The Art of Saying No


If you’re a small business owner, saying no needs to be part of your business strategy.

This has become more and more apparent to me as I try to map out the coming months and years ahead of me.

When I first started out, and for much of last year, I accepted almost every job that came my way. I didn’t want to say no because I didn’t want anyone to think that I couldn’t do all that was asked of me. I thought that running a successful business meant accepting any and all offers that would make me money; I could pick and choose later, when I had established myself as a business and could “afford” to turn job offers down.

That was a poor strategy, for several reasons. Namely, that I was accepting job offers that didn’t quite align with the vision I had for my business, and I took on jobs that in reality didn’t do much for my bottom line, and/or took time away from other projects that had the potential to make me more money over time.

Make it easy to say no by reminding yourself of concrete reasons for your hesitation

Interpreting, for example, was always part of my initial business model. One of my first clients, still an excellent client of mine, needed me to interpret, and it made sense to include it in my business plan and advertise those services to local businesses. The thing about interpreting, though, is there just isn’t that much demand for it in this area, not on a regular basis. I don’t have the staff or the time personally to drop everything and interpret when it only happens maybe once or twice a month. I know that it’s a need in the community, but in terms of cost over benefit, interpreting isn’t doing much for my business.

Towards the end of last year I started getting relatively frequent calls from big interpreting/translation companies, asking if someone at my agency would translate X medical appointment at Y practice the following day. I said no to every one of these requests, for multiple reasons: 1) the appointments didn’t fit with my schedule or any of my interpreters, 2) payment would be much lower than if that medical office had contacted me directly, 3) I didn’t want to deal with a placement agency.

Last year our company had a one-time interpreting gig at a medical appointment, and we still haven’t been paid. Dealing with insurance companies is just one reason why for SVLS, medical interpreting is just not the best direction for our time and efforts. When another agency or medical practice calls, it will be now be easy to say “No”, because I have concrete reasons for not wanting to take my business in that direction.

Don’t let your clients pressure you into making a decision that hurts your business

Sometimes, when you think you’ve developed and maintained a good relationship with a client, he/she might try to take advantage of that relationship; sometimes it’s purposeful, sometimes they do it without fully knowing the implications. At SVLS, for instance, it can happen when a client tries to hire an instructor directly for private or group classes to try to lower their costs. Obviously, I can’t really do anything about what a client requests or what an independent contractor does with the time they’re not teaching classes at SVLS, but luckily every instructor that’s been approached about that has said no.

It’s happened a couple of times, and the most recent question about it shocked me because it was coming from a very loyal customer. I understand the general desire to lower personal costs, but I was still surprised.

I said no.

Saying that this kind of arrangement is OK would mean undermining the whole mission of my business, as well as incite organizational chaos.

Make saying no part of your business strategy 

1. Have a solid idea of the direction you want for your business, and say no to opportunities or distractions that will take you off course.

2. When you hesitate about an opportunity, take time to note the concrete reasons for doing so. Evaluate whether those reasons are valid (e.g. valuable time is taken away from other projects) and make a firm decision based on those reasons. If you ultimately decide no, write those reasons down; if you find yourself faced with a similar decision in the future, it will be much easier to say no if you have a written list already prepared.

3. Don’t let relationships with clients cloud your judgment about what is right for your business. You could do everything for everyone for free, but then you wouldn’t be in business anymore.

4. Prepare templates for saying no to projects and other requests. Make separate templates for telephone or in-person requests, and email requests. Having those written out already will make it much easier for you to get the words out and give a final decision.

5. It’s entirely possible you might regret saying no to a project or other opportunity. My suggestion here is to keep track of 1) what projects you are offered; 2) projects you accept, 3) projects you regret; 4) results from accepted projects; 5) results from rejected projects. By results I mean, job satisfaction, the value of the job (one-time, continuous revenue), the relationships involved, and whether or not the client pays and pays on time; also include your overall feelings about the job overall.

Do you have any stories of when saying no was initially hard, but overall worthwhile?

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