How to politely yet assertively turn down business?
November 8, 2017 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I have a trade business. I am finding it very hard to turn down inquires which I know are either a waste of time or are a bad fit. How to say no with a smile?

So I have a small trade business. We do light outdoor construction. We have a bare minimum budget of $6000 for any project given the number of our employees, daily overhead, equipment and just the way we set up. If we go smaller say $2000 we prone to lose money.

I keep bumping into 2 situations where I am having difficulty refusing the inquiry politely.

1. We live in a small and relatively poor rural area and commute to the big city for work. Some of our local neighbors want to get bids from us, but knowing from past experience, our prices are simply too high for the area. I don't know how to communicate we might not be a good fit. (most country folk don't care if you are insured, bonded, have all the payroll above board and prefer doing business on a handshake and cash basis). Even after saying, We have a 6k minimum budget for all of our projects they will either say something along the lines of: "Well we don't know how much it may cost" or "How can you say a minimum of 6k if you haven't even seen the job".

2. Sometimes we start the bidding process, and after 5-6 different meetings and revisions I understand the potential clients are a bad fit for our company due to either communication style, budget or them being rude and un-reasonable overall. How do I turn them down AFTER we are both invested (in terms of time and design, at this stage no money has yet changed hands?)

Just to further explain, our designs and bids cost US about 4 hours in labor for each bid as there is a lot of thought and measurement and drafting that go with each design and bid. Unfortunately in our industry, "Free Estimates" are the standard, so we can't charge for those if we want to stay competitive.

In this day and age, where online reviews are super important I find myself walking on eggshells and spending a lot of hours working on designs and doing intricate multi trade bids knowing full well its not going anywhere, just because I'm afraid upsetting the potential client and them writing a terrible review even though we haven't worked together. (X company didn't even wanted to meet with us! in capital letters).

TLDR: How to turn down business both initially and when you already met multiple times without hurting the client's feelings and using the most professional and assertive language.
posted by Sentus to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, I'm one of the customers you turn down.

I have jobs - notably one electrical job - at my house that have sat undone for YEARS because I can't do them myself and yet they seem to be too small for any qualified trades-person to want to take on. Its endlessly frustrating - I need the work done, I'm forced to live with broken stuff, but literally nobody seems to want to take my money.

What endear you to me forever is if you could somehow identify two or three local contractors who WOULD take my work, who actually want my money, and who you more or less know to be competent and be able to provide me with that list. I understand that providing those kind of professional references might be problematic, but people are asking you because they know and trust you.
posted by anastasiav at 8:49 AM on November 8, 2017 [44 favorites]

For Scenario #1 I would try to identify a handyman-type worker who would be happy to have these smaller jobs. Explain kindly that your company focuses on larger jobs but you've heard good things about $Handyman and here's his business card. People don't usually mind being told no as long as they have another option to pursue.

Scenario #2 is harder; you can quote the job high enough that you're sure they won't say yes, or you can frame your refusal as "This is far enough out of our wheelhouse that I don't feel comfortable taking the job. You'd be better off with someone else." You can also fail to find a schedule that works for both of you.
posted by workerant at 8:53 AM on November 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

anastasiav has it. Refer me to someone else. Word of mouth is everything, and a referral from a contractor I trust is gold.
posted by headnsouth at 8:54 AM on November 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have similar issues in the business I work with - we do web development and don't really do work where we can't bill at least $5K a month on a regular basis. In a world where there are lot of $50 a month retainer companies out there, we get a lot of calls and emails from under-qualified customers.

If you do commercial work with a $6K minimum, I think one comfort factor for you is that your true prospects probably aren't making picks based on Google reviews.

I think you are already on the right track, in that you have picked a minimum and are sticking with it. Say it early and often, and don't be afraid to simply say "We don't really do work at the scale you're looking for" without a lot of explanation. Explaining just opens up a debate.

