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How to Say ‘No’ in Business

Keren Lerner
Feb 02, 2018

Drawing firm but friendly boundaries leads to greater satisfaction, for you and clients.

It’s a little ironic that I’m writing about this topic. I fall into that “you’re too nice” category most of the time. Years of running my business working with subject matter experts (SMEs), combined with my natural sociable nature, means I have had thousands of encounters with contacts and clients – mostly SME business owners and solopreneurs. And of those, a large number have asked for, or wanted, something that I probably should have said “no” to. But I didn’t. If I had, I may have progressed further in my business.

Why does this happen to me, and what have I learned?

Generally, as a helpful person, I want to give as much as I can. It’s natural to me, and I don’t mind or feel impatient by doing so.

It’s just that, at a certain point, I, and others like me, have experienced certain common pitfalls due to not saying “no” – especially in a service business:

  1. Overdelivering/Overservicing: You may have quoted a specific price for a project based on a prediction of what it will take in terms of time and effort. During the project, you realize you’re working more hours than you planned, not because you suddenly got slow, but because the client is more demanding of your time. They ask more questions, ask for more changes, call more often and take up more time. At the end of the project, you figure you worked for an hourly rate well below what you pay your team or should pay yourself, and the project was a loss.

  2. Scope creep: You may have sold a project at a certain cost, and during the project, the client asks for more (often without realizing what they were asking for), and perhaps one of your team wasn’t as experienced at spotting what was out of scope – or they didn’t have the confidence to speak up. As such, you end up with a much bigger project, and it’s almost too late to say anything. This also can happen if you don’t speak up yourself – or if you think “this will be quick” and then it isn’t.

  3. Burn out: You could say “yes” to everyone, because you want to keep your relationships good, or you don’t want people to think you’re too busy, or perhaps you don’t want people to stop sending work and referrals your way. You might figure you can make it up by working late and on weekends and all the hours possible! Sure, that’s your choice, but it leads to exhaustion, overwork and tiredness. Especially if you have other things in life besides work – like a partner, a social life, exercise, travel and sleep!

You really want to avoid those situations.

So, if saying ‘no’ is the answer, why is it so hard?

Maybe because you’re nice, a people pleaser, and the ever-present concern of the “what if” scenario:

  • If I say “yes” this time, they might become a great client – I don’t want to miss out on that! If I say “yes” this time, maybe they will recommend me to lots of people and the sacrifice will pay off?
  • If I say “no,” what if they go around telling people I’m unhelpful? Or that I am too busy and therefore not available to do any work for anyone at all? I could jeopardize everything!

The solution we all so desperately need.

These are my tried-and-tested practical tips on how to deal with the inner dialogue we face when summoning the courage to say “no” while ensuring everyone still respects me and my time.

  1. Positive language: This sounds a bit ironic, huh? How do you say “no” in a positive way? By nature, it’s a negative word. However, it’s a great tactic. When I get a request that at first releases strong warning signs from my brain, I respond positively. “Sure, we could include that. Many of our other clients have had this same thing – it’s a fantastic idea! I can speak to my team and arrange a quote for this work for you. From experience, this additional feature will be between X and Y.” This clearly shows clients that this new request is outside the scope of the project, or something that you need to provide a quote for.

  2. Parameters: In your proposal, put a number on each deliverable; for example, “This includes two to three hours of picture sourcing,” or “This is for the design of up to 15 different page types,” or “We will include three sets of changes.”

  3. Friends and family – they need clear parameters, too: If you are or have ever been a victim to those close to you thinking that you can do something for them for free due to your relationship with them, offer something light – something that won’t take you more than, say, an hour of your time. Of course, it’s your choice what you feel like giving away, but put a clear boundary on what you will deliver, e.g., “Because you’re my best friend, I can give you a free workshop.” If you insist on doing free work, be super clear on parameters: “Because you’re my brother from another mother, I can do a simple, free-of-charge website for you. We will do our XYZ starter package for you, which includes design, code, build of X pages, testing and launch. We would need you to first provide us with XYZ before we get started. This is worth X price. Anything on top, we can quote for you at X rate, or we can hand it over to you or someone else.”

  4. Track time: Track the time that your typical projects take. It’s important for self-awareness, better pricing and many other reasons. Include not only the production time (like for my company, its design and coding) but also the time spent talking to the client on the phone, in meetings and in the sales process. Put together a spreadsheet and a breakdown of time, and calculate the true amount spent for each type of task. Then take a safe average, based on what’s typical.

  5. Know your lower limit: Remember when the supermodels said, “I won’t get out of bed for less than X?” Well, you need to use that statement for yourself – and the time tracking will help a lot.

  6. Spot the signs early: Depending on your experience, you can sense when some clients are going to be more unsure and need more interaction and support. There are usually pretty clear signs. Add more to your proposal and pricing to allow for this additional time.

  7. Delegate: If you have someone on your team whom you know would be a great account manager, ask them to take care of certain clients. Delegate responsibly, of course! It could actually work out better for all – if the client needs a lot of regular communication, and your team member can give them more time than you, then the client will appreciate this extra attention.

  8. Disclaimers: In your project add additional disclaimers wherever you feel there may be some confusion. One example could be: “Any additional sections you want us to work on will be quoted for separately,” “This does not include travel costs or time,” or “This is dependent on you sticking to our agreed payment structures.”

Often, putting in place these boundaries means you will be more respected. You will show yourself as experienced, smart, and switched on; you will no longer work on things you regret and resent. By saying “no,” you will have more time to do the things you should be doing. You will have a clearer mindset, and be more able to delegate and elevate to your highest potential working at your highest abilities.

Soon, you will start to spot the warning signs and recognize the things you need to say a gentle and positive “no” to. But first, be sure to say “yes” to the eight tips above (you can thank me later).

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Keren Lerner
Keren Lerner is the CEO and founder of Top Left Design, a London based design and marketing agency. Founded in 2002, Top Left Design specialises in bespoke designed websites, brands, and marketing material with integrated marketing advice. Keren regularly speaks about design and digital marketing at seminars and workshops for industry organisations across different industries (property, HR, interior design, travel, food, film, finance, and law). She advises on social strategy and communication and trains businesses and teams on how to effectively market themselves online.