How to Refer Clients You Don’t Want to Other Businesses You Recommend

Sean Lund-Brown

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

As a business owner, these seemingly tired words come up far too often—but you can’t be forced to work with clients that don’t fit your business model or whom you feel you aren’t the best fit for, can you? 

The answer is no, and you shouldn’t try to do it to yourself. The biggest problem with businesses taking on new clients is that no one wants to say no. Naturally, losing an opportunity seems like a bad idea, so companies are inclined to try to force a relationship when it just might not be right. What’s the alternative, though?

There is a professional, and tactful, answer to this pain point: referring clients to other businesses. If you have a strong network of connections, you’ll be pretty good at this from the outset. However, those who are just starting out or don’t have as many contacts may not have as much of a head start. Regardless, this is a solution that can work for everyone if it is implemented correctly. 

Referral marketing is a thing. Approximately 80-85% of all clients say that they trust referral advertising, or getting a referral from another business. Plus, many companies that use referral marketing have seen a conversion rate that is 70% higher when using the tactic. 

In what ways can you use referrals to get rid of those clients that you can’t (or just don’t want to) serve? There are several options, including just advising the individual that there is someone else who can help them better and providing them with the contact information. However, in the world of networking and B2B referrals, some strategies can make your job easier when you need to get rid of those unwanted clients:

  • Use B2B and client word of mouth. You can often find out what other people are doing just by asking around-- whether it’s clients or colleagues, someone will know someone who can help. 
  • Referral incentives are popular, too. You can offer incentives for referrals from other businesses and offer reciprocity, for example. 
  • Partner with businesses that are complementary or that offer services outside of your range. Then, you have a mutually beneficial relationship that allows you to take care of your clients in several different ways. 
  • Be more specific in your services and offerings so that clients don’t come to you with requests that you can’t fulfill in the first place. 

So, now that you've got an idea of where to start, let's dig into the details of how you can get rid of those unwanted clients in the most professional, respectful way possible and still ensure they get the resolution they need. 

Who are the clients you don’t want?

The first thing that you need to do is identify which clients it is that you can help, as well as which you can’t. The latter are the ones that you’ll need to refer out, or just advise that you have no assistance to offer. Of course, offering a referral is always the better option when you have it because it shows the customer that you do still care, but you just don’t have what they need. 

If you cannot provide a service, or know a company that can do it better, you should immediately let the client(s) know. Do it in a way that they understand that you aren’t just shoving off the work or don’t want to deal with the new inquiry. For example:

“Hello, and thank you for contacting our team. We are happy to be of assistance, although after reading your inquiry, we feel that our services may not be the best fit for your needs. We invite you to consider reaching out to company or company, who offer a better solution for you. Tell them we sent you and they’ll make sure that you get what you need.”

See how this entire message shows the client that you have their best interests in mind? The great thing is that you can send this message to anyone, for any reason, and it will be an easy way to refer someone off of your plate. For a more casual approach:

Hey Jim, it was good to get your message. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re the right solution for your needs. However, I'd be happy to introduce you to a colleague of mine who has a business that is more along the lines of what you seek. They have a great organization and will definitely take good care of you.”

See how that says the same thing, still offers a professional tone and is a bit more casual so that people don’t feel like they’re being dismissed? It’s a really good choice especially when responding to clients on social media, but you can use it anywhere. 

What do they need and why can’t you assist?

Even though it’s not going to matter in the grand scheme of things, answering this question will advise how you can proceed and which types of referrals you can offer. If you just don’t want to work with a client because they seem like they’ll be a challenge or that you can’t really fulfill their needs, feel free to tell them as much, but tactfully. If they just need something that you don’t do, that’s an easy one. 

Make sure that people know why you can’t assist them and that you will find someone who can. That way, they don’t feel like they’re just cut off and left hanging to deal with their own needs. Think about all of the network connections that you have, or whether you can help with part of their needs, but not all of them. You can’t just say “I can’t help you.”

Well, you could, but that would put a damper on your reputation. 

Instead, focus on how you CAN help by finding the right people to assist them by taking the time to find out what they need. 

