Should You Ever Say “No” to a Potential Client?

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Kenny Nguyen
Kenny Nguyen



fire-a-clientWhen it comes down to it, business is about making money. Money does determine the future of your business, but does it have to govern every decision you make? Does the price make you change who you are and why you do your job?

When I started Big Fish Presentations in 2011, our team of college students was excited to do anything and everything possible to make this company successful. We worked tirelessly to please our clients because we wanted to increase profits, expand, hire new people and do more great work.

As we continued to slave over our goal, a pattern emerged. It seemed we would take on just about any client, just as long as we could handle the workload and turn a decent profit. We thought we were invincible, that no matter how bizarre or terrible the clients were, we were resistant to them — thanks to great customer service.

However, this wouldn’t last long. Certain clients pushed the limits of our time and resources with strange requests, indecisive direction and a severe lack of communication skills. Some even had awful attitudes as a bonus! It takes a lot of patience to deal with these kinds of clients; you’ve got to set aside your pride and vision to please a small group of people.

One day, a big-name client contacted us for a project, and of course, we accepted the challenge. It was rocky from the start. They didn’t know what they wanted out of the project, so we had to interrogate them for details. They were unresponsive when we needed them and too responsive when we didn’t, and their attitudes were extremely negative. It didn’t help that their internal structure was disorganized — as was the feedback they gave us throughout the project. Despite continuous customer service and quality work, they just couldn’t be satisfied. It was as if they felt that because they paid us, they owned us.

We struggled for a while, taking nonstop and unreasonable requests from the client, and often receiving unnecessary hostility in the confusion. This was getting out of control. After some deliberation, my business partners and I decided finally to “fire” this client; we just couldn’t work with them any longer. It was the right decision for us, and I’ll never regret doing it then or doing it again in the future.

Our big mistake was that we were blind because of the money. When we took this client on, we were only concerned with prices and hours, not the experience or the satisfaction of producing great work. We were following orders that we didn’t believe in from people who didn’t believe in us. However, there’s a limit to how much personal and professional sacrifice you can or should put up with for that price.

Though these kinds of clients may be unpleasant to work with, most of the time they aren’t bad people, just bad clients. It’s important to remember that. To avoid this headache, find out what kind of clients you are working with by asking yourself the following questions early on:

  1. Does this client have clear expectations on their end goal?
  2. Does this client violate our business ethics?
  3. Does this client have a history of being difficult with other vendors?
  4. Does this client have unrealistic expectations and limited knowledge of your services?
  5. Does this client have the same vision for the project as you do?
  6. Does this client understand the value of what I’m bringing to the table?
  7. Does this client feel like they own us because they are paying us?
  8. Does this client control my business’ main source of cash flow?

In the end, overcoming this experience taught us a very valuable lesson about choosing clients. It narrowed down the scope of our tolerance, and we are now more upfront about how we expect to work. We learned a clear, definitive voice, plus a positive outlook, pave the way for effective client communication. Yet the biggest lesson we learned was that working with a client solely for the money is a huge, and often deadly, mistake. You have to decide the price that YOU are willing to pay before ever working with a client. Only then can you effectively grow and succeed as a business.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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