What to Do When a Client Says "No" to Your Proposal

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Matthew Kane
Matthew Kane



Though it never seems to get any easier, rejection is an unavoidable reality of agency life. You might have done all the necessary groundwork, put your heart and soul into the proposal, and delivered what seemed like an extraordinary pitch only to have a prospective client simply say “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s part of what makes creative work both frustrating and rewarding.

But while you can’t eliminate all rejections -- many times it’s completely out of your control -- you can take steps to minimize the number of “no’s” received.

Understanding the Types of “No”  

Often no really doesn’t mean no. According to research from Marketing Wizdom, 80% of prospects decline a proposal four times before eventually saying "yes." Which then means that the vast majority of time clients are not saying “no, thank you.” Rather, they're saying, “no, convince me” or “no, I need more time.”

Discerning the difference is as easy as shifting the conversation. If you have a strong inclination that a prospective client is interested and yet still hear “no,” dial back the original pitch to ask questions such as, “What's preventing you from saying 'yes'?” or “What happens if you do nothing to fix your marketing issue?”

Generally, if a prospective client is receptive to a more casual back and forth, it’s a signal there remains interest in your services. From there, all that’s needed is a little calibration. 

Of course, sometimes a no is just a no, but we’ll get to that later.

When “No” Actually Means “Convince Me”

Assuming you're confident that your prospective client falls into the “no, convince me” camp, there’s a number of tactics to consider that may earn you a “yes.”

1) Ask for Feedback

Draft a handful of questions and schedule a short session with a prospective client to ask for her perspective on why your proposed services or project is not a good fit. Sometimes a client’s rejection can stem from a simple miscommunication, in which she (mistakenly) believes the gap between her goals and how you can help reach them is too large. A more informal, less-pressured conversation can go a long way in rectifying these misconceptions, which will help you increase trust and move the client closer to a "yes."

Keep in mind, though, these feedback sessions should be casual and inquisitive. You should genuinely be looking for information that may help you ascertain what initially put the client off, not using the premise of a feedback session to press harder. At the very least, even if you can’t turn the “no” into a "yes," any constructive criticism can be used to redefine your sales process and future proposals.

2) Challenge Them

Clients will get cold feet for a variety of different reasons. Maybe they’re overwhelmed at the size and scope of the project. Maybe they believe it’s too much money. Maybe they can’t see the value in it. Whatever their reason, tactfully challenge the assumption. Remember: The proposal should simply be the written version of previous conversations -- nothing in it should be a surprise.

Articulate that you understand the concerns of the client, but explain how their hesitations may be unfounded. For example, if a client determines that the size of a web design project will place too much undo stress on her team, explain how it can help her better hit her KPIs in the long-run. Or if the client suffers from “sticker shock” -- a hesitation about pricing that may exceed their budget -- underscore a return on investment that far outweighs the cost. Clients believe the price is right when the value is higher than the investment. 

And when it comes to pricing …

3) Be Flexible With Your Prices

If you determine that a client is not using budgetary concerns as an excuse and your attempts at articulating the value-to-price ratio fail, consider reevaluating what you are charging. This is not to say that you should slash the prices across the board. That’s not beneficial and can actually backfire as it may come across as desperate. But if you can work with the prospective client to peel back certain services in exchange for reaching a more agreeably priced project, it can turn a "no" into a "yes."

4) Build Trust

If you remain unable to get buy-in on a larger project from a prospective client, consider selling them on doing a smaller project, such as a content audit, developing buyer personas, or keyword research. The ultimate goal is to help build trust between your agency and client. Your ability to provide great client service and your high standard of delivery -- even on a smaller project -- will show the client that you are the right partner for solving their marketing problems. 

When "No" Means "No"

When you’re unlucky enough to be counted among the 20% of sure-fire “no’s” (per Marketing Wizdom's stat), it’s time to reevaluate a few things.

1) Take Stock of How You Qualify Leads

It’s possible that your prospective client was not a good fit from the beginning and nothing you could have included in the pitch or proposal would have changed it. Maybe she's not the right person to make decisions. Maybe she was never all that serious. Maybe there was no way to reconcile costs. Whatever the reason, take time to consider why you lost the project and how you could have avoided the lost time and resources. Ask yourself these questions:

2) Evaluate Your Sales Pitch

All too frequently, a new business pitch emphasizes capabilities without demonstrating the solution the agency provides. However, to bring value to the prospective client (and therefore, to make a sale), you must understand her unique pain and adjust your pitch accordingly.

It’s not rocket science. Essentially, tailoring your sales pitch involves a few key strategies:

  • Asking open-ended questions to get the client talking about their specific concerns rather than asking questions that can be answered with just “yes” or “no.”
  • Use open body language and maintain eye contact to convey that you are truly interested in what they have to say. Clients who can see your interest are more likely to divulge information.
  • Ensure accuracy by repeating your prospects' concerns, showing them you understand their pain points, and then explain how your services can help.

3) Reconsider Your Competitive Advantage

If losing business is an all too common experience, consider reevaluating your competitive advantage. It’s possible that you're positioning your agency in a way that puts you at a disadvantage when competing with more-established agencies. Take stock of your talents to determine what makes your agency uniquely positioned to solve a prospective client’s problem.  

These differentiators should be comprised of two main components. One, they should encompass anything your agency provides that is different from competitors such as talent, subject matter expertise, proprietary knowledge, etc., and two, they should be tied benefits. So, for example, if your agency has an expert staff of web designers that have more experience than most, your competitive advantage would be how those experts can execute better and more efficiently than the competition.

Overcome the Fear of Rejection

Being rejected is inevitable. But by understanding the different meanings of the word "no" and adjusting your strategy accordingly, your agency can learn to turn a "no" into a "yes."


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