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The Power of 'No:' When (and How) to Turn Down a Prospective Client

Setting boundaries and knowing your limits is one of the hardest lessons to learn for busy event professionals. So, we asked some experts to share how they turn down work—without burning bridges.

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Photo: Shutterstock

Ah, boundary-setting. It’s one of the most challenging lessons to learn—especially for event professionals who are eager to make their businesses successful. But sometimes, turning down work is exactly what you need to set your company up for success.

It’s a topic that’s top of mind for Alexandra Rembac—principal and creative director of Sterling Engagements—right now. “Each year, we start with a buzzword or phrase for the year ... [and] somehow, better balance, boundaries, and an emphasis on doing less, better, are notoriously on my list,” she says with a laugh. “Saying no is an art—you don’t ever want to disappoint a client or miss an opportunity that could lead to more than that one event.”

During the pandemic, though, Rembac has learned that in certain circumstances, a strategic “no” can actually be the best way to help her company thrive. “Not because we always want to, but because sometimes circumstances don’t align and it’s in the best interest of all parties involved,” she explains.

Of course, leaving work on the table is easier said than done. So we asked Rembac and other top event professionals to share how they assess if a job is the right fit, what client red flags they watch for, and how they gracefully turn down work—without burning bridges. 

When a potential new project comes along, Jack Bedwani, CEO of creative agency New Moon, analyzes it through the lens of “profit, people, and passion.” Will the job be financially profitable? Do the brand, its messaging, and its people’s values align with his own agency’s own goals? And finally, does the project align with his agency’s mission, values, and direction, and with the work the team actually wants to be doing?

“It's rare in our industry that you get a brief that ticks all three boxes—you often only get two out of three!” Bedwani admits. “But in those cases, which is most of the time, we have to weigh whether the missing piece is a compromise that we feel comfortable making.”

Here are some other ways our experts assess whether a client or project is the right fit.

Visualize the qualities of your perfect client.
“After a few years of running my business, I realized that I didn't need every job that came my way to support the team—and we started to realize that we had a bunch of clients that we really didn't enjoy working with, and a handful that we loved!” remembers Danielle Snelson, CEO of Sona Events. “We asked ourselves, how do we get more of the clients we love and 'naturally repel' the ones we don't want?"

To help, Snelson and her team came up with a list of qualities of their “perfect client,” thinking through things like their age, how they spend their free time, what they like to eat, what kind of company they run, and intangibles like their overall “vibe.” “When we completed the list, we drew a picture of them and wrote all their attributes around the drawing, and hung it up in the office so we all could visualize our perfect client on a daily basis,” she remembers. “Some of the [criteria] can feel weird, but it was really important for us to get inside the lifestyle and the mind of our perfect client so we could easily identify the companies and the people that made them up as great clients to work with.”

These ideas also directed the team’s marketing efforts, adds Snelson, explaining that they could center graphics around ideas that would appeal to their ideal client. It also helped the team more quickly realize which clients they wanted to say yes to—and which didn’t feel like the right fit. 

Establish a clear method of assessing whether a project is feasible...
Kerrie Sheldon, EVP of business development at Opus Agency, creates what her team calls an “opportunity qualification scorecard” before deciding to pursue an opportunity. “Our scorecard collects data across six categories and 27 unique questions. The data is then processed through a tuned algorithm, weighing values and considering our team's capacities,” she explains. “The result is a 0-100 score. The score is not the be-all, end-all for us, but rather a quantifiable element that guides our teams as we make the final decision.”

It doesn’t always require such a mathematical approach, of course. For Rembac, it’s about assessing a few key areas, including timing (is there enough time to pull off what the client is requesting?), principles (does the project align with company ethos?), and demand (will labor shortages and supply-chain issues make this feasible?). “There are so many factors that go into this, but ultimately, it’s about putting the client and project first. If it’s not going to be done well, we don’t want to do it,” Rembac says.

Eric Wielander, VP of strategy and creative at event agency Eventique, suggests thinking through how a project fits into your team’s overall scope of work. “Will we be compatible? Will we be proud of the work? Does the event fit in with our current portfolio and bandwidth, or is this a turnkey opportunity to do something different without drowning in the work?” he asks.

...But don’t ignore your gut instincts.
Sometimes, it’s just about feelings. "Agencies operate like humans in that we have to consider our health first and foremost,” notes Reina Basu, director of business development at experiential agency MKG. “We want to feel good about how we spend our time—and we all have our limits.”

To Basu, sometimes the decision to work with a potential client can be all about gut instinct. “Consciously tapping into that side of my brain usually helps me reach a decision with more efficiency and confidence,” she says. “In addition to gathering all of the data I need to make a rational decision, I also ask myself, ‘Will this positively impact the health of the agency?’ and, ‘Will we feel good about investing our time on this?’ If my instinct says ‘yes’ to both, I recommend we pursue it."

Meanwhile, Naomi Ratner Oshry, director of new business and communications at event agency 3CS, likes to focus on projects her team can feel excited about. It's about ”when the client aligns with our company values, when we ourselves get excited about the product or brand, or when the clients themselves have great energy and a strong vision,” she notes. “If we don’t feel that excitement from the beginning, sometimes we just have to say no—even if it isn’t easy.”

