Learning to Say ‘No’ — Why Focusing on Your Agency’s Ideal Clients Will Boost Your Bottom Line

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Debbie Williams
Debbie Williams




As a content marketing agency continually striving to grow, it feels almost impossible to say “no” to a new business opportunity that comes along. Why would you turn business away, right? But learning to say "no" can actually help you grow in the right direction.It’s not an easy thing to do, but the rewards are worth it.

Know Who to Say 'Yes' to First

Before you can learn to say "no", you have to clearly identify the clients you want to say YES to.

For a long time at SPROUT Content, we were afraid to really focus too specifically on target audiences for fear of alienating business. And, like many other agencies, we’ve worked with lots of less than “ideal” clients along the way. (I can just feel the heads nodding in agreement.) Over the years, we had internal discussions on the characteristics of our ideal target audience, but we never really put it out there strongly enough for all the world to see. And while being honest, we weren’t exactly sure our “ideal” client was.

Yes, we had buyer personas. Yes, we talked about them internally. Yes, some of our favorite clients were ideal fits in this mold. And yes, we were still taking on some clients who were not exactly on this A-list. Okay, a few were even on the D-list.

After attending HubSpot’s INBOUND conference this year, we were left with the resonating message that to succeed agencies need to “distinguish and differentiate.” This sounds like common sense, but it’s not always that easily applied, especially in a burgeoning industry. We returned home fully charged to put out there what we’ve been talking about all along -- and have built up the courage to say "no".

Ask yourself and your team these three questions when determining your ideal client:

1) Will this industry be profitable?

Think about it. Is this the kind of industry that is fun or interesting but will not likely have the budget to invest in a full inbound program? No one wants to feel like their being underpaid or always pinching pennies to succeed.

2) Where have we had success before?

Identify the ways you’ve had positive results with a target group or closely related industry, and leverage those successes. Look at case studies, stats, sales, and testimonials that can be parlayed into new business opportunities.

3) Do we get what they need?

While you may love the travel industry, does your agency have any experience in this area to show? If you have absolutely zero experience in that industry and no related-industry experience, then you should move on.

From there, take a close look at your current and past clients, and try to identify patterns. Think about where you can best compete and where the most opportunities are.

Learning to Say 'No'

The two magic letters: No. Anyone with small children likely hears this several times a day (If you’re like me, it comes along with a foot stamp.). So why is it so hard for us as professional adults to say "no"?

After putting all that hard work into really identifying the type of clients you can be the most successful with (and vice versa), what do you do when an opportunity comes your way that does not fit this mold? Like most humans, you probably do a mental dance, going back and forth of all the pros and cons. Maybe you even focus on the all the positives to start. But in a few minutes, your gut will prevail.

If needed, review your personas, and check off the necessary yes and no points. Go through the obvious items like budget requirements, industry experience, and goals. Something that has been really helpful to us as an agency is the buyer profile we created. It was a collaborative effort of the positive and negative attributes (beyond facts) and insights that helped us identify our ideal clients.

Here’s a sample of our buyer profile checklist that really helped us learn when to say "no" to a client.

  • People who are hard to reach, not engage, cancel appointments repeatefly
  • Teams that try to embrace decision by committee
  • People who don't know what they want or are fishing for information
  • People who sell everything to everyone, can't indentify their target market
  • People who practice "hurry up and wait"
  • People who expect miracles and dramatic results quickly or from a very limited budget
  • People who just want a "copywriter" for one project, not thinking of the bigger picture of how content affects marketing/sales, don't have a plan for the content that is created
  • People who "have a person" for design and web development
  • Hobby businesses, don't have a vision for how we (or an agency) can fit into their team
  • People who believe they need 100 blog posts but are not sure why
  • People who have a minimum budget less than $30,000 per year.

And we actually said "no" to a prospect, one that we normally would have taken on, just the other day. Was it an easy decision to make? Not entirely. But did it feel good? Yes. It was a big relief, actually.

As the old saying goes, when one door closes another one opens. It’s cliché but true. Saying "no" to what you don’t want will only create more opportunities for you to find and work with your ideal client.

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