When It Pays To Turn Down Business


My first post for SEO Chicks and I am bricking it seriously excited and honestly a bit surprised. Not only am I not (by my own standards) a true SEO expert; but I never win anything.

Actually that’s not entirely true. I did once, aged 7, win an ICI health and safety competition for best poster. Mine alerted the general public to the very real and grossly under-estimated risks of overloading an electrical socket with too many appliances. It carried the immortal caption “Leads to danger”.  (Check out that polyseme! You are NEVER too young for semantics.)  In retrospect it was clear that that Little-Miss-Sunshine-with-a-mullet was never going to be a vet.

So… I’m not an SEO expert or a vet, (sorry to those hoping for “Top 5 Tortoise Vasectomy Tips”), so WTF am I doing on SEO Chicks? I guess if I’m any one thing I’d have to say I’m a business woman. (A business woman who understands search rather well. ) Hopefully my four years of experience in paid search at Yahoo! might be a source of interesting blog fodder too. On speaking to @lisadmyers about what I could bring to a generally SEO audience, one thing we did agree on (apart from ‘Mummys need wine too’) is that many SEOs and SEO Chicks’ readers are by nature, pretty entrepreneurial – often running sideline web projects, working freelance or running their own business. So yay! (Cos this is my shit.)

So without further ado, I thought I’d start with a bit of an empowerment piece – which looks at one of the hardest lessons to learn, when it comes to making a living from providing a service to somebody else. I’m not going to argue the toss here, just trust me that the hardest lesson I’ve learnt in twelve plus years of business development is that sometimes it pays to turn business down. Here’s when…

Time spent is greater than or equal to amount billed.

A challenging client is (99% of the time) a really good thing. A client that knows a bit about what you do and should be doing; a client that demands excellence and pushes you out of your comfort zone is better than a pro master-class. That said, it is absolutely essential that you have a forensic understanding of the value of your time (or staff time) versus the amount you will be billing your client. If you are paying your link builder a per annum salary of £x, divide that into units of days, and make sure that the amount you are billing your client exceeds the amount of time spent by your staff. If you are working on something yourself you may need to work a little hypothetical or forecast model into that. If it’s your start-up you may be paying yourself little to nothing. In which case this is an exercise in weighing up your future earning potential against time spent. If you’re spending two full days a week on a client that you’re billing a half day or day fee, not only are you working to a loss, but you’re tying up two whole days that you could be using to source leads, make phone calls and otherwise identify a more profitable client relationship. Cut your losses and be mercenary.

Great Expectations

When I say “great” I really mean completely unreasonable.  It is our job to educate our clients as to the nature of SEO, SEM, SMM, whatever it is that they are buying from you; however unless they are actually buying training, one can only go so far. If after some reasoned consultation and a few home truths they still brief you that www.contentshysemicons.com must be number 1 on Google for “laptops” then I suggest you walk away. Save yourself the inevitable grief, time drain and demand for discount.

Bad Karma

I truly believe that it’s not possible to like everyone. If you work for a large organisation (as until this year, I always have) then this isn’t a problem.  When a client complains that they hate your guts, they think you don’t *get* them and feel you’re not on their side, then that’s fine. Your boss can move them to another face and it’s all good. When you’re freelance, or running your own small to medium enterprise this truly sucks. My advice is trust your gut and act before that contract is signed. If you are not on the same wavelength as your client, feel more confusion than connection, shudder everytime the phone rings and cannot muster a gnat’s chuff of enthusiasm for their product, you will not be able to do an excellent job. You may be able to do an adequate or decent job – but who ever got more business from a review like this “yeah Nichola was okay. She managed to feign a modicum of excitement over our new social network for ex-cons, and the results were passable!”?

Can’t brief won’t brief

Are you a ‘full service’ agency? If so, then this final point isn’t so much for you to worry about. If however, you provide one or two services solely then my message is to draw some pretty hard lines. Let me be clear first. I am not saying that every single business should know how to write a design brief, or an SEO brief. Not at all! (Hell, I wouldn’t have a clue how to write a catering services brief, or a corporate hospitality brief.) My point is that if your client cannot construct a reasonable brief you must either factor in the amount of time you will be spending in honing a workable brief, and imparting knowledge on a consultation basis that many companies would charge dollars for; or be prepared to pass that business upstream to a strategic business partner that is of an operational scale to cope with that level of hand holding. In return, you should seek to reciprocate said relationship and get them to can pass on smaller clients that are below their billing threshold to you.

Now repeat after me “thank you for your interest in [insert company here] but on consideration we must decline your request to quote, due to a significant volume of interest in our services; meaning we are currently working to capacity and feel we cannot provide the level of consultation your project deserves”.

Easy eh?…

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16 Responses to “When It Pays To Turn Down Business”

  1. Julie Joyce says:

    I could NOT agree more with you. We’ve been turning away business for awhile now, and while I really do hate to lose the money, I’d hate it even more if we did a shit job. Your response sounds much more professional than mine though. I need to stop responding to inquiries about whether we can quote with “No.”

  2. DazzlinDonna says:

    Absolutely great advice. It’s very difficult for a starving entrepreneur to turn down business, but sometimes the fit is just all wrong, and it’s better in the long run to do so.

    I have to ask though, as I’m just a silly American without any understanding of that language y’all speak over there – what the heck does “argue the toss” mean?

  3. Sarah says:

    Argueing the toss kind of means playing devils advocate, or arguing when there is no need to. I’m not sure all the Brits will understand it either to be honnest, I think it’s something of a Northern expression.

  4. Chris M says:

    Congratulations on your first post.

    I have to agree with you, through my experience I have too many times spent hours “fixing” briefs written by clients to either not land the work or land up in a situation where a project ends up not being profitable.