The "I didn't realize they were the client from hell until we started talking" scenario is more difficult. I can't say I've got a foolproof way to handle those, but depending on exactly which of those reasons you articulated - I think you just have to approach it like a breakup. Be direct, be honest, and be gone. If they paid a deposit, return it; if there is some information you can hand them and walk away that will help them, give it to them. But get clear.

I'll address one point for the folks playing along at home, and which unfortunately does relate to anastasiav's comment above - I agree that reference to smaller sources that might be a good fit if you can provide it, BUT unfortunately there is a tendency to get blamed if that other company doesn't do a great job, so we've gotten very guarded about how we phrase those.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:55 AM on November 8, 2017 [11 favorites]

At least for the first part, one alternative that might also make a bit of money, if you're getting enough serious inquiries, anyway, would be to hire someone to subcontract the smaller jobs to trusted vendors for a fee that will more than cover the cost of the employee, assuming that it is possible for people in the smaller market to actually work for lower rates without cutting corners.

In short, see it as an opportunity, if there's any possibility the numbers could work. Treat it skeptically, of course, as you would any other business decision, but dismissing the business out of hand seems premature.
posted by wierdo at 9:11 AM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with randomkeystrike about referral to a smaller outfit. If you can't vouch and verify this smaller provider %100 you risk the wrath of the original client if things go sour with them.
posted by Sentus at 9:12 AM on November 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

To anastasiav, I understand your frustration.

If it was not a trade such as electricity where incompetent work can cause major property and bodily damage I would go to Craigslist and interview a few folks, but obviously with electricity you don't want to take chances.

I finally understand those "ridiculous" $300 an hour rates for plumbers or electricians, especially when they take 25 minutes to do the actual work. Those $300 include commuting, insurance, training, office supplies, office space rental, utility bills for said space, gas and etc and etc.
posted by Sentus at 9:19 AM on November 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

For the second one, something along the lines of "as the project specs are coming into focus, it's starting to look like we're not going to be the best resource for your project." For people you don't want to work with because they're nasty, providing a list of other outfits in town (rather than a targeted recommendation which would be nice to provide to someone who just needs a smaller scale of work) would be enough, I think. Also, agree with above recommendation to claim schedule incompatibility.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:19 AM on November 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

For the too-small projects: How about writing something that explains the time for you to write up your bids, and also the kind of overhead that any project entails, so it becomes clear through reading the text that you _can't_ take smaller projects? Just explain stuff.

The problem with saying "We can't take your job because it's too small" is that people assume it's because you're being a snob or something; the problem with the short explanation is that while it's technically true, it's not _enough_ truth. Since you have the resources to do detailed bids, you should have the resources to do a well-written explanation. You can put it up on your web presence, then direct people there when they ask about it. Call it "When can we help?" or something.


As for referring to a smaller outfit: you don't have to recommend anyone specifically; you can make a statement like, "We don't know any of these firms personally, and we don't know anything about the quality of the work, but here's a listing service [Angie's list or BBB or something] OR you can recommend they do a web search for [Durham NC patent attorney] (in case they don't know the proper search terms for what you do)." In other words, put it on a web page, put whatever additional information/disclaimers you need up there too, but give them some way to proceed.
posted by amtho at 9:22 AM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

For the local folks with jobs you don't want to even bid on, you could say something along the lines that your schedule is very full at the moment and you won't be able to submit a bid or schedule the work in a reasonable time frame. Thank them for their request. They just want you to act like you care about them, and telling someone ahead of time that you're swamped (instead of after they've chosen you) will feel, to them, like you're doing them an honest favor instead of just rejecting them.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:44 AM on November 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

How about a three-tiered estimate process?

Initial estimate: free. Based on a phone interview and our list of (say, 5) initial project questions, we will provide an initial estimate. The purpose of the initial estimate is to allow you to decide whether to move ahead to a detailed project plan. Our initial estimates are a range ($1 - 10K, 10 - 20K, etc.) and may vary from the final project plan cost due to factors uncovered during the planning process. We are happy to provide initial estimates for projects any time!