We know what you’re thinking-- how are you supposed to justify investing time into cultivating a client only to refer them out to another business? First of all, you can think of it as future karma that will come back to you in the way of referrals to your business. Secondly, you can enlist the virtual receptionist services from Smith.ai to handle your client communications, and let us take care of the intake, discovery, and referrals as the face of your company. 

Sell it as a resolution for their benefit

There is no shame in a referral—doctors and medical professionals do it all the time. If a certain provider feels like they can’t provide the care that a patient needs, they will refer them to another provider or a specialist that can. You’re doing the same thing, albeit maybe not on a scale of this magnitude. The concept is still the same: someone needs something and you know a business that can do a better job of offering it than you can. 

When you present it like that, clients and prospective clients will be responsive every single time. They will appreciate that you are looking out for them. It's like we discussed at the beginning—many clients love referrals and trust them entirely. Referral marketing is trusted by:

  • 85% of Millennials
  • 83% of Gen X and Gen Z
  • 80% of Baby Boomers

The odds are ever stacked in your favor here. You’ve got people who already trust the idea of a referral, and then you add in that personal touch of being able to say, “Listen, our company might not be the exact fit that you need. However, I can assist you in finding a company that does have what you need.”

Best practices for making referrals

Know the Risks

Recognize the risks involved here—not only are you giving up the opportunity to do business at the present moment, but you may be putting your reputation on the line by suggesting a business that may or may not deliver what the client needs. If your client feels that they don’t have a good experience, that will hurt your brand. If your referral colleague feels like they didn’t get a good referral, that could hurt your reputation and your ability to make referrals in the future. 

Omnichannel is a must

When you’re reaching out to clients to advise them that you can’t assist them with their needs, you should meet them in their territory—if they emailed, email back. If they sent a Facebook message, respond with your referral and explanation. Make sure that you have multiple channels available to communicate with potential clients, network connections, and others so that you can create the relationships that people need even if those relationships aren’t with your organization. 

Don’t make cold referrals

Nothing is worse for a client than to find out that they have to go initiate contact with someone else. You should always offer to make introductions and connect the client with this new business that you want them to use. If you just say “check out this company” and offer a link, they’re probably just as likely to leave your company behind and head back to the search engines. After all, if you’re just giving them another company, why can’t they find one on their own that they can vet?

Ask for feedback

The best way to find out if you’re doing referrals right is to ask the clients—and they will be honest with you. Find out how people feel about the referrals that you made for them, whether they met their needs and other details. Ask your colleagues and networking associates, too, so that you know that they’re having a worthwhile experience. Referral networking is most effective when it’s mutually beneficial for all involved. 

Set the network up ahead of time

While everyone loves a referral, they like it better when they know where to send credit. It's even more beneficial when you can let them know that it’s coming, where it’s coming from, and why you can’t provide the assistance that the person needs. By taking the time to cultivate relationships and build a network from the start, you’ll be better prepared to deal with those clients that you can’t help directly, but you don’t want to leave out in the cold. 

Or, let someone else do it

Of course, there’s always the good, old-fashioned copout. 

In this case, though, we like to refer to it as taking advantage of the resources that you have available. The virtual receptionists at Smith.ai will not only allow you to avoid awkward communications, but it will give you the chance to also integrate several resources just by using that connection. We can not only make referrals for you as the face of your brand, but we can offer our own integrations and solutions as the answer that people need, giving you the best of both worlds.  


When you enlist the professional assistance of our team, you can ensure that you will never be left out in the cold. Never turn down another client again, or at least not without offering an alternative or letting someone else do the hard part of letting them down gently. 

Our team of experts are dedicated to customer service and providing people with the solutions that they need, and we can act as your voice, reassuring clients that it’s not about them or that they aren’t “good enough” for your brand, but that there’s a better solution out there. We’ll sell them on the referral, take care of getting them the right solutions, and even help redirect the clients that you are working with so that you can focus your efforts on your business. 

Schedule a Live Chat consultation today to learn more about the available services from Smith.ai, including our 24/7 Facebook answering service, lead intake and appointment scheduling, and general call and message answering to help you point your clients in the right direction, whether that’s your direction or towards a referral. You can reach us at (650)727-6484 or hello@smith.ai, as well.

Sean Lund-Brown

Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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