    I learnt the hard way, but I learnt and it doesn’t happen anymore.

  5. David Lindop says:

    Points for using “bricking it”, “argue the toss” and “muster a gnat’s chuff” all in a single blog post Nicola, and well done on the first offering on SEO Chicks.

    I really enjoyed this for one main reason – it feels like all this advice is coming directly from your hard learned experience and for that reason it carries with it weight that anybody would be a fool to ignore.

    I imagine it especially rings true for smaller enterprises and one-man (or woman) freelancers who work every hour God sends trying to please troublesome clients, often taking time away from their families.

    Again, great post and I’m looking forward to reading more from you!

  6. Darryl says:

    Good read and some sound advice. Much of our business comes from word of mouth, though not in entirely the same circumstances we do make sure we provide our clients with the service we’d expect ourselves, and we have pretty high expectations! If we don’t feel that we can provide them with the service they need then we have to turn them down, better than potentially harming our own reputation by doing a sub-standard job for a quick buck, got to think long term!

    Also as I’m from the UK thought I’d mention I’ve always taken the phrase arguing the toss literally, if you’re prepared to argue over the result of a coin toss then you’re arguing for the sake of it without a well-founded reason, that’s always been my understanding!

  7. Alex Craven says:

    Great post.. although whilst I too have learnt this many years ago i have to say that I still occaisionally find i let one through.. i think the for me a piece of advice is should this happen dont be afrid to terminate the relationship.. it isnt only agencies that can get sacked.. if it aint working it aint working, call time and move on! (its a truely liberating experience)

  8. Lisa Myers says:

    Brilliant blogpost Nichola and points well made! It’s hard to turn down business but sometimes you really have to. Client retention should be as important as your new business.

    After 8 months running my own company I am only beginning to come to terms with the importance of trusting my gut feeling and turning something down when it just doesn’t “smell” right.

    On a smiliar thought, I have also started enforcing a no “Ghost SEOing” rule, this might be an entire new blogpost. Dibs on writing a “Why you shouldn’t Ghost SEO”, I keep on getting contacted by agencies wanting my agency to do all the work but they get to take the credit. It just ain’t rockin my boat…I say; sisters (and dudes) you should be doing it for yourself…halleluja..

  9. I love it Lisa! “Ghost SEOing” is a brilliant idea for a blogpost. I had no idea it was going on. We just hired temp SEOs :-o

    Fantastic blog post – well done for your first and a VERY important concept! It’s so scary to turn down or turn away business but soooo essential. I remember the first time I did it and how scary it was but it was something my grandmother taught me.

    Sometimes no matter how much they offer, no matter how well you think you’ll do, the cost of the client is greater than what you’ll ever make. My grandma is really wise… weirdly!

  10. I’m pleased this struck a chord with you all.

    @David, thanks for highlighting the highbrow references. Chaucer was a formative literary influence (and Viz.)

    My desire to not “argue the toss” in this post, was to avoid the debate as to whether it is ethically or commercially correct to turn down business, and to avoid a banal bit of padding and cut to the meat (or chocolate – Judith). Turns out you’re all load of ruthless mercenaries anyways. ;-)

    @Darryl – agree. We have a very similar philosophy too.

    @Alex – thanks for bringing up something that I hadn’t got to. If a negative margin client creeps in, don’t be scared to call time on that relationship. Good point.

    @Lisa – if only there were 30 hours in a day, we could muss up the rotation and you could get that GhostPost in for Halloweeeeeeen!

  11. Dean says:

    Love thee first post Nichola, north east humour comes to the fore, Viz was a mainstay of my education in life and honed my outlook, but when it comes to your post here, nail on head, i do divvy up how i feel i can deliver to my client and if i feel i will under deliver or in the case of triple x *shudder* sites i politely decline.

    Viz Rules, SEO rocks, Darren Bent should play for England and Nichola Stott should guest post on my blog ;)

  12. Ami says:

    Nichola, You obviously are an SEo expert. I googled top 5 tortoise vasectomy tips and this post is 4 out of the top 5 spots in google :)
    On the turning down a potential client thing, absolutely agree. The long term backlash of an unsatisfied client, because they never will be satisfied just otally negates any short term benefit they may have on your numbers, even if you ae a starving entrepreneur

    Thanks. Nice post

  13. @Dean – hit me up. You know where I am!

  14. Your post struck a cord with me as well !

    Educating SEO prospects on ‘what you’re going to do’ and ‘what to expect’ is time-consuming enough, then when they ask for you to tell them exactly what you’re going to do, they’re often interested in doing it themselves and will walk away with free advice. I’m on to them now. I can even smell them!! When they ask ‘what exactly are you going to do?’ I now request some consulting time. Either they sign the contract, or go away. If they go away, its a win for you because you know they were just after free consulting (which I’m just not interested in). And as we all know, SEO is not rocket science, but its also not ‘easy’.

    Besides adding a disclaimer about ‘we cannot promise you 1st page rankings for your keywords’, I also mention in almost all emails so there will not be any misunderstandings.

    You’re exactly right: We can only go so far. Thanks for pointing this out again.

  15. @Ami – you rumbled me. This post is now number 1 for “Top 5 Tortoise Vasectomy Tips”. Seriously though – I am new to technical SEO, though as a paid search old-hand and a quick study, I may feel more confident in offering some value to an already information-rich (and sometimes mis-information-rich) sector, in future.

    @Mary – I know exactly what you mean. I do; however, try to keep an open door for industry peers, twitter friends and the like and have always found that these guys will eventually walk through the door, or drop-kick someone through it for ya! You’re right though. Smelling the difference is a big part of it. (Trust your gut.)

  16. [...] Some super advice from the SEO Chicks on when it pays to turn down business. [...]

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