Select Page

A few years ago, I heard a radio ad while driving down the road where the whole premise was “We Do That.” The ad went like this: you listen in to a phone conversation between a car owner and a front desk guy at the auto repair shop. The caller says “My brakes are squeaking and I think I need a brake inspection.” The front desk guy says “we do that.” The car owner goes on to explain that he’s also having some transmission trouble and the car makes a funny rattling sound when the car shifts gear. Our trusty front-desk guy assures him “we do that, too.” On and on it goes, until you get the point—they’re a one-stop shop for ALL your auto repair needs.

For them, this is probably a great marketing campaign. (Save for the fact that I honestly can’t remember which company this ad was for)! However, something I’ve learned by running my own business is that small businesses really shouldn’t try this approach. While a nationwide auto repair chain can say “yes” all the time, (or as in the radio example, saying “we do that” to everything), what’s far more important for a small or micro-sized business is to learn how and when to say “no.”

I think of all the concepts I’ve learned in business, learning to say no is one of the most important, but it’s also one of the easiest to miss. Most people are afraid of it—they’re allergic to telling a potential client that they can’t help them. Some people feel like they’d be letting someone down if they said no. But oftentimes, the most helpful thing you can say to a potential client is “I’m not the right guy for the job.”

Some people are downright afraid that saying the word no is rude or callous. Well, of course, that would be true if you said it cold and callously. Instead, though, how about just being honest—and polite—and telling your prospect that it’s just not in their best interest to hire you for a specific task that you can’t handle? That would be a refreshing change for most companies.

You know what this does? It builds your credibility. Yes, you may lose a sale, but you’ll probably gain an advocate. Someone who trusts and believes in you and maybe, just maybe, will refer business to you someday. Even though you never did that particular job. It’s a beautiful thing, really. 37signals talks a little bit about this in their book, Rework, and they give lots of specific reasons for when to say no when building software. I don’t build software, but the principle is much larger than that—saying no is helpful for almost any industry and situation.

The hardest part isn’t actually saying no, but knowing when to say it. Don’t say no just to be a jerk, but really think it through. If a potential client asks if you can do a specific project that requires skills you just don’t have, that’s a great time to say no. And don’t say it just like that; try saying “I’m not the best fit, but I can introduce you to someone I know who specializes in that exact thing,” or something similar.

Here are a few small examples for when you might want to tell a potential client no. See how many times you’ve been asked the following:

  • I have a very small budget. Can you give me a discount?
  • I can’t pay you—do you want to do a work trade?
  • Do you accept credit cards?
  • We need this done right away. Can you have this done by tomorrow?

If the answer to these questions, in your mind, is “no,” then just say so. Make it known to the world. Whatever it is you’re being asked to do that you’re not comfortable with or just aren’t set up to do, say no. It will go much better for you.

I really can’t think of a time where I answered a potential client’s question with a “no” and regretted it later. I can, however, remember many times where I was asked to do something new or different and said “yes,” and spent hours (or nights) wanting to bang my head against a wall, regretting that I’d agreed to it. So remember—if you’re stuck wondering whether you should say yes or no, for a small business owner, the answer is generally no. If your stomach tells you no, then it’s a no. Go with your instincts… that’s a much more reliable voice than a client’s.