When your business is just starting out (and sometimes even once you’ve established yourself), saying “no” can go against your every instinct.
Sometimes no is the smart answer because a project is out of your area of expertise or the request is unrealistic. With experience, those no’s become easy to identify.
More difficult, but every bit as important, is knowing when to say no to something simply because it won’t help your business grow.
Recognizing the Things That Can Stunt Your Growth
You naturally want to land the big accounts, the ones that will lead to more business for you. You probably have a wish list of big clients you wish you had (and if you don’t, you should make one).
Below your dream clients, you probably know your more tangible ideal client type — someone who can help you grow by providing exposure, challenging experience, and a budget that fits your needs.
Say you’re a graphic designer. Obviously, an account with a heavy-hitting company like Google or Amazon would be career-changing.
A more realistic goal that can help you grow your business is a burgeoning startup that’s getting buzz in the press, or a franchise-based business that’s looking to retool their image.
Then there are the smaller businesses, who, while you’re starting out, will likely make up the bulk of your clients.
Small businesses can help you grow in a big way, but some small projects may not be worth pursuing.
Ask yourself these questions before you say “yes”:
- Is this project going to be less visible than your usual projects?
- Is the client looking to purchase ideas from several designers, so your work may never be used?
- Does the client think the project should “just take 5 minutes”?
- Does the client complain about other designers failing to meet their expectations? (If they do, find out if they were trying to get a bargain rate — if not, it could be a red flag).
- Does the client want to pay you less than your quoted price?
- Is the proposed project for a business that is not yet established?
- Is the proposed project for a small event that will have a very limited reach?
- Will the project be more time-consuming than it’s worth?
- Will the project cut into time you should be devoting to regular/larger clients?
- Is there little to no possibility of repeat business from the potential client?
- Is the project geared toward a demographic you don’t know well?
- Is the style the client is looking for not your style?
- Is the description of the project confusing or unclear?
- Does the client want you to just “make a few tweaks” to another designer’s work?
- Do you have any reservations about the client or the project?
There’s no formula that says if you answer yes to a certain amount of these questions you should turn down the job — but if you say yes to any of them, you should evaluate whether the job is worth it for your business.
If it’s not, the job, at least for you, is valueless.
How Not Saying No Can Hurt Your Business
Most of us know business owners and freelancers who hate to say no, as if it’s throwing away good money.
I’ve known freelancers who use the strategy of taking on as many small jobs as possible, to the point where they can hardly keep up.
The reasoning is that if they do lots of small (lower paying) projects, they’ll make money in quantity. And maybe they do. But they’re not growing their business.
Grabbing at low-hanging fruit (or, in some cases, the half-rotted fruit on the ground) is not a good business plan unless you’re focused on the fruit hanging above it.
Gorging on low-hanging fruit is not sustainable. You can easily get trapped, overworked, and with little to show for it.
It won’t instill confidence in your work, because you won’t be building the kind of resume or portfolio you need to succeed.
And if you are creating work that is worthy of better clients, why are you wasting your time not pursuing them?
Five Things That are More Productive Than Taking a Valueless Job:
- Contacting business you’d like to work with to see if they might be in need of your services.
- Updating your website or posting a new blog.
- Spending an hour networking on social media.
- Reading up on the latest SEO best practices.
- Taking a 30 minute walk outside.
The truth is, almost anything is more productive.
But if you use the time it would have taken to complete a valueless job to focus on landing bigger, better jobs, your business will progress — the money you’ve “lost” in the short term can result in a lot more success (and money) in the longer run).
How to Say No When a Potential Client Comes to Call
This should be easy, unless you’ve dug yourself into a hole with a client who has come to expect you to lower your standards.
Just say you are not able to accept the project. Don’t make excuses that might make them think that you’ll do it in a month — “My plate’s too full this week” may feel nicer than flat-out saying no, but they might come back. Awkward.
And remember, you set the rules and the rates for your business. Never feel bad for saying no if someone tries to negotiate you down to a lower pay grade or requests something you don’t explicitly offer.
Cutting Off Unproductive Clients
As your business grows, you may grow out of some of your small but regular clients, some of whom may be paying the same rates you quoted them when you were starting out.
Whether or not you should cut them off depends on a lot of factors. If a client has been with your for years and has recommended you to others, they have value.
But do ask that they don’t refer people with the expectation that they’ll get your older rates.
If your client’s business has been growing along with yours, ask if you can renegotiate your rates — you’ve both grown, and can both offer each other more than you could before.
This kind of client has value, you just need to make sure they appreciate your worth.
If a longtime client has contracted you to do a type of work you no longer do — for example, if you used to offer both photography and graphics but now focus solely on graphics — but they usually ask for work within your specialty, weigh the value of making an exception if you’re able.
If it’s a valued client, it might be worth doing a job that you wouldn’t do for a new client.
So, who should you cut off?
- Old clients still paying old rates who are unwilling to pay your current rate or a reasonable (to you) discounted rate.
- Clients who have shown themselves to be difficult and high-maintenance to the point where their projects consistently wind up taking longer than planned.
- Clients you have to chase down for payment.
- Clients who come back repeatedly with a different business each time. (Unless, of course, they’re a marketing firm or similar business contracting you to work with different clients).
Now, Move Forward!
Once you’ve harnessed the power of the word no, you can freely concentrate on saying yes to the clients and opportunities that will make your business a success.
Have you discovered the power of no with your business? Share your experiences in the comments!
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