happy little biz

Being grateful, and graceful, saying no to referrals

So last week I mentioned that one of the things I've been struggling with recently is dealing with referrals when the person being referred isn't a good fit for what I do.

I'm always super grateful for referrals from friends, family, and other clients. They're the lifeblood of any business, especially small service-based businesses like mine (and yours!). It's so great knowing that people are thinking of me when someone they know needs a website.

I'm the kind of person who really wants to help people - especially if the person is a friend-of-a-friend. Maybe you're the same.

But that can be a real problem. It's easy to get caught up in your ego and focused so much on you helping and you doing the work, and not looking at the bigger picture. What's the best thing for this person? Do they actually need my help, or would they be better served having someone else help them?

Add money into the mix and you've got the potential for a real mess. There's the fact that hey, money is a good thing, since it lets us pay our bills and live our lives. And as well, people are generally pretty shocked if they offer to pay you to do something and you say no.

But sometimes you really should say no! Not just for the sake of your business, but for the sake of the other person too.

So when should you just say no?

1) If what the person needs isn't something you do.

Here's the thing: If you're super new to your career and are still learning where your strengths lie and what your niche is, ok! Go ahead and take on projects that stretch you and make you learn new things. As long as you're clear to the client about that, go for it.

But for those of us more established in what we're doing, with a clearly defined audience our services are for, it's really best to refer out to someone in the industry that does what the person needs.

For example, I frequently get referred folks who are looking for ecommerce websites. I don't do ecommerce beyond simple 'sell my ebook along with my services' types of things, so I'm really not well suited to those jobs. I am not intimately familiar with the various ecommerce options out there, and I don't work with platforms other than WordPress.

These days I've started very politely saying no to anyone asking for that kind of site, even if they seem like awesome people and I really want to help them with their business. But I have to be honest with everyone involved: I'm not the best fit to do their website.

2) If the person isn't someone you usually serve.

This one is a bit tricky, but essentially, it isn't good for either of you to take on projects that are something you know little about.

You wouldn't go see a dermatologist for a kidney problem, would you? Or a makeup artist for a haircut, right?

The same thing applies to other businesses.

If you're a family and children's therapist and an adult needs counselling for anxiety and depression, it doesn't make sense for them to come see you. Instead, it's better to refer them out to someone who is an expert in that area.

If you're a designer who focuses on medical drawings and someone asks you to create something avant-garde for their living room, why would you take on that project? Unless, of course, you're actually trying to branch out into that type of artwork.

It's much better to say no than try to make the project work.

3) If their timeline or budget don't fit yours.

As much as we might want to help someone who has been referred to us by a trusted friend or colleague, it's also important to set reasonable, honest boundaries around our time and income.

If someone wants to book appointments at times you don't work, you don't have to take them on as a client. If someone has unreasonable expectations around how long something will take to complete and don't listen when you explain your processes, it's better to say no than to try to work with them. If you charge $100 an hour, and someone can only afford $50, don't cut yourself short and take them on anyhow (unless you have space to have a few 'lower rate' clients in your roster - if that's the case, go for it. But not if that isn't something you do.).

Doing these things that are outside of our normal workflow only ends up building resentment. Do them over and over and you'll soon find you have a career you're really unhappy in, full of clients who won't pay your full fee and expect unreasonable things. That's not good for anyone, because you'll be frustrated, and chances are your clients won't be getting your very best work. So again, just say no. It's better for everyone.

But, how do I say no gracefully? I don't want to be a jerk!

Yeah, I hear you. The other side of this puzzle is saying no in a graceful way. You never want to come across as rude or aggressive. Remember that as I said above, people tend to be surprised when you say no to money!

My biggest tip for saying no in a graceful way is to focus on them, not you. Let them know you aren't well suited to help them. Explain what you do, and show how that doesn't match what they need. Let them know it's important to do great work for all your clients, and you feel that you wouldn't be doing top notch work for them because it's not where your expertise lie. Be grateful that they thought of you and were interested in working with you. Be very polite and friendly, but firm.

Have you ever had a referral situation that was tricky to work with? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email, I'd love to hear your story!

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