Not every business request is an opportunity worth pursuing. But saying no to a client or a referral can sometimes feel tricky; you don't want to damage a relationship or harm future opportunities. How you decline an offer is just as important to your brand as how you acquire new business. You have to strike the right balance.

Here are some practical tips on how to politely say no without hurting your relationships or tarnishing your reputation.

When to say no

When you're assessing whether to say no to a customer or opportunity, the first thing you need to ask is: Is this in our best interest and in the client's best interest? If the answer to either question is not an emphatic "yes," you're better off helping the client find an alternative.

For example, let's say a prospect asks you to bid on a project and, as a condition of the bid, blocks you from having conversations with anyone in advance. Sure, you could give the client what was specified in the 'Request For Proposal' but as is often the case, an RFP never has all the information needed to deliver the best outcome. So that means you are not in a good position to deliver the desired results. Therefore, accepting the invitation to bid is neither in your best interest nor the client's best interest because if you bid without having the appropriate conversations beforehand, it's likely the job will wind up taking longer and costing more which makes both you and the client look bad --- and that's never a good thing. In this case, saying no is the right thing to do.

But here's the kicker: you can't just say, "No, my company won't participate" because that would make you look inflexible. In situations like this, you need to explain to the client why what they're asking for isn't in their best interest. Instead of flatly refusing, you could say something like:

"On two recent projects, we submitted bids without having these kinds of conversations beforehand and after we won the business, we discovered new information that wasn't in the original documents. It ended up costing the client more time and money, and it made everyone look bad. What we learned through that process is: if we can't have a conversation up front to make sure we're not missing something important, it's in our mutual interest to decline to participate so that the client doesn't feel like it's a bait and switch."

Understand that it's OK to push back a little. Ultimately, smart clients will see that you share their interest in obtaining a good outcome, and they won't put their (or your) success at risk. Foolish clients will stick to their guns and be inflexible. Hopefully, they'll appreciate your approach on the next turn. 

Saying no to unreasonable requests

It's OK to say no when someone is making an unreasonable request, like asking you to work for free. Often times, these requests are couched in the promise of future opportunities that may or may not come to pass. In this scenario, your response might be something like this:

"Thank you for extending the opportunity, but if we did that we couldn't properly serve the clients who are paying for our services. We go the extra mile to protect our resources for our current clients even if it means missing an opportunity for new business. Our clients appreciate that we put them first."

Say no to discounts

Let's say you're a commercial realtor whose standard transaction fee is 4 percent and you are asked by a client to cut your fee in half. Saying no is a reasonable response. You might say:

"Clients often say to me they like that I stand firm on my fees because that gives them the confidence that I'll stand firm when I'm negotiating on their behalf. So while I appreciate that you want to pay a smaller percentage, our clients tell us that we more than earn our fee by representing them strongly. What would you like to do?"

Never give a unilateral concession. If you agree to give customers a lower price on the exact same deliverable, you are teaching them 3 bad lessons:

  1. They can ask for a discount whenever they want, because it costs them nothing in return. 

  2. The price you quoted them first was ripping them off. So you've damaged trust in the relationship. 

  3. You don't really have confidence in what you're selling.

Remember that results matter most. If the client fails to get the results they need, it's not a good deal at any price. 


If you politely decline to offer concessions and demonstrate that you are always operating in your client's best interest, they will see value and everyone can benefit.