Why We Say No

By: Guest | February 14, 2011 | 

Lisa D JenkinsLisa D. Jenkins is an erratic blogger growing into her Big-Girl Business Panties one terrifying decision at a time.

One of the hardest things we do is to make the choice not to work with everyone who wants to hire us.

That’s easier read than done.

In some cases, we say no to protect ourselves.

Those of us building our young reputations and growing new client bases have (or should have) a very clear vision of the clients we want to represent.  Deviating from that vision can derail months of strategic planning and endanger our place in the market we want to serve.  We must choose carefully.

Those of you with established reputations have built solid client bases that are often composed of niche markets – markets that you specialize in representing because you have invested time and resources in educating yourself on how to best serve them.  You have leeway to explore other client markets but branching out too quickly can have adverse consequences.  You must also choose carefully.

In other cases, we say no to protect the would be client.

We all use the same tools.  The differences in our businesses lie in how we employ those tools to the advantage of our individual clients.  Understanding the tools of marketing does not mean that we posses the broad finesse to serve every type of client with dynamic results.  Some of you might and that’s amazing, but I don’t.

As marketers, we base our living on knowing how to guide people along a path to conversion – a sale, a visit, a subscription, etc.  The need for revenue notwithstanding, we have a professional responsibility not to use our knowledge to force a fit when we know it’s not right.

Regardless of our place and expertise in this industry, you and I both have bills to pay.  When we say no to revenue, whether to protect the business reputations we build or the clients we serve, it’s difficult.

I’ve said “no” a number of times.  In each instance, I’ve taken the time to explain why I’m not the right choice and to provide at least one other contact who I know to be a better professional fit than I.

Two days ago, I received one of the highest compliments of my self-employed career.  An artist had recommended me to a colleague and when I thanked her, she said, “I appreciate your ethics as well as your smart advice!!”  Because I said no.

When do you say “No”?

Lisa D. Jenkins is an erratic blogger growing into her Big-Girl Business Panties one terrifying decision at a time.  She loves quirky t-shirts, red wine and Guinness, and  will die literature poor.

  • bdorman264

    When it’s not the right fit.

    Yes, easier said than done when you are established vs just getting started. However, regardless (Geni I didn’t say irregardless) of what business you are in you should identify what your ideal customer looks like. If the opportunity does not fit your strengths then you need to have ‘walk away power’. It is also helpful to point them in the direction of someone who can assist. This is usually appreciated and might lead to another opportunity down the road.

    Be careful not to put yourself in a position to look bad just because you wanted a sale; make sure it works for both parties.

  • Saying No is the hardest bit. When a project or client isn’t right, we have to say no. You are right Lisa.
    The way I see is that yes it’s saying no to revenue right now but it also frees me to work with other clients who are the right ones. So in fact I am not refusing revenue, I am protecting the limited hours and brain power I have to work with the right ones. Working with the wrong clients creates challenges, and a mess which takes time and energy to untangle. Now this is the real loss of revenue.

    So the questions is when do we say yes? When our skills, values and the client’s budget align. I believe that is the triangle for a successful client/consultant relationship. Take out one side of this triangle and I should have said no.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @bdorman264 First, I think you get a gold star for not writing “irregardless”. Nicely done.

    You’re right. Making sure a relationship works for both parties is necessary or the risk to reputation is very real. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should is at the forefront of my thoughts when considering a business relationship. Making sale does my no good unless the end result is an ecstatically happy client I can use as a reference.

  • bdorman264

    @LisaDJenkins If you are going to be in the ‘business’ for any length of time you definitely want the ‘WOW’ factor, not ‘what’s that smell’…………….

  • LisaDJenkins

    @johnfalchetto That’s a great triangle model, John. Understanding that saying No also protects the limited resource of time we have at our disposal is an important piece of the decision making process. A bird in the hand is not necessarily worth two in the bush . . .

  • sydcon_mktg

    Saying no is difficult, and when we have done it in the past people (namely my Father-in-law if he gets wind of it) think we are crazy!

