Saying "No" to Clients: What Would Arlene Say?

13 min read
August 02, 2018

Saying no to clients and prospects is uncomfortable, but sometimes necessary. As business owners, we work for a long period of time to build up a client base, often spending many years chasing growth. In general, I believe that people are good. Clients and prospects will act like adults when working with you, and you’ll be able to have a positive working relationship that lasts for many years. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. Occasionally, you’re going to meet a prospect who rubs you the wrong way. You’re going to sign a client whose investment philosophy doesn’t match yours. Or you’re going to outgrow a client you love, but who no longer fits your business model.

Learning to say “no” to these clients and prospects who, for whatever reason, aren’t a fit goes against everything you’ve learned about growing your financial planning practice. However, it can also be critical to growing in a way that supports your long-term goals and values.

At the end of the day, this is your business. You get to decide who you work with. Of course, knowing there’s a time and a place to say “no” to clients and prospects who aren’t a good fit and actually saying no are two very different things.

When To Say No

I’ve had several coaching clients ask me about this recently, and it occured to me that advisors struggle to turn non-ideal prospects away and to end non-ideal client relationships for a few reasons:

  • They’re worried about losing the revenue.
  • They’re concerned that “not liking someone” isn’t a professional reason to turn a client or prospect away.
  • They’ve already signed a problematic client, and aren’t sure how to end the relationship because they feel responsible.
  • They don’t know how to approach the conversation.
  • They’re worried this is a situation in which they need to change their behavior or reaction to their client, not the other way around.

Do any of these feelings sound familiar? It’s tough not to beat yourself up as a business owner. You want to have ideal client relationships with everyone you work with, and when it looks like that’s not going to happen, you might blame yourself. While I’m a big believer in taking responsibility and owning your part of the problem, the truth is that sometimes you just aren’t a fit. There’s a lid for every pot, and you will not be everybody’s ideal advisor. And that’s okay! That being said, we still need to determine when it’s time to say no to a client or prospect.

Scenario #1: They’re Just Not That Into You

This applies to both clients and prospects. If you’re chatting with a prospect and you aren’t getting the vibe that what you’re saying is resonating with them, or if they repeatedly bring up arguments against your financial planning philosophy or business model, it might not be a fit. If you’re finding that, when working with an existing client, they’re never satisfied with the work you’re doing together, you might need to dig a little bit deeper to determine whether or not you’re a good fit for them. A few key things to remember here:

  • Always take ownership. If a client or prospect isn’t liking what you have to say, or the type of work you’re submitting, find out why. Did something go wrong on your end? Did you communicate your investment philosophy clearly to a new client, and did it match with their own? Is a prospect not understanding the value of developing a cash flow system at the onset of your potential engagement? This may not be a case of a poor fit, but of miscommunication. You may need to shift how you work, or how you explain your processes to clear up misunderstanding.
  • Understand their values. You may not be clicking with a client or prospect because you haven’t taken the time to fully understand their values. If, for example, you’ve structured a new client’s financial plan and they seem to be apprehensive, reevaluate whether it addresses what they’re passionate about. You may find they wanted to incorporate an entirely different goal that you missed during your initial data gathering.

Still not feeling like you two are clicking? You may not be the ideal advisor for them, and that’s okay. Tap into your handy list of referrals and send them to an advisor who will be a better fit!

Scenario #2: They’re Asking You to Compromise Your Values

This one’s easy. If a client has a value set or philosophy that doesn’t match yours and they’re asking you to do something you’re not comfortable with, it’s time to walk away. One example I recently heard was a client who wanted their advisor to help them hide a large amount of debt from their spouse, even though both they and their spouse were working with the advisor as a couple. For obvious reasons, this made the advisor uncomfortable.

A good rule of thumb here is that if it smells sour, it is sour. Even if your clients aren’t veering into the realm of being unethical, you’ll still run into people who want you to sacrifice your investment philosophy or planning values, and that’s not cool. Don’t let a client push you into doing something that compromises your integrity as an advisor.

Scenario #3: They Don’t Fit Your Niche or Business Model

If you run into a prospect who doesn’t fit your client niche or your business model, refer them to someone who is a good fit. This is especially true if the prospect has specific planning needs you don’t address, like retirement planning or student loan strategy. Keep a few specialty advisors in your back pocket for referrals. You want all of your prospects to be served in the best way possible, and sending them to someone who’s going to be an ideal match for them is doing just that. Ditch the guilt for saying “no” because you’re actually acting in their best interest by doing so.

If you have a client who no longer fits your niche or business model, this becomes slightly more complicated. In some cases, we outgrow our clients, and that’s okay. You may be pivoting to work exclusively with a niche or industry they’re not part of. Alternatively, you might be changing your fee structure in a way that won’t work for them. No matter what your reasoning is, if they no longer fit your business, honesty is the best policy. Explaining the change in fee-structure or niche-focus in a kind way and—you guessed it—referring them to someone who will be an even better fit is keeping their best interest as your first priority.

