Reader question: “How do you reject a red flag prospect?”

Sent by Jonathan Stark on May 23rd, 2017

Reader Filip Nowak wrote in to ask what to do when a prospect exhibits behavior that triggers red flags. Here’s his message (shared with permission, edited for clarity, bold mine):


Hi Jonathan,

Thank you very much for all your emails, I look forward to a new one each day. Please I’ve a question regarding your “red flags” message:   I was in the situation a couple of weeks ago. I had a meeting with a prospect and after a while I noticed some red flags. The client had very strong ideas about how I should implement the application. He knew “everything” and he told me that it’s easy, because he already made some apps in Filemaker, so he knows very well how to make a database application.

By the middle of the meeting I already knew that it’s not a client for me. I rejected the client by quoting him a high price in the proposal, but it took me a lot of time because I had to analyze the whole thing. I had to consider the complexity of the application to estimate an implementation time and make an offer for the client, including price.

As I expected, the prospect rejected my offer, because the price was too high for him. I would rather reject the client immediately during the meeting, but it was me, who invited client to the meeting, I offered him my services. So I felt obliged to make an offer even if I knew that it’s not for me.   Please, how do you reject an inappropriate prospect? Do you just politely tell them that it’s not for you? What if they ask for a reason?   Thank you, have a nice day.   Filip Nowak


Thanks for the question, Filip!

Here are my thoughts:

1. Set proper expectations prior to the sales meeting—Even if you are the one requesting a sales call, frame it in terms like, “Let’s see if we’re a good fit.” rather than, “Let’s discuss the project scope so I can give you a price.”

In other words, make it clear from the outset that you might not be a good fit and if that’s the case, you would (obviously) decline to quote the work, ala: “If it turns out we’re a good fit, I’ll write up a quote for the project. If not, I’ll do my best to recommend someone who might be.”

2. Have a Why Conversation in the sales meeting—After the client is done brain-dumping about the project during the sales meeting, ask them why they want to do the project at all, why they want to do it now, and why they want to hire someone expensive like you to do it for them.

In Filip’s case, I’m be willing to bet that client wouldn’t have made it through the last filter - e.g., “Why not just hire a coder on Upwork? It’d be a lot cheaper.” “Oh really? Okay, I’ll look into that.” 

3. Deliver a polite but firm “No”—Once you realize that you’re not going to be a good fit for the project, thank them for their time and let them know that you’re the wrong person for the project.

In Filip’s case, he could have said, “Thank you so much for your time. This sounds like an exciting project, but I’m not the right person for it.”

If Filip’s contact pressed him for a reason, he could have said, “Well, you know exactly what you want and how you want it done. You need a coder, not a consultant.”

If the client STILL wanted Filip to put together a quote, he could have said, “I wouldn’t want to waste your time with that. My minimum fee for something like this would be [VERY HIGH NUMBER]. Besides, you would hate working with me. I’d question every decision and you just want someone who will execute your plan. If you’d like, I’d be willing to go through my contacts to see if I know someone who I would recommend. Would that be acceptable?” 

Wow, that was a lot of info. Sorry for the long email :(


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