I've been self-employed for more than 30 years. Most of that time, I've been busy, but not always. Twice in the past five years, I've lost half my income abruptly, once when two websites I worked for both shut down on the same day, once when I quit a client I just couldn't stand anymore. At times like these, I've had to scramble to replace that business and keep the bills paid. Maybe that's why I have an almost superstitious reluctance to turn away customers.
But sometimes it isn't optional. The past few months, for whatever reason, I've been offered more business than I can handle. It's a conundrum that every solopreneur and very small business has to solve some time or other. You must say no to a valuable customer or risk becoming overloaded and ineffective. But like a squirrel burying nuts for winter, you want to save that customer for later. Is that possible?
I can't say for sure, but here's the strategy I'm using. So far, it seems to be working.
1. Say thank you.
Nobody likes getting rejected, and when you say no, it can feel to your customer like a rejection, especially if the person has counted on your availability in the past. So do everything you can to counteract that impression. A great place to start is to sincerely thank that customer for trusting you with his or her business.
2. Make a personal connection.
On each side of every transaction is a human being. You can make the most of this by trying to engage your customer as a person, asking about his or her family and sharing a bit about your own life. I'm not suggesting you become the customer's new best friend, but you need to send the message that you like this person and set a high value on your relationship.
3. Plan to reconnect in the future.
Be as transparent as you can about why you can't take on this business right now and when you may be able to in the future. Ask if you can get back in touch in a few weeks or months when your backlog clears. Then mark that date on your calendar and make sure to give a quick call or email on that day to say hello and let your contact know whether you're open for more business. Do not expect the customer to contact you.
4. Make a referral.
It can be unsettling to send a valued customer to your competition, but that's what I've always done in this situation, and it's always worked out for me. I try to refer the work to a business that I know will fill the customer's needs, and I always contact the other business as well to let them know the work may be coming their way. It's a great way to build a better relationship with both parties. And I've sometimes gotten a referral in return.
5. Follow up with both parties.
If the customer takes you up on the referral, you shouldn't just make an introduction and walk away. Follow up once or twice with both parties to find out how things are going. Your customer will know that you're concerned about his or her welfare. And you may be able to troubleshoot any issues before they turn into real problems.
6. Send useful items.
In today's world, most people are overloaded with so much content that it's hard to know what to pay attention to. So a great way to maintain your relationships with customers you can't serve is to send links to articles or white papers that you know they won't want to miss. That will help you stay on their radar as well: Research shows that if customers don't hear from you for several months, they may forget about you.
7. Pay attention to what they're doing.
Following blogs, tweets, pins, or whatever will let you know what your customers are up to. Share their items or news with your own social network whenever appropriate. That will let your customers know that you're still interested in what they're doing. They'll appreciate your continued caring. And that appreciation might pay off later on when you're hungry for more business.
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