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16 Ways to Say No When Running a Small Business

learning to say no

Whether you are a freelance illustrator, an IT consultant or a dog groomer, successful self-employed workers have one thing in common: they know how to say “No.” For beginners who are trying to build a client list, saying No can be difficult. But if the price is wrong, the conditions are less than ideal or the timing is off, you could end up losing out. As self-employed writers who have been negotiating contracts for over three decades, we’ve used many ways to say ‘No.’

All self-employed workers need to learn how to push back. “No” is often the magic word that gets negotiations moving in the right direction and lands a sale on better terms.

16 Ways to Say No

  1. I don’t have time.
  2. This is not my specialty/I don’t do this type of work.
  3. I don’t understand the order.
  4. The order is not realistic.
  5. The project is not interesting enough/I’m not interested.
  6. The deadline is too short.
  7. The deadline is too long.
  8. The job doesn’t pay enough.
  9. The job involves more work than I’m being paid for.
  10. The terms are not good.
  11. There were problems with the last order.
  12. My partner won’t let me work at that price.
  13. The expenses are too high for me.
  14. I know of three other buyers/sellers who would be interested.
  15. I can’t start working on it until next month.
  16. And, finally, the bomb: I don’t like the way you are treating me.

You’ll notice that each ‘No’ on this list is actually an invitation for a counteroffer. You are not closing the door, just asking for a higher fee or better conditions. However, before you use any of these ‘Nos,’ there are a few things to consider.

Be ready to explain your No

No matter how you say No, you must be able to back it up. The more specific you are, the better. For example, we explain to some clients that we have minimum rates and won’t take on any work for less.

Make sure it’s the right No

If the previous job for a client didn’t go well or a customer just isn’t offering enough, you won’t get ahead by saying that the order is too small, or that you don’t have time. Your customer might decide to meet your demands! In that case, you could end up having to deliver a big order to an unreliable customer who doesn’t pay. It’s safer to be honest from the outset.

If you there is more than one No, make it clear right away

10-ways-to-offer-your-sales-team-awesome-incentivesThere could be more than one problem with an offer from a client. If that’s the case, make sure you spell them all out from the outset. If you keep coming up with new reasons to say No as negotiations progress, you will lose credibility.

Make sure the conditions are right to say No

Sometimes the right conditions for saying No are just not there. If you are financially tight or don’t have much work, you might not be in a position to turn down a specific project. If you are just starting out in your field, you may not have the reputation you need to do the kind of work you want. So be realistic in your negotiations. Just don’t shy away from having frank discussions with clients and pushing back. This will give you the opportunity to figure out how much the client is willing to buy, how much they are willing to pay, what their other options are and how quickly they need your project or service—all factors that could push up your price.

Stick to your No

Jean-Benoît once refused a writing project with a friend because the conditions were all wrong: the idea wasn’t very good and the deadline was impossible. The friend responded by pushing Jean-Benoît even harder, saying “I’ll be stuck if you don’t do it,” and “you’re the only person who can do it.” Jean-Benoît relented and regretted it. Everything went wrong and the project ended up taking far more time than he had agreed to. The lesson? Jean-Benoît should have heeded his instinct and stuck to his hard No.

When you are starting out, it might be better to say Yes

When you start out, you will often have to say Yes to terms that you know are unacceptable. That’s normal. There’s a price to pay for building your reputation. But you shouldn’t make these kinds of concessions without at least trying to turn things to your advantage. Go back to our list of 16 ways to say No and find one that fits the circumstances. And remember, there is something better out there and things will be better next time. And with this frame of mind, you’re ready to really start negotiating.

Published: October 19, 2023
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