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How & When to Say “NO” in Business

Triumph Business Capital

August 17, 2015

In my first year as a business owner, I made the same salary as when I was working for someone else. The second year, I doubled it. Once you get past the leap of believing you can make it on your own, the next big hurdle — having too much work — can take you by surprise. If you find yourself missing deadlines, missing sleep, or wondering how to manage your workload, you may suffer from an affliction that plagues many entrepreneurs: the inability to say “no.” We’re naturally optimistic, and want to do it all. But saying “no” to the good may allow you to say “yes” to the great. Here’s how to know when to say “no,” and how to say it nicely:

When to Say “No”

  • Not enough time, or not enough money.
    Advertising clients are notorious for making three demands: We want the work to be good, fast, and cheap. The classic response has become an industry joke: Pick two. It’s hard to do good work without enough time, and when the budget is unrealistic, you can’t win. Just say, “No.”
  • No money.
    Free or “Spec” work, as it’s euphemistically called, may be required to compete for larger jobs or build your reputation. You may also be asked to do “pro-bono” work for a nonprofit that you support. But can you afford to work for free? For me, the answer is, “No way, José.” I have a baby and a preschooler, and I work full time. I have to pay for childcare every hour that I am on the clock, and after work, I can’t even go to the bathroom without someone barging in. Free time? What’s that?
  • The working hours don’t work.
    Before I had kids, I used to get up at 4:00 a.m. for work, and 60-hour weeks were the norm. Now? My baby wakes me up every 2 hours in the night, and I don’t do evenings or weekends anymore. Even if you don’t have children, you may dislike it when work encroaches on your boundaries or threatens your work/life balance. Set clear boundaries, and communicate them early, so clients know when you’re available. (I put my office hours in my email signature.)
  • It’s not a good match.
    Work agreements should be mutually beneficial, so turn down opportunities that aren’t. Whether the work doesn’t fit your core expertise, you don’t have the resources to complete it, or you have a bad vibe, listen to your instincts. I once turned down a job to promote a medical product that had not been proven safe, and I had no regrets. Another time, I said “yes” to a client about whom I had a bad feeling (See item 1), and the job was a nightmare.

HOW to say, “No”

It’s one thing to decide you’re going to turn down a job. It’s quite another to deliver the bad news. Here are a few tips for saying “no” without damaging relationships:

  • Respond quickly and politely.
    Responding in a timely manner shows respect, and allows the potential client to seek other options. Thank the requestor and reject the offer, not the person. For example, you might say, “I can’t take on your project at this time, but please consider me for future requests,” or “I’m not focusing on x right now, but if you need assistance with y, let me know.”
  • Briefly explain why you can’t accommodate the request.
    If you don’t, the requestor may take your rejection personally. Honesty and brevity are key. You might explain that you are not accepting new work until next month, or say, “My expertise is more about x, so I am not the best choice for y.”
  • Offer alternatives.
    No one likes to be left empty-handed. If you can suggest referrals, you’ll be helping two people out.

You only have so many hours in the day (24, to be exact). Make sure you’re focusing on the best opportunities to grow your business, and don’t lose time on the others. If you need help with working capital to grow your business, ask for Blaine Waugh at Triumph Business Capital.