When my consulting calendar was busy enough that I not only could say 'no' to a potential client, but I had to say no to a client, I felt like I had 'made it' as a consultant. The hardest part of my biggest challenge, initial sales, was behind me. The surge of client interest was so intoxicating that I foolishly thought that I'd never have to work at sales again.
This was the first of many 'peaks' in the business, the euphoria of which was quickly followed by a sobering lull in business where I learned that a consultant is always looking for clients. Freelancers often joke about 'feast or famine' for very good reason. Being independent means knowing how to save for the lean times.
Similar to judging how a potential employee (or a hot date) treats the wait staff at a restaurant, one can see a consultant's true personality by how an unimportant potential client is treated. Being in a position of having to say no may be unavoidable, but there are various ways to do it.
As discussed earlier, each client will have a threshold at which they cannot accept new work based on their target clientele. However I've seen many overloaded consultants make the mistake of saying 'no' too early. The most important point to remember is:
Understand the whole project and all of the client's needs before responding with reasons you aren't a good fit.
There are many reasons that quickly saying no will leave perfectly good opportunities on the table. It can take a long time (I've seen as long as 6 months) for a client to realize what they actually need, delaying the start of the consultant's 'real' work. Other times a client will be happy to pay an 'expedite' fee which may make it worth postponing a vacation or giving up the next 6 weekends. Some clients don't mind accepting a quote that sets delivery 6 months out instead of 3 months out. Offering to work under these conditions may not be the level of service that you want to provide, but it may be the best option for the client. It is difficult to find the right person for a job, and the client likely has a lot of other tasks beyond hiring a consultant. It may be cheaper and/or faster for them to accept non-ideal terms in order to get the project in motion and off of their plate.
After understanding the job and the client's requirements, there can be many reasons that you decide to pass. Not having enough time to deliver on their schedule is the most common reason that I've found myself citing for declining projects. But it may also be that your expertise doesn't fit with what the client wants, and you're not interested in learning the skills required to deliver. The client may not have the budget to support what you know it will cost to do the job well. Or it is possible that during your conversations with a client you've realized that he or she is just a big jerk.
The only reason listed above to give a flat answer of 'No, I'm afraid I can't quote this project' is if they are a jerk. It's best to politely walk away from those people and not look back. I had one client that start off on the wrong foot by asking for an NDA and a non-compete before being willing to talk about anything related to the project, their past project, the budget, or their funding. They actually thought I would sign a document preventing me from working on any possible subject they want to discuss for 2 years! After explaining that signing a contract without understanding it was a show stopper, they agreed to discuss the project in person. When I arrived at their office, they asked that I leave my cell phone outside of the room and sign an agreement that stated I would not disclose anything technical discussed in the meeting to their competitors, which I signed. Once the meeting started, there were two things that became obvious. First, money wasn't a problem for the company. Second, nobody seemed to enjoy being there. I don't know what caused their relationship to go rancid, but their attempts to be nice to each other lasted about 2 minutes. The manager had a clear disdain for the engineer on the project, and the engineer was dismissive and condescending of the manager's (admittedly bad) ideas. I'm amazed I got through the entire awkward meeting, but I left with an understanding of their project and promised I'd consider how to quote on it. By the time I made it home, I realized that there was no way that I would work on the team. When I responded with a no-bid, I cited reasons of not being able to do the project well given my schedule. The conversation that followed was tough; almost as if they knew that there was another problem and they tried to get me to elaborate. It was tempting to explain that they were acting inappropriately, but that wouldn't be very polite. I later found out that they were paranoid about contracts because their last engineer left angrily and was launching a company to compete with them directly! Glad I missed that one.
The reasonable potential clients should get an answer of 'No, I'm afraid I can't quote on the project, but let me see if I can help you find another solution.' Making good on your offer to help out by trying to find someone who could be interested is a remarkable sales tactic. A couple of quick calls and emails leverages your existing knowledge of their project and your contacts to deliver immense value to the client and your colleague(s). This is why maintaining a Rolodex of past contacts is just as important for an engineer as it is for an investment banker. Know someone who is an expert at the task at hand? Or perhaps someone needing a job and willing to work for cheap? Or a fellow consultant that you've seen great work from? Keeping up with people by offering paid work is the single best way to stay connected with colleagues in the field. Everyone loves to hear from an old friend, especially if it starts off with, 'Hey, I've got a job that I don't have time to take, and I thought you'd be a good fit. Interested?'
At this point it is possible that a client is impressed by you and doesn't want to take no for an answer. Some clients have bigger time problems than money problems, and offer large amounts of money to hit their schedule targets. Every person has their price and will have to make a call to accept on a case-by-case basis. I've given up nights, weekends, and vacations in order to accept such work. Some consultants (not myself) add delays on their existing promises so they can make time at the expense of a different client. I consider that to be breaking my word, but to be honest the temptation has never presented itself in my work.
Assuming the client accepts your refusal agrees to hire your contact, you will have saved the client a lot of time searching from scratch, and your colleague will be happy for the connection. This will never make you any money, but it is just an easy, nice thing to do. And nice things almost always have nice consequences; either one of them may be in a position to return the favor in the future.
James Benson is writing a series on 'Engineers As Consultants' to educate and encourage salaried engineers to consider if hanging a shingle is right for them. New posts on the first Monday of every month.