For many small business owners, the word “no” is almost taboo.
It raises questions such as, “What if I miss out on an amazing growth opportunity?” or, “Can’t I take on just one more project to hit my revenue goal this month?”
But from another angle, saying no can be extremely empowering (and good for your business).
We’ll look at “no” in two parts: When to say it, and how to say it.
When to Say No
As tough as it can be to turn down a new opportunity, saying “no” can actually be a smart move for your business. Don’t believe me? Take Steve Jobs’ word for it:
“People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
Sure, it can be tempting to jump at every new opportunity or challenge presented to you—especially when your small business is just starting out. There’s still that lingering fear that everything you’ve worked so hard to build will fall apart, so saying “yes” is a sort of delusional insurance policy. (We’ve all been there.)
However, there are a few instances in which saying no is completely necessary.
You’re at Capacity
Regardless of if you’re a service-based or product-based business, there is a saturation point at which you cannot take on more work. It could be a staff limitation, a lack of sufficient time resources—whatever the tipping point, you know when you’ve reached it.
How do you know?
You’re working extremely long hours
You rarely have time to spend with your family
Your health and sleep habits are suffering
You don’t enjoy the work you’re doing anymore
You’re constantly stressed and frazzled
When you start to notice your work/life balance slipping away, as much as you want to say yes—this is the time when you have to say no.
It’s Not Profitable
Face it: As a small business owner, your focus needs to be on profit-driven initiatives. So when you’re presented with new gigs that sound like an exciting challenge, but they’re complexly unpaid, in most instances, the answer should be no.
A few examples of “no” opportunities:
An unpaid speaking gig (especially if the audience isn’t relevant)
A chance to work with someone you admire (if they’re not paying, they’re taking advantage of you)
A “trial period” where a client promises to pay you down the road (don’t work for free!)
Your time is precious. Instead of chasing every new opportunity, pour your effort into the people and projects that truly see value in what your business has to offer. They’ll be the ones who are willing to pay for it.
It’s Out of Your Niche
You have a target demographic you market your small business to, right? You know exactly what your ideal customers look like and you serve them well.
But what about when you get a shiny new offer from a prospect who falls outside your normal arena? Ask yourself the following questions:
Does it conflict with the main demographic you serve?
Do you have enough expertise to be able to do the job?
Does it hurt the image you’re trying to create around your brand?
If you can’t say yes to these, it’s probably a good idea to say no. It can be tempting to chase any offer that comes your way, but think long term about your business and stay true to your mission and goals.
Now that you know when to say no, it’s time to look at how to say it_._
How to Say No
According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it appears there is a correct way to say no.
The study looked like this: 120 students were split into two groups. One group used “I can’t” while the other used “I don’t.”
Then, when presented with lucrative opportunities or treats, they would reply with their assigned response. At the end of the study, members of both groups were presented with a chocolate bar and a granola bar. Students who had said “I can’t eat X” chose the candy bar 61% of the time, while the ones who had said “I don’t eat X” only chose the candy bar 36% of the time.
The same tactic was repeated on in a longer-format study. Thirty working women were asked to sign up for a health seminar and for the next 10 days were sent an email asking for report on progress. One group was told to use “I can’t” language while another was told to use “I don’t” language.The results? Of the “can’t” group, only 1 of the 10 stayed with their goals. Of the “don’t” group, 8 of 10 stayed with their goals.
So what does this tell us about saying no?
Saying no by means of “can’t” is a reminder of your limitations. It implies a feeling of restriction—you want do so something, but you’re not allowed to.
“Don’t” on the other hand is a much more empowering way to say no. It communicates control and power over the decisions and choices you make.
Think about this in relation to your business and how you respond to proposals with a 'no' answer. The way you say it may influence the perception the receiver has of you—and the perception you have of your own business.
Here’s an example: Say you get an email that asks if you’d conduct a consulting session for $250. Your minimum consulting fee is $1,000. You might respond with:
Now look at that in comparison to a no answer using “can’t.”
See how the no response using “don’t” reinforces the value of your business? You’re not saying you’re resource-limited as with 'can't' (be it by time, financial, or workload), but you’re making a conscious decision to only take on a certain caliber (or price point) of work.
The Secret to Saying No
So what's the small business owner's secret to saying no? It's simple: Know when to say it, and when it's time, say it the right way.
Be empowered by your ability to say no. Use it to showcase the value of your work to others--and to yourself.