    We have said no on a couple occassions, and for varying reasons. Sometimes we come out and say no because of the market it is (being web developers, we get approached for a lot of shall we say “adult” sites, that we turn down). Other times we refer them to a partner firm whom might be a better fit then we are. Yet other times, on a really rare occassion, when we have the feeling in our gut that its a client that will turn disaster we may say our schedule can accomidate their launch date or something of that nature.

    Sometimes saying no means you make more money or build a bigger client base in the long run. If you are not bogged down by an unreasonable client you can invest your time in other clients, meeting deadlines and adding new clients.

    I think learning to say no is a growing pain for all businesses, but one that is necessary at some point.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @sydcon_mktg It is a necessary growing pain, and I think embracing the need for it early on helped me to grow a lean but healthy business. Saying no seems scary because it’s the opposite of what most people think of as business, but I practice saying no to the right clients and my revenue is stable which allows me to grow carefully. I’ll take that over a sporadic influx of non-invested clients any day!

  • Saying “no” is one of the hardest lessons to learn… and the most valuable. I think the toughest part of it, as @johnfalchetto says, is that it’s frightening to turn down immediate income. But being able to do that – and look past the immediate financial gratification that “yes” will bring – almost always pays dividends in peace of mind and, again as John put it, to be able to say “yes” to the right clients.

    Amen, sister.

  • ginidietrich

    Another thing we have to learn to do is fire a client when the fit isn’t right. Early in the growth of Arment Dietrich, I didn’t pull the plug on time and it ended up hurting our reputation (and we lost some employees because of client abuse). Now I know when it’s time to have the expectations talk with the client and when it’s time to fire them. It’s not easy. And, to your point, it’s hard to give up the income. But it always works out in the end.

  • ginidietrich

    @bdorman264 HAHAHAHAHA! You know I hate that. They were talking about it on the radio this morning – the words your Valentine uses that drive you nuts. Irregardless came up at least four times.

  • lisagerber

    It’s definitely easier said (or read) than done! especially when paying bills is so appealing. But we do have to stick to our guns. I’ll admit, I’ve taken on business when I know I shouldn’t have. Then there are the less than profitable clients – the ones who take a lot of your time and you know you should fire them. (remember Sprint firing their time consuming customers? the ones who called Customer Service in the hundreds of times per month?) Firing clients without burning bridges is an interesting challenge.

  • angelabarsotti

    i have been told off by well meaning friends/family for referring people to other related professionals. i teach pilates and happen to be very good at rehab and injury work so i specialise. sometimes people aren’t responding how i expect or i find something i can’t fix. so i send them out to a physiotherapist or an osteopath or a massage therapist or whatever and tell them why.

    most of them see us both but i lose the occasional client. what i don’t lose is a reputation for NOT being after your money, for trying my best to make you feel better, for doing what’s in your best interest and not just for the sake of my checkbook.

    i’ve had some incredibly lean months for sure but when i put out a call to ‘start reviewing me i beg you’ i got some amazing reviews and those reviews have already led to clients.

    so whether it’s pr or pilates it’s still true.

  • I have always said, much to the chagrin of my husband, that by saying no to the wrong client, I can say yes to the right client. Each time I’ve had to fire a client (and those are getting fewer since I’m learning to say no up front), a much better client comes in to fill that spot. It’s great business karma at work! (is that a pun?)

  • LisaDJenkins

    @ginidietrich One of the most valuable pieces of information that was shared with me when I first started out on my own was, “Remember you have the power to fire a client”. It’s never fun, but it does happen. Taking a fee for services rendered does not sign us up to be a personal doormat for a client’s bad days.

  • @Shonali Hi Shonali, you just made my day! 🙂

  • DonovanGroupInc

    I truly enjoyed this topic – it addresses something we all would prefer not to do but sometimes need to do especially when our gut instinct says so. I had a client once not only be abusive to me but to my partners and had it not been “nipped in the bud” by walking away it would not have only been detrimental to my business but also to the relationships with my suppliers that took years to forge. Sometimes as Erica Allison says here – walking away from the wrong client (or wrong fit if you will) allows you to say yes to the right one. Thanks for the post Lisa and Gini.

