Saying “No” Means Never Having to Feel Sorry You Did

With a nod to the famous quote “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” from the novel and movie “Love Story,” saying NO is one of the hardest things we ever have to do.

The stars Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal made that one of the most famous lines in movie history. Here they are:

You need to learn how to say “no” to unreasonable requests and never feel sorry, or guilty, that you did. That’s the hard part.

Have you ever chastised yourself when you turned down a piece of new business because you simply couldn’t make money from the prospect’s offer? Or, when a client asked you to lower your fee on your next assignment?

Or, when you wanted to say no to a manager who asked you to take on yet another project when your plate was already overflowing with work? The good news is that there are ways to say “no” so that everyone wins.

Offer Potential Solutions

Clients often ask consultants to throw in a service for free – a “freebie.” You need to evaluate whether you want to lose the good will of the client by saying no or if there is a way to make it work.

For example, we received a call from a law firm partner asking me to coach his daughter pro bono as she was changing jobs and needed help improving her interview skills. The law firm is a valued client. While I knew we couldn’t book a day for her, I told the client, “I’ll be glad to spend some time coaching her following one of my training sessions with the partners at a reduced fee as a favor to you.”

The client was happy, and it worked without my giving up a half day that could be spent with another paying client. One of our rules is to avoid offering to do work pro bono because people do not place as high a high value on work that is done for free. We do not have a non-profit rate but often make a donation to the charity once we have been paid. A “win-win.”

Suppose you’re a media relations person. Your friend starts a charity and asks you to do media placement pro bono. You want to say no, but there are ways of doing it without fracturing your relationship.

You could respond, “I totally support what you’re doing but I simply don’t have time because I’m working on a major project. I’ll certainly donate money to your charity and I can recommend someone who can work with you.” You’ve said no, coupled with a solution.

Do What’s Right For You

Saying no also means not being drawn into projects that are outside your interests or core competencies.

What's right for you?

What’s right for you?

You’ll be miserable and constantly stressed. Step back and ask yourself, “Do I love what I’m doing? Can I make a living doing what I’m good at and love?” Do an honest self-assessment and adjust your plan until you can answer yes to each question.

If you work within an organization, it’s tricky to say no to your manager when he gives you another project and you already have more work that you can handle. You don’t have the option of moving on to another client when you have only one client.

Don’t play the role of victim. Offer potential solutions that will get the work done – by others on your team. Or, ask him to specify the priority projects and then ask for more time to be complete the non-urgent assignments.

If you don’t speak up and try to do everything, your work will suffer and so will you. Managers will respect you for offering a solution to a problem.

Stick to Your Guns

You have to stick to your guns when you feel you must say no. If you’re discussing fees, you can say, “As much as I’d like to work with you, it’s just not possible for me to take on this assignment for less than the quoted fee.” You might feel bad about disappointing the prospect – but don’t feel sorry for saying no when it’s right for you.

Back in the days of the dot.com bubble, many companies offered stock in lieu of cash for services rendered. But if a new Internet start-up asks you to accept stock, it’s the equivalent of your subsidizing a company that may not be around in a year. If the offer isn’t appealing, just say no – even if it’s a friend or former client.

We know consultants that have been contacted by leading global companies and asked to work without pay for the prestige of showcasing the company as a client.

That is the height of arrogance. Be prepared to ask, “Is your company in business to make a profit? So are we.” That kind of client has the potential to nickel and dime you to death if they actually retain you.

Don’t Second Guess Yourself

When you’ve said no, don’t second guess yourself. Let’s face it. It’s scary to turn down any business when you don’t have any.

Business may be soft, so you decide you take on a client at a fraction of your normal rate.

But look what could happen. The next month a load of new business comes in and you’re stuck fulfilling a contract that doesn’t earn you a profit.

Trust your instincts. You don’t want to lose a client because you refused a request to do a project without being paid. But if you do, will that establish a bad precedent? What do you do when the free favors start piling up?

Ironically, you risk incurring the anger of the client if you say no because she now has the expectation that you will routinely do “freebies” or lower your rates.

You may fear for your job in the company if you say no. But it’s even riskier to say yes when you take on another assignment and the quality of your work suffers.

Saying no is never easy. Sometimes there isn’t a potential solution and you just need to walk away.

Never feel sorry that you did. Use the time you would have given away for free to go after companies that will become the clients you build relationships with for the long haul. Clients who will appreciate your skill sets and pay on time!

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