When your schedule is overbooked, learn to turn down prospects in a way that won’t cost you their business in the future.
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Every day, you have client appointments to make, prospecting to do, marketing materials to create, business expenses to pay—it’s a never-ending to-do list. You can easily burn out if you’re not good at managing your commitments. Sometimes, you have to turn down a potential client in order to keep your sanity and avoid overextending yourself. But how do you say no while minimizing the risk of a disgruntled prospect and taking a hit to your business?

First, you must learn to deliver the message softly and in a way that doesn’t cut off future opportunities. “‘No’ is an answer, and you should learn how to say it with tact and finesse to preserve your reputation and the client relationship,” says Leneiva Head, CRS, GRI, broker-owner of Welcome Home Realty in Antioch, Tenn. But simply saying no without a thoughtful explanation will not suffice, says Jennifer Cool, GRI, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Towne Realty in Virginia Beach, Va. “If you don’t educate clients on why [you’re saying no], they feel like you’re too busy for them when really [the issue is] more about timing,” Cool says.

Although it’s common to refer prospects to colleagues when you can’t take them on, there are other strategies that may help encourage buyers and sellers to return to you for service in the future. In some instances, you can say “no, but…” in order to keep the prospect interested while managing what’s on your plate. Try these strategies for saying no while encouraging clients to reach out later on.

Present Alternative Service Options

“Manage the conversation on the front end in a positive way,” Head says. That means don’t start the conversation on a negative note with words such as “unfortunately” or “I can’t.” “It changes the client’s perception and what they tell others about you,” Head adds.

Offering options, such as a later start date for working with a prospect, is a way to spin the conversation in a positive direction, says Marie Presti, ABR, CRS, broker-owner of The Presti Group in Newton, Mass. Providing such options may make prospects more willing to wait until you’re available or to begin working with you in a less hands-on way. Instead of flat-out turning down a listing when she’s too busy, Presti explains why listing on another date might be better for the sale. That way, she’s giving herself breathing room, preserving the integrity of the client relationship, and educating the potential seller about the real estate market—all at once.

Establish a Service ‘Partnership’

Rather than turning potential customers away, a creative way to hold onto the business while taking a step back is to team up with a colleague who can serve the prospect’s needs in your absence. Ask that your colleague copy you on all communications with the prospect so you can remain involved without being responsible for driving the transaction forward. This way, you can continue to build the relationship with the prospect while avoiding overloading your schedule.

“Have a meeting to discuss the client’s issues and how to solve them with another agent from your office,” says Shawn Kunkler, a sales associate at Paragon Real Estate Group in San Francisco. “That agent is brought in to pick up the client, but because you’re [copied] on all the communications going forward, in the client’s mind, you’re the heavy hitter who only chimes in when you need to.”

Cool says she partners up with a colleague to keep a pulse on the transaction, maintain the relationship, and act as the lead that clients trust and can come to when necessary. This also helps clients remember their connection to her and return later on when she’s available to take them on fully.

After ‘No,’ Continue Communicating

“Good communication is the key to any successful relationship, even if it’s a relationship that’s deferred at the moment,” Cool says. “Continuing good communication and educating clients on the process helps set realistic expectations as well.”

Don’t leave any prospect with just a “no”. Nurture the relationship through drip campaigns, newsletters, mailers, posts on your blog and social media accounts, calls, and texts. It will encourage the prospect to see you as the go-to resource for their real estate needs.

Head suggests making sure the prospect knows how important their business is to you by saying, “I definitely want to help you, but we have to build our timing in another way. Is it OK for me to reach out to you later on?” Because of her continued contact and effort to preserve relationships, she says even clients she’s never worked with before have given her referrals over the years.

Reach Out When You’re Ready

Maintaining contact in the interim will give you a natural opening to reach out to a prospect when you’re ready and able to work with him or her. “I’ll send weekly emails saying, ‘Thanks for being interested in working together. If your timeline changes, please let me know, and I hope you’re doing well,’” Head says. “Closer to my calendar opening up, I’ll call, asking if they need my services. If yes, we’ll make an appointment.”

Kathy Minden, SFR, associate broker at Crown Realty in Paola, Kan., says she likes to pop by for in-person connections. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, I wanted to touch base and haven’t seen you in a bit. Do you know of anyone who wants to buy or sell real estate?’” she says, “It’s building those relationships. I’d still remain in contact with someone who didn’t use me because they may be my greatest referral person.”

Kunkler believes that in order to keep prospects from abandoning you when you say no, your mind frame must be: “How can I make this work?” “If you’re strategic, you don’t have to take clients off your plate, and you can keep them on your drip system,” he says. “I send handwritten cards, follow up with calls, and change my conversation to, ‘How can I keep them as a client?’”

You may ask yourself whether it’s ever appropriate to say no and walk away from a prospect. You don’t want a customer who makes requests that go against the REALTOR® Code of Ethics, licensure law, company policies, or pose safety or trust issues, Presti says. She believes real estate practitioners shouldn’t feel walked on, and as professionals, they should feel comfortable saying no when the proper circumstance arises.