Project Plan: $1,500. Based on an in-person site review and detailed interview, we will develop a written plan, including initial rough drawings, estimated materials and labor cost breakdown, and estimated project timeline.

Project Contract: For projects with a completed project plan and a total cost estimate >$6,000, if the client agrees, we create a project contract. Our project plan fee is waived if you choose to enter into a project contract with us.

For truly promising clients, you can always graciously waive the project plan fee upfront as a special favor.
posted by Ausamor at 9:48 AM on November 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Here in San Diego, the expensive, overqualified electrician who turned down an inquiry said, "You might want to check Nextdoor." I found a more appropriate handyman-type guy with great reviews, and he's done a couple of things around the house I'm not comfortable doing myself. So, I agree, don't be on the hook for a direct referral, but point your neighbors toward a resource. (Whether or not they have adequate homeowner's insurance to cover possibly under-insured laborers is not something you should make your business.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:08 AM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

For #1, if you can’t refer them to someone else, you might want to just suck it up and give them a high off-the-cuff estimate if you know them personally and care about maintaining a relationship with them. You don’t have to go through the full process, but spending an hour to give them a ballpark estimate should send them elsewhere, and you might be able to frame it to yourself more like socializing/ lending a hand than part of your business, that might help. If they’re below your minimum, you can tell them during this meeting that your overhead costs mean that you will lose money if you work for under $6000, but that other contractors without city contracts can handle smaller jobs better.

For #2, “Unfortunately, we have realized through this process that we are not a good fit for this project. We apologize for the time spent on the revision process, but will pass all of our documentation on to you so it may go more quickly with the next contractor.”
posted by metasarah at 10:31 AM on November 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you do commercial work with a $6K minimum, I think one comfort factor for you is that your true prospects probably aren't making picks based on Google reviews.

I don't think he said he did commercial work? It sounds residential to me, but maybe I misunderstood. If it is residential, I have a lot of experience hiring people to do jobs in the $5k-50k range for my house, and I most assuredly do look at online reviews and pay attention to them. They aren't the only thing I look at by any means, but any contractor who has a pattern of poor reviews is unlikely to even get a call from me unless I have a few overwhelmingly positive personal testimonials about them from people I know and trust. I think the concern over negative reviews should be taken seriously. (That said, I don't put a lot of weight into reviews that are negative because "they didn't even want to come out and bid" or similar.)

I think the "referral" to Nextdoor or Facebook Groups is a good idea. I have found a number of people to do smaller jobs that way, and it works pretty well. And it lets you avoid having to vouch for anyone in particular. You might be able to win extra points if you give people a couple of bullet points on things to watch out for/check on as they're choosing someone to do the job.
posted by primethyme at 12:11 PM on November 8, 2017

"I'm sorry, we're not going to be able to quote for this job; we are fully booked. Thanks so much for considering us."
posted by DarlingBri at 1:24 PM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Definitely worth putting some effort into finding some local small guys who would like to take the small business from you. "We're not geared up for that kind of job but I can give you a couple of recommendations who probably would be". You keep your reputation (or even increase it), and get some smaller operators on your side. You never know, you might want to subcontract them for a huge job at some point in the future. And, once in a blue moon, they might get an enquiry for a job way out of their league and refer it to you.

Exactly this happened to me when I was running a computer company and we'd decided to exclude all single-user customers. The payback can be enormous.
posted by tillsbury at 4:34 PM on November 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

So I have a small trade business. We do light outdoor construction. We have a bare minimum budget of $6000 for any project given the number of our employees, daily overhead, equipment and just the way we set up. If we go smaller say $2000 we prone to lose money.

Tell potential clients you do certain type of projects (give examples) as you have the most experience with them, and you bill at minimum $6000 for a job.

If you know up front they will be a bad fit, just say you're fully booked and can't accommodate more work, but are more than happy to refer them to other businesses.
posted by GiveUpNed at 10:25 AM on November 10, 2017

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