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It’s Not You; It’s Me: How to Reject a Potential Client


Rejecting a potential client can be uncomfortable for any firm owner — but it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps the project does not align with your firm’s aesthetic, or maybe their budget is too low. The scope of the project might be too limited or too wide-ranging. Whatever the reason, it’s essential to handle the rejection of a potential client with grace and professionalism. Be honest, transparent, and respectful. If possible, refer the client to a firm that would be a much better fit for their project. There are ways to reject a client in a way that serves them, your firm, and your peers in the industry. Read on to learn how to reject a potential client. In doing so, a client gets the best designer for their project, and you are able to focus on attracting the right projects. 

Why It’s Important to Reject Clients Who Aren’t the Right Fit for Your Firm 

#1 You Either Can’t Use Photos of the Project for Your Portfolioor You Shouldn’t

One reason to reject clients who aren’t the right fit is that you can’t use photos of the project for your portfolio. If a project doesn’t align with your firm’s aesthetic or values, showcasing it in your portfolio could send mixed messages to potential clients. 

It’s better to focus on projects that accurately represent your brand and showcase your strengths as a designer. By being selective about the projects you take on, you can attract more of the right kind of work. This helps you build a strong portfolio that accurately represents your firm’s style and capabilities.

#2 Projects that Aren’t Ideal for Your Firm Can Confuse Team Members

When deciding whether or not to reject a potential client, each firm owner must also consider the impact on their team. A problematic client or inappropriate project can negatively impact team members. 

When working on a project that isn’t ideal for your firm, team members may feel confused or frustrated. After all, they’re not doing what they excel at or what they signed on for. This lack of enthusiasm can lead to subpar results, damaging your reputation and firm culture in the process. 

Plus, consistent internal messaging is essential to building a recognizable brand. Taking on projects that do not align with your aesthetic or values could lead to inconsistency in internal branding. 

This might confuse team members about your firm’s vision for the future, which could lead to discomfort or concern amongst employees. It could also encourage team members to court clients who are not the right fit for your firm. Too many ill-fitting clients will prevent you from developing a full docket of ideal projects. 

#3 These Projects Take Time and Energy Away from Courting Ideal Clients

Your team only has so much time and energy. Accepting inappropriate projects not only confuses team members and dilutes your portfolio. 

It also takes time and energy away from courting ideal clients who could really move the needle for your firm. If you have a concrete vision for the future of your firm, hold tightly to your ideal client avatar. 

#4 The Client Might Not Be Satisfied Because Your Firm Isn’t the Best Fit for Them Either!

Rejecting a potential client can help them find the best fit for their project. Accepting a project that doesn’t mesh with your firm’s aesthetic, approach, or skillset does a disservice to your team and to that client. 

Redirecting them towards a more suitable design firm ensures they experience a true meeting of the minds. In turn, you have time to accept ideal clients. 

You might still deliver a satisfactory result. However, accepting a project that isn’t aligned with your values or aesthetics could result in an unhappy client. You might find it difficult to strike a balance between your goals and their expectations. In the end, both parties could part ways dissatisfied. 

#5 You Might Also Confuse Your Target Audience or Muddy Your Firm’s Unique Value Proposition

Furthermore, taking on projects that aren’t in line with your target audience could confuse potential clients and muddy your brand identity. The projects you accept should align with your firm’s mission, vision, core values, and internal culture. 

In the long run, rejecting potential clients who don’t fit the bill helps position your firm. It keeps your team on message and ensures your brand is clear to the public. 

#6 Referring Clients Who Aren’t a Good Fit Can Help You Create Relationships in the Industry and Receive Referrals in Return

Last but not least, referring clients who aren’t a good fit can help you create relationships in the industry. Their project might not be right for you, but it could be perfect for another design firm. 

Referring business to other design firms not only opens up your schedule to accept projects from other clients. It also establishes or reinforces relationships with peers. 

Building relationships with other design firms can lead to future collaborations and opportunities. The firms to which you refer clients might even refer clients back to you. 

There is so much value in rejecting potential clients respectfully and offering referrals to others who may be a better fit. You’re focusing your time on what matters, demonstrating professionalism, and building trust within the industry.

How to Reject a Potential Client in 10 Steps

Now that we have underscored the value of rejecting potential clients who aren’t the best fit for your firm let’s get into the “how.” Here’s how to decline a project or reject a potential client.

#1 Identify Your Ideal Client

No one enjoys rejecting a potential client. The best approach is to lessen the likelihood that an inappropriate project crosses your desk. This begins with identifying your ideal client, marketing to that ideal client, and creating a rubric based on the ideal client’s qualities. To define your ideal client, think about what type of person or business would benefit most from your services and align with your values. 

One way to start is by looking at past clients who have been a good fit for your firm. What characteristics did they have in common? Another option is to create a template or checklist of desirable qualities your ideal client should possess. 

This could include budget, location, personality, lifestyle, needs, and/or goals. Imagine your ideal client as an individual person. What do they love to do? To whom do they turn for advice? Where do they live and vacation? What does their family look like?

Regardless of how you approach it, the key is to have a clear understanding of who you want to work with. This way, you can effectively communicate your value proposition and attract the right projects. Once you have identified your ideal client, it will be easier to say no to those who don’t fit the bill. 

Remember, turning down a new client may feel difficult at the moment, but it’s ultimately better for both parties if your collaboration is not the best fit. 

Craft Your Ideal Client Avatar in Our Professional Community

Not sure how to approach this stage? Participate in our  Build Your Brand Identity challenge  starting 1 June. By the end of our 14-day challenge, you’ll know exactly who you are as a firm and be ready to attract your ideal client. 

We’ll work together over the course of two weeks to build your brand identity and craft your ideal client avatar.  Sign up here if you aren’t already in our Professional Community.

