agreeing on a date.

The second email asked to see several previously-used workbooks, because everyone of my classes is a custom class. I prefer to run training classes built specifically for the client’s needs. So each class has a separate and specific workbook. A little more work on my part, but much higher client satisfaction and quality for the participant.

Training is a tough environment, and the occasional unethical  client will ask to see the workbook, then tell you they have taken the class “in-house” and use your sample workbook to run the class. So I offered a compromise: once I knew the client’s specific needs, I would send a detailed outline, which she could accept or refuse. If she refused the class at the outline stage, there would be no charge.

The client didn’t see this as a benefit, and I received a series of emails, each more strident than the last, pushing me toward a fast delivery deadline. I have an absolute belief that if you agree to a deadline that sacrifices quality, the client will never appreciate the met deadline, but will focus on the lack of quality.

I tried to shift the conversation to the phone, but it didn’t work. Emails don’t deliver the best communication.

The next email set a date and time for a training session in an online training software that I was to use. I had thought the class was in-person, converting it increased the lead time.  At that moment, I knew I couldn’t do a good job in the scheduled time. I had a big family commitment in the middle of the client’s schedule. I was going to honor it. Even though the pay for the job was good, even though I needed the money. I was not going to bail out on the commitment I made to my family.

I took a deep breath and turned the client down. It was hard, and I’ve had second thoughts. The loss of money is noticeable. The client was not pleased. Here is why I ultimately turned her down:

  • I had made a commitment to my family first, and that needed to be honored.
  • If I’d accepted her terms this time, they would have set a precedent for our relationship–I would not be able to negotiate on time or delivery in the future. “But you did it last time,” is a hard act to follow.
  • Quality. There was a big likelihood that I wouldn’t meet my standards of quality, and one reason I opened my own business is to deliver quality training.
  • If I didn’t deliver quality that met the client’s standards or my standards, the client would be unhappy and not use me again, possibly not pay me. Too much to loose.

It’s hard to turn a client down, and harder still to offer names of colleagues who could do the job. But that’s what I did. And I’ll learn to live with it. That’s why I’m the CRO.

–Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach, writer and trainer in business communications. She has a business website and an art website.