  • HowieSPM

    Very tough discussion here Lisa. How many people feel they have to jump for money even if it only benefits for the short term. Marketers especially. I want to only work with Brands/Businesses I believe in. But what if someone throws me a ton of money because my expertise fits their needs for a product I am not excited about? This is no different than the Movie Actor taking a role in a B Movie because script offers have been thin.

    But I think it is important to have the right ethics and the ability and strength to do what is best for one in the long run.

  • @EricaAllison I consider myself very lucky that every time I’ve come up against a wall with a client (or even when I had a “regular” job), my husband was the first one to tell me to drop ’em. I was usually the one going, “what about the money,” etc. – and he’d tell me to hang it – we’d figure it out. Gotta love a spouse/partner like that.

  • @johnfalchetto I’m going to have to try to do that more often, then!

  • MikeHale

    As a software consultant I learned quickly which client and projects to avoid. My bottom line is if I don’t feel they have a good grasp on reality (budget, timelines, etc) I force myself to walk away, no matter how hard that can be when things are tight! I think this helped me a TON when I became a REALTOR too. I’m not going to put my time, energy or money into a lost cause!

    Sometimes the decision is easy, like if the project is shady (clone an existing site for example, spam apps, etc) or if a real estate client lives too far for me to provide good service.

    I always thank them for considering me and explain that I just don’t think I’d be the right person for the job. I do try to refer them to someone else whenever possible. I haven’t had to drop a client in a long time!

  • LisaDJenkins

    @lisagerber Saying no in the context of an established client relationship is, admittedly, more difficult than saying No up front. When I’ve faced that decision, I’ve had to remind myself that I”m not saying no becasue I can’t do the job but because an argument for the income has become untenable when compared to the time I invest. When I divide my fee by the number of hours I work on a project and come up with $8 an hour, there’s a problem I can’t afford to ignore. That’s time I’m not able to devote to other clients and I end up working 20 hour days routinely. It’s no good for anyone involved.

  • This reminds me of a young London doctor who was called out on a case. He was new to the practice and eager to get the business. But he disovered that the patient already had a regular doctor, and he refused to take the client on. The patient had issues with his regular doctor and didn’t want to mess with him, but the young doctor insisted.

    When the older doctor found out about this, he was so impressed with his integrity that he collaborated and they formed a new firm. The young doctor’s had success ever since.

    Thanks for the article, Lisa.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @angelabarsotti Stand your ground, Angela. If we as business owners don’t have the best interests of our customer at heart, our reputations will show it in no time. And you’re right, it’s not industry specific – any business will show the cracks. The people I’ve said no to appreciated by honesty and continue to recommend me to others. I’ve yet to rethink my Just Say No philosophy.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @HowieSPM Ethics is what it comes down to.

    A-List actors woking B-Flicks (usually) have a far more finely tuned skills set than their B-List counterparts and those skills bring benfit rather than harm to the overall production. Conversely, a B-List actor may not have honed their skills to a level where their presence in an A-Flick isn’t a jarring inconsistency.

    If you believe that you have both the A-List knowledge and expertise to deliver your B-FLick client a superb return on their investment in you, and that your excitement (or lack thereof) won’t impact your performance negatively, then you may be a good fit. Tthat’s what being a professional is all about. It’s easy to rep the things we have an inate love of, it’s far more difficult to bring our A-game to the others.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @MikeHale I really can’t stress the impact that providing alternative resources to someone you can’t say yes to has on future relationships, Mike. It softens the blow and also allows us to give something back to the people in our network. Although, I also have a policy of only passing along opportunities I wish I could say yes to – that protects my peer/colleague relationships which are just as important as my client relationships.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @Artists_Discuss That’s a perfect illustration – I dont’ suppose it’s based in verifiable fact, is it?

  • I wrote a blog post once entitled “Do Golden Apples fuel your business relationships?” I had a friend and co-worker that used to tell me “as long as the golden apples are falling from the tree I don’t care what they say(do, etc)”. This was in regards to a particularly nasty client that I was having a tough time with as a twenty something business owner. I went along with the idea for years but something very interesting happened. Those clients are all gone and what is left in their wake are wonderful clients that I feel honored to work with.

