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How to Politely Say No and When To Do It

Another Monday and another successful Reader Question Monday.  Usually I go with kind of a FIFO model for reader questions, but I bumped one that I’d just logged because it seems interesting.  It concerns how to politely say no and how to know when to say no with clients and prospects.  I’ve excerpted some of the question here.

 I have a problem I have run into and it has to do with when to say “no” to work.

I have the chance to work on a project where my gut says I should not, not only is the project at least two months, it is at a rate that is too low for 1099. There are also many issues with current infrastructure and architecture which the owner wants to bypass. I guess my point is how do I turn down the work gracefully. In the past I have taken on this type of project and worked 12 hour days for 9 months to get it done, obviously, I don’t want to do that again.

I guess my point is, it is really hard to say “no” but it would be easier if there was a way to vet possible work with others [who] are knowledgeable about architecture so perhaps a way to audit upcoming work to see if taking on the work makes sense. How do you weigh the pros and cons? How do you get second opinions that are good, not random?

When a prospect is proudly showing you a dumpy house, how to politely say no is a good skill to have.

Extracting Themes Around No

This is a common situation for an independent.  But it could just easily apply to anyone reading in the midst of a job search.  Or even in even less dramatic fashion — maybe your boss pitches you working with a different group for a time.

Some common, recognizable themes emerge.

  • Saying no to things is hard, professionally.  Our very wiring tells us to please, as illustrated by the phrase “the customer is always right.”
  • Saying no to things has real downsides.  For employees it can mean lost capital and for free agents, lost revenue and belt tightening.
  • We see red flags, but have a predisposition to proceed anyway and hope for the best.
  • It’d be nice if we could get some insider information to tell us whether to heed the red flags.
  • In general, a framework for sizing up work would be good.

How to Politely Say No

I should note that I did dedicate a chapter entitled “The Art of No” to this subject in Developer Hegemony.   That was more about how aspiring opportunists should steer themselves away from politically perilous situations, but some of the techniques certainly apply.

You never really want to just say a blunt “no” outright to a client prospect.  Even if you think working with them makes for a terrible fit or they’ve rubbed you wrong during discovery, you’re running a business.  You want a reputation for playing nice and being professional.  Here are some general ways to demur on a prospective gig.

  • Say no, but offer to help them find someone who will say yes.  In a sense, this isn’t “no” at all.  You could almost think of it as steering them toward a lower tier offering.  “This isn’t a great fit for me, but let me put you in touch with Steve, who…”
  • It’s not you, it’s me.  “Given the budget you’ve allocated for this and your engagement model, I don’t think I’d be a fit.  I usually direct projects like this and am used to incremental value delivery, and it appears you’re looking for an app dev staff augmentation.”  I suggest doing what I did here — subtly phrase it in a way that positions what they want as a budget offering.  This will prompt them to start making concessions if they really want you.
  • Say that your calendar presents a conflict for the work.
  • You can be direct and honest and just say that you don’t think the work is a fit for what you offer.  Careful here, though.  Direct and honest sounds like the best (and to some, only) option, but it puts a lot of clients and prospects in a defensive posture.  It may leave them with a bad taste in their mouths.
  • Or, finally, you can get them to say no instead.  More on this later.

Know When to Say No By Anchoring with an Ideal Client

Learning how to say no and when to say no are really two different skills.  How to politely say no to things has pretty broad applicability, but the advice for when to say no is pretty work-specific (and free agent specific in many regards).

The reader question talks about past bad experiences, and red flags that a prospective experience may prove similar.  This highlights an important dynamic — more experience makes it easier to predict how future gigs will go.  A common tactic for this prediction involves looking for similarities to bad gigs of the past, and that makes sense.  But I’d encourage a different approach.

Picture your ideal client.

I mean, really, picture this.  Hopefully you’ve had a really good past gig, which lets you say, “oh, my ideal client is Doug!”  Start with an actual, good experience.  Then, dissect that into its components, examining exactly what made this a good experience.  Did it pay well?  Was Doug easygoing and responsive?  Was the work uniquely rewarding?  You get the idea.

With one or more examples backing it, you’re creating the profile of your ideal client that includes a discrete set of yes or no questions.  (Like the ones I laid out in the post that prompted this question, for instance.)  You can then further divide these questions into “preferables” and “non-negotiables.”

Now, you have a dispassionate framework for assessing fit, and one that doesn’t as much rely on gut feel or “red flags.”