Josh Wood, CEO and founder of event production company JWP, also leans into his gut. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons in the past, having taken on clients that we intuitively felt weren’t a great fit from the start—and in every case, while we of course made the best of the relationships, they didn’t work out well,” he says. “I can usually tell in my gut if a potential client isn’t a good fit for JWP: They may be rude or difficult in their working styles, they may not have the appropriate budget for our services and still expect a lot from us, or we may have fundamental ethical differences.”

Wood and his team lean into a simple rule of thumb, he adds: “Don’t ever work with anyone who’s not nice. Life is short.”

Watch for client red flags. 
Bedwani finds that the initial brief can often expose some red flags to look out for, noting that it can be a great indication of what it will be like to work with the client. “If their brief is confusing and lacks clarity, or if what they say feels contradictory to the brief itself—which happens more often than you’d imagine!—you can be pretty confident the whole experience through the planning and activation process will be equally challenging," he explains. "The goalposts will keep moving, completely unnecessary delays will happen, scope creep is inevitable, and it’ll be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a stress-free working relationship.”

Another red flag Bedwani looks for is a brief with no confirmed budget. “The ol' ‘you tell us how much this is going to cost,’ without any indication whatsoever of what budget they have to work with—this is often a signal that the project doesn't have full internal sign-off or executive buy-in yet,” he says. “Unless you’re being paid for your ideation at this stage, or we have a really strong relationship with the client briefing us, this is a flag that we’ll generally walk away from based on experience.”

For 3CS' Ratner Oshry, meanwhile, it’s a red flag when a client has multiple decision-makers—”and even more challenging when those decision-makers have different priorities,” she says. “It’s important to get to know the team and understand their dynamics during the RFP process, and if needed, bow out before the project really begins.”

Wielander always encourages honesty during initial conversations, saying “it’s the role of the event producer or agency to inform a client when the client is proposing something that’s not realistic or attainable. What happens after that moment of candid feedback says a lot about what the working dynamic is going to look like. A lack of trust is sure to make for a thorny relationship.“

And for Snelson, it’s all about personality. Do the potential clients show up on time to meetings, and how do they treat others in the room? Are they constantly changing their mind? Do they respond to emails and phone calls promptly? “We like working in a collaborative space,” Snelson adds. “If we just become glamorous assistants, we're out.” 

OK, so you’ve decided the project isn’t the right fit for you. How do you turn down the work without offending or alienating the client?

Rembac recently dealt with a difficult situation of politely turning down work with a long-running, legacy client because she knew it would push her team beyond its means at a very demanding time. “The client was disappointed, but our decision was respected,” she says. “Fast-forward months later, the client re-approached us needing limited support after going another direction and the requested scope at the time was doable. We were able to jump in and shift the experience for them ultimately providing a positive result after some turbulence for them.”

Here are some more tips for turning down work—without losing the client relationship. 

Be honest and empathetic.
Rembac believes that she was able to keep the relationship with the aforementioned client because of her team’s honesty and kindness. “We try to be transparent, and clearly address the reasoning when necessary so there’s no room for interpretation or discussion,” she explains. 

“Letting down prospective clients may be a delicate conversation, but it doesn’t have to be,” adds Wielander, who also tries to be as transparent as possible about the reasons for saying no. “If I believe in the product, the people, or the cause, I’m emphatic that although this one might not be a fit, we’d like to explore other opportunities. A good client will remember and appreciate you for it.”

Bedwani agrees, noting that deciding to say no to a project is an opportune time for event companies to reaffirm their own expertise and specialization. “You should be really clear about what kind of opportunities and briefs your agency is right for, and where you really excel,” he advises. “If you can do this well, you’ll find that the client will come back with the right opportunity down the line. They’ll appreciate the insight and have a better understanding of how to work with you.”

Consider other ways you can help. 
When appropriate, see if there are simple ways you can still help the client. “If the circumstances are right, being resourceful and supportive for the sake of the relationship by guiding them to a certain extent can be appropriate,” Rembac says. “Even just offering a little support via tools, a referral, or suggesting a reduced scope can help in certain instances.”

For a multi-pronged company like Opus Agency, the team always considers whether the project is a fit for another agency within its global network or its vetted partner network. “If the opportunity is not a fit for these, we will turn it down,” Sheldon says. “Even then, we look to recommend other potential agencies that may support them.”

Bedwani also likes to offer recommendations when appropriate—”clients really appreciate this as opposed to a ‘shut down’ no," he says—but cautions that anyone you recommend is a reflection on you. “It's important to consider that who you recommend can truly deliver on the ask so that you continue to build trust in the long-term,” Bedwani says. “Trust is the ultimate currency of our industry, so be very careful to protect it.” 

Ultimately, the ability to say no is a crucial skill for your team’s well-being and the overall health of your business. “We don't build for more, we build for quality,” sums up Snelson. “We engage with clients that make our lives fun and not more stressful. So depending on our team size and where we want to grow, I don't take on more unless I can support the team creatively, mindfully, and authentically.”

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