Saying No Gracefully While Inviting Future Business

Laura FoleySomebody’s left a message asking for your help on a project. As you research the company before returning the call, your eyes light up with dollar signs, anticipating a big paycheck. But when you get the prospect on the phone, your visions of riches come crashing down when you realize that the job is completely inappropriate for you. What you do next will either terminate the relationship or leave the door open for future business.

“No” is a conversation killer.

At some point in the initial conversation with a new prospect we make a determination about whether or not we want to take on their business. If the answer is “no,” then one route you can take is to politely say that while you appreciate the contact, the job isn’t a good fit. You and the prospect part ways.

The problem with this approach is that you don’t give any reason for future conversations or collaborations to take place. The prospect is left with a very clear impression of what you don’t do and be unlikely to contact you again. Wouldn’t it be better to let him know what you can do? Or offer to help?

Here are three ways you can leave your options open and continue the conversation:

  1. Be a trusted advisor.
    People who are in the market for creative services often don’t know exactly what they need. When they contact us they might not know the difference between a Web designer and a coder, or an illustrator and a graphic recorder. So forgive them if they ask you to perform a job that is completely out of your skill set. Instead, helpfully correct any misconceptions they might have, describe the work that you do do, and offer advice on how they could achieve their objectives.
  2. Refer others for the work.
    If the job being described would be a perfect fit for one of your colleagues, make the connection! By enthusiastically endorsing a peer, you increase their chances of landing the job. Someday she might do the same for you.
  3. Teach them how to do it.
    This might seem like the opposite of good advice, but sometimes telling people how to do the work themselves is the best way to help. Of course, I’m not talking about providing a daylong session on WordPress for free. Rather, if what is being asked is fairly easy to do, sharing that information will come as a very pleasant surprise. The prospect will see it as getting something for nothing. And you will be remembered as that helpful guy/gal who saved them money and taught them a valuable skill.

Follow up

After you have redirected the prospect, one of the most important things you can do is to follow up. A quick phone call or email to check in two weeks later can do wonders. “Hey, Paul, I was wondering how that project of yours turned out. Was Carol able to help you?” or “Hi, Meg, did you take that online course I recommended? How’d it go?”

You might find out that everything turned out well and that’s the end of the story. On the other hand, you might discover a way you could be of service after all. Maybe the completion of that project leads to another one that is more along the lines of what you do. Or you might learn that they tried to do it themselves and are now at the point that they just want to pay someone else to take the project off their hands. You won’t know unless you follow up.

Remember, every conversation with a prospect can be an opportunity to help. Sometimes your good turn will go unrewarded. Other times, however, it can lead to better opportunities in the future.

About Laura Foley

As the Cheater of Death by PowerPoint, Laura Foley provides training and presentation design services to help people communicate their ideas and be better presenters. Find out more at

Creative Freelancer Blog

About Laura Foley

Laura Foley helps people to be less terrible at PowerPoint. As a Cheater of Death by PowerPoint, she transforms slides into effective marketing tools through workshops, consulting, and presentation design services. A graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Laura has over two decades' experience in presentation design, marketing, and copywriting. She lives in Central Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. Laura is an active member of Hubbardston Cub Scout Pack 12 where she serves as a Bear Den Leader and Pack Trainer. Visit her online at where you will find the Cheating Death by PowerPoint blog.