This is a tricky one, but it does happen. A client comes to you with a need or a problem to resolve or work that just needs to be done. They may be a past client or they may be a completely new potential project customer.
At any rate, for the focus of this article let's assume they are approaching you with work that you eventually decide isn't the right work for your consulting business or project management expertise. How do you do it? How do you say, 'It's not you, it's me.' And mean it. How do close this chapter of the relationship without ending the relationship?
That's a tough one. Because we're all trained to think that there are only so many opportunities out there - especially in the economy we find ourselves in right now. If there are a finite number of opportunities out there, or if we believe that it's bad karma to close a door rather than make the best of it (as long as it's a decent fit), then how do we say no? And how do we strategize it so that the client will someday come back to us for something else after we turned them down this time?
Give them something they can use now ... for free
You're going to spend at least some time with the customer going over what it is they would like you to do. You're going to ask some questions. And then, for some reason, you're going to want out. Maybe the client can't pay your hourly rate right now. Or maybe you see this project as a potential losing situation - a Titanic that you don't want to be a part of. Whatever the case, you're going to learn some things about the project, the customer's need, and your going to start formulating a solution in your head.
They're talking to you because they like you or your expertise, or what you've done in the past for them so they likely respect your opinion. Before you turn them down, give them something. If you're not going to do the work, at least look good by telling them what you would do if you weren't so darn busy right now. Give them a high-level solution and let them take it from there. Give the a short write-up and perhaps a draft high-level schedule that they can view with a tool like Seavus Project Viewer. Not quite like OJ's book on 'How I Would've Done It,' but tell them some things they need to know as they go searching for the right person to service their need. They'll love you for it and they won't soon forget the freebie you tossed them.
Give the 'turn down' the proper 'twist'
Just like your well-crafted answer to the common interview question, 'What is your greatest weakness?' - where you usually answer something like 'I obsess over perfection and try too hard ... blah, blah, blah' - you have to do that same type of thing in this case. You should turn down the work with a very positive twist. Whether you're too busy to do it or not, sound like you are.
But be careful not to make it sound like the client - especially if they're also a past client - is not important enough to help out. You have to let them know you'd help them if you could and your time will be freeing up in the near future, but right now you're book on some critical work that you can't immediately free up from. Even if you have the time but just don't want the work or don't want to do it for what they want to pay for it, put a more positive spin on it. Say you're plate is full at the moment. Be tactful.
Stretch out the exploration discussion far enough to touch on another need