3 ways to help you say no in business

Originally published in Inc. December 13, 2022

When you’re a new entrepreneur, business owner, or sales rep, you’ll do everything possible to get a new client and a signed contract.

And while it’s tempting to be accommodating and agreeable to close a deal, always saying yes can backfire. You can overpromise and underdeliver, upsetting your clients. Worse, it can leave you (and your implementation, support, and account management teams) with clients who aren’t a good fit and who don’t see your value or respect your boundaries.

Embracing the power of saying no can mean the difference between successfully scaling your business and stagnant or negative growth. To do the former and avoid the latter, use these three strategies to help you say no:

1. Create your ideal client profile

I’ll admit that when I started my company, I was eager and willing to sign any new client because doing so meant I could pay the bills for a few months. But I soon found that that short-term approach didn’t serve me or my business in the long term.

Instead, what’s helped our company and me say no was developing our Ideal Customer Profile (ICP). Identifying our perfect client by industry, size, etc. provided everyone in the company with the “ingredients” to look for when prospecting or qualifying a potential partner. This also helps during a handoff from sales to other departments, as everyone is on the same page, and there are no surprises. If potential clients fit our established criteria, we say yes; if they don’t fit our ICP, we say no.

2. Set proper expectations

Even when a client fits your ICP, you need to set proper expectations to build a successful relationship based on mutual respect. 

Long ago, I used to respond to emails at all hours and on weekends; in essence, I was “always on” and I trained my team and clients to expect this. The problem is that people get used to it, and if you typically respond to a message within an hour and then take a day the next time, they’ll freak out or wonder what’s happening. It also negatively impacts your culture, sending a message to your team that you expect them to be “always on” too, even if that wasn’t your intent.

A better strategy is to set proper expectations through your words and actions. Tell your team and clients that you respond to emails during business hours and–this is important–actually do that.

And if you’re working on something outside of business hours, use a delayed send function to schedule your emails to arrive during a team member or client’s next business day. When you walk the talk and respect others’ boundaries, they’re more likely to respect yours.

3. If you decide to say yes, explain why you’re making a one-time exception

Sometimes, even when you have clients in your ICP and you’ve set realistic expectations with them, there will be times when you might want to say yes to a request you’d otherwise say no to. But I’ve learned from experience there’s a right and wrong way to do this.

If you can do something for the greater good of the partnership, but it falls outside your scope of work, it’s key to communicate and clearly explain why you’ve decided to honor this request. I suggest saying, “We normally wouldn’t do this since this falls outside our agreed scope of work, but we’re willing to make this one-time exception.” This makes your client happy while setting the expectation this is only happening once. It will also ensure that your clients remember how you went to bat for them when you didn’t have to, providing additional value.

Though it seems counterintuitive to focus on saying no in business, doing so can help you scale your company. And when you follow these three strategies, they’ll help you say no for the right reasons so you can say yes for the right ones.

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