How an Honest ‘No’ Helped One Small Business Owner

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Casey Meehan, founder of Chicago-based marketing firm Epic Presence.

As a small business owner, it is tempting to say “Yes!” to everything a client or potential client asks.

That impulse makes sense on the surface: You want to make your customers happy, and an enthusiastic “yes” communicates your every intention to keep that customer happy. In practice, however, that reliable, enthusiastic “yes” belies a neediness on the part of the seller.

This is right out of the first chapter of Jim Camp’s Start With No:

“The salesperson is definitely the dependent party in the negotiation [according to common Western perceptions]. He or she must be prepared to give, to compromise, while the buyer takes everything he or she can get. … The self-image of the individual in the selling role traps him or her in a neediness mode and often leads to bad deals.”

For the small business owner selling a service, like me, one honest “no” can shatter that image of neediness and break the pattern of chasing bad deals.

Below are three situations that have arisen in the past year when I’ve had to tell a potential client “no” firmly and honestly. Each time, that “no” allowed me to continue to grow my business stably and sustainably (and twice, it eventually helped us bring on a great client).

“No, we do not offer that service.”

Epic Presence was built around certain core competences — content marketing, SEO — that can sound either esoteric or outright boring to people outside of the field. This is the nature of new markets, and that’s fine.

Occasionally, I’ll have a request for a project that falls pretty far outside of those core competences, and it’s always tempting to say “yes” in these situations. Our team probably could do a good job on these projects, but the tradeoff — ignoring or neglecting our own strengths — is just too great.

This is something small businesses across all industries struggle with. You see it frequently with restaurants: A concept that’s pretty tight and well-defined begins to bend under the weight of customer demands. Pretty soon, that sushi restaurant with the great Boston rolls is serving omelette brunches on Sundays and dollar tacos on Tuesday nights.

Writing down a valid mission and purpose helps tremendously here. This will help you define what projects are outside the scope of what you want to achieve.

“No, I cannot take the price that low.”

Sometimes, a shrewd client will intentionally test your resolve.

This happened to me fairly recently. A potential client reached out and asked whether we could take on a project, then began to explore our prices by throwing around some very lowball figures.

I told her in so many words that what we do is worth much more than that.

Ding ding ding. The client was actually pre-qualifying us, and compromising on our prices would have indicated that we were too needy and possibly incapable of delivering great work. Saying “yes” to those prices would have killed the deal.

Instead, we quickly agreed to terms, and the client has been a dream to work with.

“No, I cannot take your business at the moment. Let’s keep in touch.”

At one point in 2014, our small team was operating at maximum capacity, which any small business owner knows is precisely when new demand for work comes in. It’s the best kind of problem to have.

Obviously, we had to grow, but that growth had to be controlled and sustainable. That meant I had to tell one interested potential client that we were unable to take on any new business.

Over the next few months, our team did grow, and I spent that time onboarding new hires and perfecting some of our processes. Once we stabilized at that next phase of growth, I reached out to the client, who had been patiently waiting for my call.

By being comfortable enough to tell potential clients “no,” I positioned our company as being successful rather than needy, grew the company according to my own vision, and secured some great clients in the process.

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