A note: if you’re changing your niche but you still love working with a current client who doesn’t fit that niche, that’s okay! You don’t have to part ways if you don’t want to. The choice is entirely yours to make.

Scenario #4: You’re Not a Personality Fit

Sometimes you meet someone who rubs you the wrong way. When that happens, remember this: you were not put on this earth to like everybody, but you do have to try and treat people with respect. (Disclaimer: if someone is ever insulting or intolerant, being respectful is no longer a requirement in my book. Stick up for yourself and those around you.)

If the person isn’t a fit for you but might be a fit for someone else, look around at your referral pool for someone who might like them. This is why it’s critical that you find advisors who aren’t like you to grow your referral network. I once had an advisor tell me that they felt incredibly guilty, but they didn’t enjoy working with people whose political beliefs were dramatically different from theirs. They felt that it skewed their relationship from the beginning, and that their financial philosophies often didn’t match up as a result. Guess what? There’s no reason to feel guilty about that! There will be an advisor out there who shares their political beliefs and will get along with them swimmingly.

There’s a difference between not getting along with someone due to personality differences and discrimination. Protected classes cannot be discriminated against by law. And no, you can’t choose to not work with a client because they belong to a protected class. Not only is that illegal, it’s also divisive, discriminatory, and just plain wrong.

Doing the Legwork On the Front End to Avoid Mismatched Prospects

In most cases, advisors I speak with generally get along with the majority of their clients. Usually, when someone reaches out to work with an advisor, we can assume a few things:

  1. They want someone to help them manage their financial life.
  2. They’ve vetted the advisor ahead of time and, for whatever reason, felt like they would be a good fit for their unique financial needs and personality.

However, this isn’t always true. Sometimes you will have a meeting with a prospect who doesn’t agree with your investment philosophy, balks at your fees (or fee structure), doesn’t like your tone or personality, or doesn’t actually think they need an advisor. In these cases, it may be easy to spot the prospect as non-ideal and part ways respectfully. Other times, a personality trait, deeply held money belief, or other disqualifying factor fails to crop up in your initial consultation. This is where having a system in place to get to know the key elements of who your prospects are ahead of time can be helpful.

Look Them Up

When you have an initial consultation scheduled with an otherwise qualified prospect, look them up before you meet them. Feel free to stalk them on social media, check out their work history, or see if they’re publicly involved in any local organizations. All of this information will help you form a clear picture of the person sitting on the other side of the desk (or computer) during your first meeting, and you’ll be able to better understand how to determine whether you’re a good fit.

Send Out a Survey

A survey or a questionnaire that’s sent out to prospects before your initial consultation can work wonders! Questions about their history with money, how they view their finances, their investment philosophy, personal interests, and more can help you figure out whether or not your skillset aligns with their financial needs. Additionally, I find a values questionnaire can be very helpful. You’re not trying to determine whether or not their values exactly align with yours, but knowing what your prospects are passionate about will help you in the long run.

Ask the Right Questions

Ask questions that will help you understanding what value your prospects see in working with an advisor, how they track “success” when it comes to their investments or a financial plan, and what they’d like their relationship with an advisor to look like. Knowing ahead of time whether they want weekly communication that’s beyond the scope of your engagement, or whether they’re seeking immediate returns on investments that aren’t realistic is important. It can also be helpful to create your own rubric of “client deal breakers” to keep in the back of your mind during your first meeting. Knowing what red flags you’re looking for can help you spot when someone might not be a good fit much more quickly.

Read Between the Lines

I recommend doing your initial prospect meeting in-person or hopping on a video call. Seeing someone’s body language as they answer questions can be incredibly telling. They may not be reacting as positively to what you’re saying as their voice is trying to convey.

Having an airtight process to gather key information about a prospect can save you a lot of headaches down the road. Take the time to develop a system that works for you.

Does the Prospect Rub You The Wrong Way?

Picture this: you’re meeting with a prospect who, on paper, is ideal. They’re in your niche, meet any minimums you may have, and even share several of your interests (according to a brief social media scan). Even their answers on your prospect questionnaire indicated that they shared all of your same beliefs about financial planning! You begin your initial meeting feeling excited and ready to sign an ideal client. And then it falls flat.

Maybe the prospect was dismissive of their spouse throughout the meeting and it made you uncomfortable. Maybe the problem was you—this happens sometimes, too! For example, I know that I’m not for everyone. Occasionally I’ll chat with an advisor who is looking for someone very professional and straight-laced, whereas I tend to be much more personal and perky. I love to laugh with my clients, and if they’re not looking for a coach they can crack jokes with, I’m definitely not their gal!

