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Doing the wrong kind of work is so damaging, I’ve included it as one of the Four Foundation Foundations in Watertight Marketing. Which means that learning when, and how, to say no to a potential new customer is an important skill for any growing business. Doing it, and doing it with grace, can actually enhance your reputation. Doing it poorly can put your company’s goodwill at risk.

Why turn work down?

It’s important to understand situations in which your company should turn down a potential new customer. Here are three key scenarios where I firmly believe that it’s better not to take on the business:

  1. Undermines your standard of delivery: if you have so much work that you’re unable to meet, or exceed, the customer’s expectations, don’t take on any more work. It really is better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.
  2. Not the right fit: really successful businesses know when a customer is right for them. Often this is about whether the people involved are going to get along. It is really important that you think carefully about the kind of individuals that your business is best matched to. If the personalities don’t fit, the relationship will never be right.
  3. The wrong kind of work: this is the most important of them all. Taking on work that doesn’t progress your business is wrong for them, wrong for you, and wrong for your bottom line. Defining the right and wrong kind of work is a key strategic differentiator.

My rule of thumb is that it either needs to make a serious PROFIT, or I need to be immensely PROUD of the work that I’m doing. If it does neither, I definitely don’t do it. In fact, these days I’m lucky enough to be able to only go for work that meets both these criteria. Take a moment to work your own rules.

When I talk to many MDs of growing businesses about this idea, it’s not unusual to hear them say something along the lines of… “Yeah, I know some of our customers are a pain in the posterior, but I just can’t afford to turn them away. When we’re in high demand I’ll get rid of them.”

To my ears, this sounds a bit like someone saying, “Yeah, when I hit my ideal weight, I’m going to stop eating pies.”

It’s a whole lot easier to reach those goals if you down take on stuff that weighs you down in the first place!

Once you’ve worked out the situations in which it’s best to say no, you then need to think about how you might do so.

How to turn down work with dignity

When somebody wants to work with you, turning them down can leave a bad taste. In a connected world, it’s really important that everybody has something good to say about their interaction with your company. If you’ve decided that the work that you’ve been asked to do isn’t quite right for your company then you need to say no without causing offence. Some key ways to do this:

  • Point them at some useful advice: if you have a blog, pull out any key material which you think could be useful with helping them with whatever it is they’ve asked you to do for them.
  • Direct them to online resources: these are third party resources and you should have a collection of information that is related to your area of expertise that you can point people to.
  • Refer them to a trusted supplier: it’s important that you build relationships with competitors and complementary businesses to your own. You should have someone that you turn to when that piece of business is a bit too small for you or a bit too large, or not quite your cup of tea. If you are able to hand them onto someone that can do them an excellent job, this will reflect well on your business.
  • Stay in touch: just because you weren’t able to help someone out now, it does not mean that you may not be able to in the future, or that they may not be an excellent referrer for your business. Whenever someone has enquired about your business, even if it does not result in a paying customer, it should result in a new person on your little black book (or LinkedIn as it’s known these days). Make sure you ask them if it would be OK to stay in touch.

Nobody is nobody

There are businesses who simply ignore enquiries from people who don’t meet their qualification criteria or are off-hand in the way that they decline that piece of work. Really, there are. Don’t be that business. I talk a lot about Commercial Karma. And, nothing is worse for your Karma than letting someone down or ignoring them!

It’s extremely important to remember that everybody is somebody. Not least as a valuable human being, but in a social media enabled business community, the world is getting smaller by the day. And, you need to be very aware of word of mouth. You don’t know that the person that just contacted your business isn’t the best friend of your ideal customer. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of the best businesses have started in bedrooms. That call from a one-man-band who wasn’t worth your time could just be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m also a great believer in serendipity. The more people you have genuine conversations with; the more chance there is of that unexpected connection that really takes your business forward. It’s that Commercial Karma in action.

Only do work that will enhance your reputation

When it comes to deciding what work to take on, think about work that you know your business does brilliantly. If you only take on work where you know that you can excel, then you know that there will be good things said about you. Always be polite and pleasant to whoever might be getting in touch with you. And always pass work on to someone it will be right for.

For me, this means operating an abundance mentality – there really is more than enough work to go around. Passing business on to a competitor has never done me any harm. In fact, I’d say the goodwill has come back by the bucket load.

So remember, that there really are times when saying no to potential new business is the right thing for your business. Just make sure that the way that you say it is not the wrong thing for your company’s reputation.

© Bryony Thomas | Cartoon by Simon Ellinas. This is an adapted excerpt from Watertight Marketing.


Bryony Thomas

Bryony Thomas

Author & Founder, Watertight Marketing

Bryony Thomas is the creator of the multi-award winning  Watertight Marketing methodology, captured in her best-selling book of the same name. She is one of the UK's foremost marketing thinkers, featured by the likes of Forbes, The Guardian, Business Insider and many more, and in-demand speaker for business conferences, in-house sales days and high-level Board strategy days.

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