Sometimes ‘no’ is better than ‘yes’

May 24, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 9.04.19 AMIn a good economy, it’s easy to take on a lot of work and fill the pipeline, but some of that work can be bad for your firm. In a robust economy like the one we are now experiencing, it is easy to get caught up in the quick pace of accepting projects and enjoying the bounty of filling up the pipeline. The same often holds true when business is slow and you accept work just for the sake of staying busy. Saying “yes” to every opportunity may feel gratifying or even necessary at times, but it can lead to problems that you might not have anticipated. Planning and vetting. From a strategic standpoint, you must know the clients and markets you want and that your team can capably support. Are your clients expanding within those markets, and are you aware of those projects? Are your clients entering new markets that you really don’t want to enter? Discerning the scope of your relationship with your client and the viability of your markets are keys to planning and vetting for your team. This will inevitably mean paring down the list of projects or clients you can pursue or maintain so that you can manage the work you secure. By being realistic about your capacity and interest in the work, you will free up time to pursue projects that you have identified as more favorable to the success of your firm. If you follow the easy path and simply accept the work that crosses your path, you can end up with a full pipeline that can disappoint you. When the right project opportunity comes along, you may be too busy to accept it. Being honest about your capacity. Do you have the capacity to do the work and deliver it based on your client’s needs? Being honest about your capacity and ability to do the work to the satisfaction of your client is an important step to enhancing your credibility and brand value. Long-term, there is greater benefit to the firm if you are recognized in the marketplace as a firm which performs as advertised. When you say “yes” to everything, you may develop the reputation as the “dumping ground” in the market. It is possible that you are not getting the work because your client likes your service, but only because your competitors are turning them down. If you haven’t established your criteria to accept work which should include your capacity to engage in a project, complete it and profit from the work you accept, how can you continue to randomly accept work? Because the economy has rebounded, there is also a serious shortage of talent and staffing resources. In this hiring environment, it can be very difficult and costly to buy your way out of this shortage. Are you spending all of your profit just to staff up for business when that business is not in your best long-term interest? Also, adding people just for the sake of gaining numbers to fill jobs for projects that do not fit your strategic plan can adversely impact your firm from the inside out. Declining: The value of a strategic “no.” Internally, it is important that you clearly define what work and clients you want to pursue. By knowing each client’s markets and future opportunities, you can best position your firm to accept the work you want and decline the work that does not fit your strategic plans. So how do you say “no” when it is best for your firm, but still keep the clients you want? You explain why you are declining this specific project. When you explain why you are saying “no,” you also have the opportunity to articulate the strategic goals of your firm to your clients and, more importantly, how those goals align with your client’s goals. In some cases, you may even refer these clients to competitors who might serve them best for a given project. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you are a true partner, then you need to offer the best advice that you can. Avoid commoditizing your services. When you say decline and explain why, and when you turn down work or refer it to others who are better suited for that work, you build trust with your clients. You operate as an advisor and consultant, and your client will begin to more highly value your advice and work product. They will recognize that you have their best interest in mind just as much as you have that of your own firm. By establishing this business relationship, you build added value to your services, and it becomes easier to avoid commoditization of your work. You should be proud of your work, so why ever consider selling it for less than it is worth? What are you afraid of? There is the risk that you might alienate a client or that they won’t return to you because you have declined them. My experience is that if you say “no” and offer the reasons why, they do return. But if you say “yes” and fail to perform according to their expectations, the road back to the client will be long and difficult. Instead of being afraid of declining work, you should be more afraid of blindly accepting projects that randomly present themselves. Consider the example of the food chain. The more highly advanced the species, the more selective they become on what they eat. So where do you want to be in the “food chain” of our industry? Gaining confidence by being decisive. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never easy, but knowing and doing what is best for you and your firm is always the correct decision. Taking on the perceived risk of declining work, which I consider to be minimal risk for making decisions that are best for your firm, can be empowering for you and those who are on your team. We do this all the time in our personal lives, so why be afraid in a business setting? By being decisive and leading your team to follow a strategic path that distinguishes your firm and demonstrates your core capabilities, you will develop the reputation that you deserve and discover the kind of growth that you will truly enjoy. Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1147 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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