Just Say No: When to Turn Down Work

One of the most counterintuitive aspects of business is learning that you don’t actually want to work with everyone. Some customers aren’t worth it. Some clients are the wrong fit. Some projects aren’t worth the money…even when the money is good.

This cuts against the grain of what most people want to do. After all, you’re in business to say yes to the person handing you money but sometimes saying no is the absolute best thing to do. But how do you know when to say no?

Having turned down several opportunities over the years I’ve realized that there are four factors that lead me to decline an offer. Everything is evaluated on a case by case basis, but at least one of these four scenarios weighed into my final decision:

1. If they are high maintenance. Some customers will take more time than they’re worth. I always find a more profitable use of the time I would have given them.

2. If they do something I don’t believe in. Whether I don’t like the way they run their business or something about it violates my own personal belief system, I’ve never regretted turning down a chance to work with someone when the ethical or moral warning alarm begins to sound.

3. If they want to hire me for something that’s not in my skill set. Some customers need a solution I don’t actually offer and I need to be willing to say so.

4. If I can’t get excited about them. Some businesses just aren’t that interesting to me and if I have the financial freedom to turn down the work I will. Our work is always better when we genuinely like who and what we’re working on.

What’s Your List?

I recognize that some of the four factors apply to people like me who offer consulting services. My list would be a little different if I was selling ice cream or bicycles or insurance, but the idea here is that even then, there may be people who are aren’t a good fit. The question is this: do you have a list? Do you have any scenarios in mind in which you would decline a customer or job? It’s worth thinking about ahead of time.

This idea isn’t new. I remember when ING Direct announced in 2004 that they fired some of their customers because they were too high maintenance. This was mind blowing news at the time but it was exactly the smart business move they needed to make. Most companies don’t think like this. If they do, they don’t have the guts to actually do it.

I’ve turned down several prospects over the years and I’ve never regretted it. Conversely, there have been a few I took even when I suspected I shouldn’t. Midway into those engagements I was kicking myself for taking the job. It’s ironic that the regrets come with a handful of jobs I took hesitantly, not the ones I declined.

Clarity makes declining work much easier. The clearer you are on what you do, who you serve, what you offer, how you prefer to work and what you believe will make it much easier to discern when it’s the right job versus the wrong one.

Clarity makes saying yes faster and saying no easier.

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Bill Seaver
Bill Seaver founded MicroExplosion Media in fall 2007 and has been blogging since June 2006. Bill has consulted numerous organizations to help them understand and apply social media into their marketing initiatives. He's led seminars, corporate training sessions, and numerous social media campaigns to include blog strategy and development, Google AdWords, podcasts, online video strategy, widget development, social media marketing campaigns, blogger networks, and social networking campaigns.