What to Say When a Client Says ‘No’

Author: Kristen Lund Date: July 31, 2014

‘No’ doesn’t have to be the final word. Here’s how to negotiate with naysaying clients.

In small business, you win some and you lose some. But when a client says no to more money, to a big idea or to a new business relationship, don’t assume it’s a done deal. After a refusal, the most important question you can ask is “why?” says Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, a consulting and training firm in Los Angeles.

“Open-ended questions call for a narrative response,” says Pynchon, a former litigator. “We should not be assuming we know what the other person wants and needs.”

Here, Pynchon offers suggestions for what to say when a client tells you no:

… To More Money. 

Begin by asking why the price is too high, then discuss how you may be able to work together to agree upon a fee. A few options:
  • Payments spread out over time
  • A reduced fee with a back-end bonus if your proposal improves your client’s financial standing
  • A series of flat fees for certain landmarks

Particularly if you’re dealing with a nonprofit, propose ways they could raise money to cover your services, from seeking sponsors to collaborating with other groups. “A lot of times, people haven’t thought about how they can find money to pay you,” says Pynchon, who has successfully landed speaking gigs through similar negotiations after the client initially asked her to speak for free.

If the client still refuses your fee, ask, “Can you think of any other way we could profitably work together?” If the answer is no, offer to refer the client to a contact of yours who could provide a similar service for a lower fee.

… To a Big Idea. 

Several years ago, Stamats, a higher education marketing firm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pitched a new branding idea to Drake University: the Drake Advantage, with the logo “D+.” It was bold and edgy. It wasn’t universally loved. But prior to launch, testing showed that it grabbed the attention of more than 75 percent of high schoolers—the campaign’s target audience—and 90 percent called it unique compared to other colleges’ marketing efforts.

Drake said yes, while many universities probably would have said no. If you pitch a bold idea and meet resistance, Pynchon suggests asking your clients to propose ideas that are a better fit for them. Or ask how they prefer to differentiate themselves from the competition. This will spark a brainstorming session, and “maybe you’ll come up with a better idea together,” she says. “Or you may come back to the original idea because you were pitching ones that weren’t as good as your first.”

… To New Business. 

If you try to strike up a new business relationship and are rejected, ask questions rather than do the talking and focus on the mutual benefits, Pynchon says. For example, she is advising an inventor who must decide whether he’ll sell his product wholesale to a single distributor. The negotiations and financial considerations are complex, but the distributor’s argument is powerful: It has the connections and experience to help his invention succeed in the global marketplace.

By asking the client questions about his or her business, look for the gaps where you could contribute your expertise. “People don’t like to be sold,” Pynchon says. “But they like to be helped.” 

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