#2 Create a Scoring Rubric

Next, create a scoring rubric that covers the bare essentials of any project you will consider accepting. Your scoring rubric will go hand in hand with your ideal client avatar description. Every prospective client or project must hit a minimum score. This protects you and makes the process a bit less biased.

I think the first step is to determine if that potential client is truly a non-fit. You can usually tell in that initial consultation, but sometimes it’s tricky (especially if you need the work). If you don’t already, create a rubric for taking on the right clients. It could include a minimum budget threshold, project type, project location, or any other criteria that you find important.

Melissa Grove, LUDC COO & Design Dash Co-Founder

Consider the following (and more) when writing your rubric:

  • Do they have a healthy budget?
  • Are they nice?
  • Do they have realistic expectations?
  • Do they have any red flags?
  • Is the location good?
  • Will the project make sense in your portfolio?
  • Will your team gain valuable experience?
  • Were they referred by another client or industry connection?

This is not to say that you should ignore gut feelings about a person or project. If a client is combative from the jump—or otherwise makes your team uncomfortable—you can cut the cord before totaling your scorecard. 

#3 Focus Marketing and Public Voice Towards Your Ideal Client

Next, focus marketing and public voice toward your ideal client. Craft messaging based on what your ideal client would respond to. Tweak your marketing strategy slightly by platform—i.e., Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, your website, and print ads.

#4 Set Project Minimums for Each Service

As we note in  this post about setting boundaries with clients, “project minimums make sure your team is fairly compensated.” One key benefit is that project minimums prevent cost overruns and limit project creep. But minimums also ensure prospective clients know how much they must spend to work with your firm. 

#5 Develop a List of Firms to Which You Can Refer Ill-Fitting Clients

Next, develop a list of firms to which you can refer ill-fitting clients. As noted above, the wrong client for your firm might be the  perfect  client for another firm. 

When we have a potential client that is a lovely person, but we can’t take her project on for one reason or another, I like to refer her to a designer in my network. This is usually an industry friend who I trust will do a great job. And I like to call my designer friend to give her a heads-up that she may get a call from a potential client and a little background on the project.  

Laura Umansky, LUDC CEO & Founder, Design Dash Co-Founder

When assembling this list, be sure to note each firm’s “sweet spot” so you can make thoughtful recommendations. 

#6 Use an Intake Form to Weed Out Inappropriate Projects

here's how to reject a potential client

Sixth on our list of tips is to use an intake form on your firm’s website. Intake forms with drop-down menus ensure prospective clients only have a few options from which to choose. 

They cannot select services you do not offer, choose a budget you will not accept, or pick a location you do not serve. We also recommend that you briefly describe the projects you love to take on as a firm so clients can self-regulate. 

Above is a screenshot of the LUDC project inquiry page. We accept a few spend ranges and a couple of different project types, so prospective clients must select one of the options we provide. In an article for Business of Home, Kaitlyn Loos recommends setting up “a service match quiz.” 

Hosting a quiz on your site can indeed direct prospective clients to the right service at your firm or send them in another direction. We prefer drop-down menus on our project inquiry form because that approach is a bit subtler. 

Either a quiz or a few drop-down menus should help you weed out inappropriate projects without having to personally read through each submission.

#7 Don’t Ignore Submissions or Applications

If an ill-fitting project does make its way through your inquiry form, don’t ignore it. It’s important to take the time to review all submissions or applications that come your way. Ignoring them can lead to missed opportunities and even damage your firm’s reputation.

It may be tempting to simply delete an email or toss aside an application if you already know they’re not a good fit for your firm. However, taking the time to respond with a clear and concise explanation of why you cannot accept their case is crucial. This will help you maintain a professional and trustworthy image.

In some cases, a kind response could prompt that client to refer you to friends whose projects do make sense for your firm. By showing appreciation for their effort and keeping communication open, you never know what positive opportunity may arise.

#8 Never Be Rude or Dismissive of a Project

A prospective client’s project might be too small, their budget too low, or their style too far beyond your firm’s aesthetic. The client’s personality might not gel well with your team, and their management style might disagree with yours. 

Still, the last thing you want is to come off as dismissive or rude. This response could damage your firm’s reputation and potentially hurt future business opportunities. Plus, you would never want to hurt the feelings of or condescend to a prospective client. 

Always make a potential client feel like their project is fabulous because it is for the right designer!

Melissa Grove, LUDC COO & Design Dash Co-Founder

Ultimately, rejection is never easy. But by handling it professionally and respectfully, each rejected client walks away with a positive perception of your firm.

#9 Don’t Leave the Door Open If You Want it Closed

If you know that a prospective client’s project does not align with your goals, mission, or values, walk away. Do not leave the door open if you want it closed. Be clear and concise. Avoid stringing them along if you will not work with that client on a similar project in the future. But try not to burn bridges. 

#10 Explain Why You’re Not the Right Fit and Redirect Them

Last but not least, explain why your firm is not the right fit for the client. Refer them to another design firm if possible. In  an Expert Panel for Forbes, Sandra Hill writes that she does not “beat around the bush.” She is explicit “about the services [she] provides and why [she is] not a good fit” for certain clients. Be polite, but don’t leave any room for misunderstanding.


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Laura Umansky

I'm Laura

As an interior design business owner, I understand how challenging this industry can be and how hard it is to find success. For the past 15 years, I have grown my award-winning firm from a party of one (just me!) to a talented team of over 20, with two brick-and-mortar studios. And through it all I experienced set backs and the loneliness that comes with being an entrepreneur. That’s why I’m sharing all my tips and tricks on the blog. Success shouldn’t be a secret. Find your reliable path to sustainable, profitable growth right here.




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