    I am sure the challenges in the marketplace have had a lot of people reconsidering their stance on what is a good fit. I think it is ideal (for everyone!) to be in a position where you feel comfortable turning business away if you think it is not a good fit or there is a better alternative. This is achieved through persistence, hard work and commitment. Obviously you’ve got that down Lisa 🙂

  • LisaDJenkins

    @hackmanj Thank you! I think it’s important to note that my self-employed career is very young and that saying no is wisdom I learned from more experienced, seasoned colleauges who wanted to ease my way. Had they not shared their view with me, I might have beat my head against the revenue for revenue’s sake wall for years. None of us get where we are alone and I am indebted to each of them.

  • TroyCostlow

    I love this – saying No is shockingly important, and frequently overlooked because rejection comes with… ‘unpleasantness,’ for lack of a better word.
    The #1 way accounting firms protect themselves from legal trouble is by saying no to risky clients, so this happens in a variety of fields.
    And I agree with the karmic abundance theory @EricaAllison seems to espouse – that better opportunities will always seem to find you.
    And on a personal level, I think it’s better to excel in a few areas than to be average in many – which requires saying no to a lot of unrelated opportunities.
    100% agreement on this. Well done 🙂

  • PRville

    Thank you affirming what I knew but didn’t quite feel at peace with. A young PR shop, we tightened our focus on said strategy late last year and have since said ‘no’ five times, at stages from ‘upon initial phone conversation’ to ‘where do I sign?’ And we’ve also heard on the grapevine that one ‘rejected prospect’ talks of our integrity and ethics. Moreover, the referral I made to a more suitable colleague has fostered a great, potentially lucrative relationship. (She got the not-small retainer account.) To answer the question, we say ‘no’ when we can’t provide the best possible professional service based on industry or desired outcomes or, as you say, when the client wouldn’t reinforce (and would possibly undermine) our own positioning. Of course our marketing experience tells us the clients we attract through the strategy will far outweigh/outpay the ‘nos’ through traction and renown in our niche. But it’s still a little scary! Thanks for raising it!

  • @LisaDJenkins @Artists_Discuss Well, Conan Dyle told that story in his book Round the Red Lamp, a collection of Doctor stories.

    I’m afraid he weaved just a bit of immagination into those tales.

    Sorry to burst your bubble.


  • Rileyhar

    Hello Lisa,
    My take on it is that there is no cookie cutter formula that’s universal and works for all. You probably know (after stripping away all rationalization and understanding that it’s something other than fear tugging at you ) that you should say no. It’s more of a boundary issue and having the courage to say no.


  • LisaDJenkins

    @PRville It is a little scary! But worth it. One of the perks of saying no and passing opportunities to more appropriately qualified peers and colleagues is the forming of relationships with them. The first time I said no, I was approached by a health care facility and I knew immediately that I wasn’t the right fit. I contacted someone I knew of but didn’t “know” and asked if I could pass them on as a recommended referral. The result was that I now have a budding relationship with an A-List blogger who works with C Level clients – and she has gone far out of her way to extend help and encouragement to me time and again. I wouldn’t trade that relationship for any amount of revenue.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @Rileyhar I agree, Riley. Saying no takes a lot of courage when you’re weighing instant revenue against, say, not buying milk for a week.

  • LisaDJenkins

    @Artists_Discuss I KNEW it sounded familiar! I haven’t read those stories for ages – thanks for the memory jog 🙂

  • @HowieSPM That is a very good point, Howie. I suppose it will depend, as @LisaDJenkins said, on how professional one can be in terms of separating excitement about a job (or client) in terms of acknowledging there are certain skills needed and whether or not one can provide those skills without being completely excited about the work. It’s also a luxury to be able to turn work down; many people don’t have that opportunity, so in that regard, I suppose we’re all lucky when we can.

  • LisaManyon


    I believe that by having clear boundaries and saying “no” we are not only upholding our own ethics and values, we are providing a stellar example of how to conduct business.

    Being secure and confident in our own abilities and offering referrals is just good business. Not everyone is a good fit and doing things just because we can — well, can get messy.

    Knowing our strengths and understanding there is more than enough business to go around also allows for us to step away from things we “can” do and instead focus on our magic — the things we LOVE to do.

    Write on!~

    Lisa Manyon

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