Believe it or not, you don’t have to work with people you don’t like. If a prospect rubs you the wrong way, you’re entitled to walk away. In fact, if they’re truly terrible, and you wouldn’t wish them on your worst enemy, you don’t even have to send them away with a referral. Don’t feel guilty for not liking someone.

You can still politely let them know you don’t believe you’re a fit for what they need right now, and that you wish them luck as they interview other candidates. If you’re struggling with the idea of walking away from an otherwise perfect prospect, think about this: how are you going to feel every time you see their name in your calendar? If the thought fills you with dread, any revenue you would otherwise earn from this client isn’t worth it.

Are You Already Engaged With a Problem Client?

We’ve talked a lot about what to do if you run into a non-ideal prospect, but what happens if you’re already engaged with a problematic client? In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. We should all be working toward setting up systems that help us to vet our prospects before they ever sign on the dotted line. Sadly, sometimes we slip up, and end up chin-deep in a client relationship that’s not serving anyone involved. When this happens, you have to evaluate why the relationship isn’t working. Every situation boils down to two answers:

  1. You don’t like working with the client. This could be because what they’re paying you isn’t in line with what you charge currently, the two of you aren’t a personality match, or you don’t enjoy the work you do for them. It might even be that the client isn’t paying their invoices, which is problematic for so many reasons.
  2. The client doesn’t like working with you. In this case, you probably don’t love working with them, either.

If you’ve made a genuine effort to address the problems you and this client are facing but things still aren’t working out, it might be time to end the relationship. You can either bite the bullet and call them right away, or you can wait until the next natural time you and your client will meet. A quarterly call, or a year-end review, for example, might be a good time to reassess whether you’ll be moving forward with a client who isn’t a great fit.

Having the Tough Conversation

Remember, your definition of “ideal client” doesn’t have to be specific to a profession, net worth, or lifestyle. You can develop your niche based on unique psychographic. This might mean that your ideal clients all fit a personality type, or they hold similar values and worldview. When you find someone who wants to work with you, or who you already work with, who doesn’t match this psychographic it’s okay to walk away. If you’re wondering how you could ever turn away a qualified prospect, or part ways with a current client, remember that the simple answer is often the best one:

Just say no.

You don’t have to have a complicated script for ending these relationships. Saying “no” in a polite way, and giving a referral when you can, is often enough. Still struggling with the guilt factor? When you look at the situation from an objective perspective, you’ll quickly see that you aren’t the best fit for this person.

Looking for a script? I’ve got you covered. Here are two that could work:

If You’re Turning Away a Prospect:

“After speaking with you, I want you to work with someone who is an excellent fit, and I’m not sure that’s me. ADVISOR X and ADVISOR Y both [specialize in what you need, are taking on clients with your exact pain points]. Thank you so much for your time.”

If You’re Ending a Client Relationship:

“After evaluating our current working relationship, I don’t believe I’m the best fit for you anymore. I want you to work with an advisor who [specializes in what you need, meets your need, shares your investment philosophy], and I believe that ADVISOR X and ADVISOR Y could fit the bill. I’d love to introduce you.”

Remember: This Isn’t About You

Miracle on 34th Street is one of my all-time favorite movies. In one of the initial scenes, Kris Kringle is instructed to steer all customers toward Macy’s, where he’s working, for their holiday purchases. However, he knows that a specific parent can purchase the toy they’re looking for for less money at a different department store, and tells them so. The parent finds the head of the toy department at Macy’s, and lets them know that Kris’s honesty has made her a loyal Macy’s customer.

This rule applies to turning away people who you’re not a good fit for. In doing what’s best for them, even if it means losing out on the revenue they could provide you in the future, you’ll make a positive impression on both them and any other advisors who you refer them to. This will result in more referrals who are a closer match to your ideal client further down the line.

In short, doing the right thing always comes back to you in a positive way. So, if you’re struggling with how to say “no” to a client or prospect, remember to take your guilt out of the equation and to do what’s best for your client. Working with someone who isn’t a match for you will only hurt both of you over time, and you always want to do what’s best for your client. Adopt a mindset of: “I’m doing what’s best for this (potential) client, this decision isn’t about me.” You’ll stop feeling guilty about turning away clients who won’t be a fit in the long run, and start feeling good about helping them find an advisor who’s exactly what they want and need.


About Arlene Moss, Executive Coach

Arlene gets a kick out of helping financial advisors get over being overwhelmed and take on their frustrations so their businesses soar. Arlene works to ensure XYPN members are able to help their clients prosper while creating a sustainable business model. Through XYPN Academy and one-on-one coaching, members get the support they need to grow their businesses and overcome the challenges that come their way.

Subscribe by email