My Recommendations for Ideal and Less-Than-Ideal Client Distinction

This might not help as much if you’re new to the hustle or if you’ve never had the fortune to find great clients.  So I’ll opine a bit on things that I recommend considering.

First, does the prospect excite you?  It should.  And, this is a surprisingly good framework of thought for taking into account your current straights.  What I mean is, if you’re flush with business and something excites you, it figures to be an awesome client.  On the flip side, if you need something to land so you can pay your mortgage, even a dreary assignment will likely excite you.  Capture your initial feeling about the engagement because it’s probably pretty valuable.

Second, bear in mind the Pareto Principle and its wisdom that the worst 20% of your clients will account for 80% of your headaches.  If the gig inspires unease and you’re in a financial position to do so, just pass on it.  Toiling away for bad clients means you’re not out looking for the ideal ones.  And the ideal ones are out there.

Finally, do NOT move on price near the bottom of your range (or really at all, if you ask me).  The absolute worst gigs will arise from a price sensitive client negotiating you down below your preferred range.  Both of you will feel the other is taking advantage.  You’ll resent them from the outset for underpaying you.  Meanwhile, they’ll want Cadillac service from you because they’re paying more than they think the work is worth.  The result?  They’ll make endless demands and nickle and dime you and you’ll resent them the whole time.

Get Them To Say No

This brings me back to what I said earlier.  Don’t say no to them — get them to say no to you.  This sounds weird in a world of career advice like “do anything to get the job offer and THEN say no if you don’t like it.”  But it’s a much better situation when you let bad-fit clients disqualify themselves.

To make this more tangible with an example, consider my business, Hit Subscribe.  We have a set way that we interact with clients and offer content and we have a set pricing model.  So imagine a prospect reaching out, and a conversation like this.

Prospect: Do you think you could help us with content?

Me: Sure!  Let me tell you a bit about what we do.  We have content packages where we plan topics for you, handle graphics, editing, SEO optimization, and publishing.  This starts at $1,600 a month for the introductory package with 1200 word posts.

Prospect: Oh, well that’s not exactly what we had in mind.  We’re looking for 15,000 word blog posts with references to 6 whitepapers each, and we have a crisp $50 bill for each post someone delivers.  I guess you’re not who we should talk to.

Me:  Yeah, probably not.  You might have more luck on Upwork.

This is where having a list of engagement non-negotiables comes in handy.  You can steer the discovery discussion by explaining how you work, for what prices, etc.  Take the way you work with your ideal clients and present it as your standard operating model.  Not only does this give you a stronger negotiating position (you have a professional operation in place), but it also subtly shifts the dynamic.  They’re not pitching something to you and you’re saying no.  You’re pitching your services and they’re saying no (or agreeing to your terms).

Work Toward Saying No a Lot

I’ll close by suggesting that you want to make it your goal to say no a lot.  Again, this sounds counterintuitive, but trust me on this.

As you go along, operationalizing what you do and helping more and more clients, you’ll get more and more demand going.  This is especially true if you market and position yourself well.   More people will want to work with you than you can accommodate, so you say no a good bit.  You get into a position to be choosy.

At first, you’ll say no after clients pitch work to you and you deliberate carefully.  As you establish yourself and your operation model, “no” will come out of your non-negotiable discovery and disqualification, as with the above Hit Subscribe hypothetical.  Eventually, you can automate “no” by having clients apply to be clients through your website or by making how you work clear in your marketing.  Remember, good marketing is just as much about filtering out poor fits for your offering as it is about filtering in good fits.

So create a model of your ideal client and turn that into how you do business.  And then use that to stick to your guns.  Say no early and often.  That way, when you do say yes, it’s to something that advances your business and makes you happy to boot.

Fire Away with More Questions!

If you have a question, please feel free to ask!  I answer them in every Monday’s post.

And, by the way…

If you like the wisdom here, such as it is, you can get a whole lot of that more in my recently released book, Developer Hegemony.  If you want a sample of that, you can sign up to download some chapters below.

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2 Comments on "How to Politely Say No and When To Do It"

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Peter Morlion
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I like to add something positive when saying no. And it’s actually always been true in the past. I say that I’m not finished with the project I’m currently working on, and have always preferred to finish projects for clients. This allows me to politely say no, while giving them a positive reason, which they’ll (hopefully) remember, ie this is a guy that sticks with it until it’s done.

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