Let's Talk Leadership

The Art of Saying No

By , November 23, 2018

When you’re trying to grow your business, it can be tempting to say “yes” to every single opportunity that comes your way. But the most successful business people know when to say “no” to opportunities or clients.

A friend of mine, the owner of a small business, recently told me that an opportunity came his way that he was very excited about. The only problem? He had a feeling that the potential client thought that his company was larger than it actually was. Should he accept the offer anyway? Should he explain that he’s actually a small company, and possibly risk them backing out?

My answer: What your parents taught you when you were a kid still holds true in business: Honesty is the best policy. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it gains people’s trust in the long run. If that meant that he would lose the business, then that means it wasn’t the right fit to begin with.

But this conversation with my friend got me thinking: When opportunity knocks, should you always answer the door? When you’re trying to grow your business, it can be tempting to say “yes” to every single opportunity that comes your way. But the most successful business people know when to say “no” to opportunities or clients. Because in truth, not all opportunities are created equal; they won’t all benefit your business in the same way. And some may even hurt you more than help you in the long run. So which opportunities or potential clients should you avoid, and which ones should you pursue? When is it OK, even beneficial, to say no?

Here are three situations when I believe it’s good to say no and walk away.

1. Are we going to ultimately win the business?

This one might seem obvious. But if you’re a small business, and a big, exciting potential project comes your way, before pursuing it full force, you need to honestly ask yourself: Why would this organization choose us over another company if I were in their shoes? If I were them, would I hire us for this job in full confidence? Do we have the expertise, the experience, the breadth of offerings they need? If the answer isn’t an unequivocal yes, it’s probably not worth pursuing the opportunity. Realistically, you’re unlikely to win the business in the end, and it’ll be a waste of your precious time and resources.

2. Do our values align?

If you’ve been in business for any length of time, your company likely has (or should have!) its own culture, based on essential core values, that’s ingrained within it like DNA. If an opportunity comes your way, and you see that the way the business operates is at odds with one of the core, fundamental values of your business—integrity, or being a team player, or open-mindedness, for instance—it’s probably not a good fit, and likely will suck much more out of you and your employees than you’ll gain from it in the long run. If the potential client seems difficult to work with at your first meeting, odds are it’s not going to get any better, and will probably get worse. Stay away!

3. Are we in the best possible position to deliver what the client needs?

If you have any uncertainty about whether or not you can deliver the results your client wants, then it’s a good idea to walk away. Because those clients for whom you can’t deliver amazing results are usually the ones who become toxic clients. We’ve all had them. They’re the ones who are simply not satisfied. They’re frustrated. We work extra hard to make them happy. But they’re still not happy. And it’s all because we never honestly asked ourselves—is what they want to achieve realistic, and are we in the best possible position to achieve success for them? The beauty of this approach is that if you’re honest and upfront with the client to begin with, they see that you’re more interested in the results than the sale, which builds an incredible amount of trust and confidence with those businesses in the long run.

In sum: here are some Ptex Practical Pointers for knowing when to say no—and how to actually do it when you need to:

1. Always be candid and honest with your potential customer.
When you ask the right questions—both to yourself and to the potential customer—you can honestly evaluable whether this is an opportunity you should pursue, or turn away.

2. Think hard about the opportunity’s long-term value.
Remember: When you say “no” to one thing, you’re really saying “yes” to something else. When an opportunity comes your way, think about whether it’s something that you’re willing to say no to, if it means saying yes to another great opportunity, or simply staying true to the values of your company.

3. Learn how to say no gently, without burning bridges.
For example, you could say something like this: “After reviewing this opportunity, we don’t feel we’re in the best position to deliver amazing results like our clients have come to expect, and therefore we’re going to respectfully decline. We truly hope you’ll be comfortable in the future presenting new opportunities to us, because we’ll always be candid with you about whether we feel we can help or not.”

One more thing: Whoever said “Opportunity knocks only once” was lying.

Instead, the saying should be something like, “Do good work, and opportunity will knock again and again… Just make sure you know it’s the right one before you invite it in.”

Meny Hoffman

Meny Hoffman

Meny Hoffman is the Chief Executive Officer of Ptex Group, an Inc. 500/5000-ranked marketing and business services firm headquartered in Brooklyn, NY.

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