The success of your business may depend on your ability to say "no."
Sure, the word "yes" can be important, too. "Yes" is the first word an entrepreneur may utter—as in, yes, I'm going to be my own boss and start my own company. But it's the word "no" that can often decide whether you're going to be able to stay in business.
After all, it can be easy to say yes. That's a word that usually makes people happy. Yes, we'll be able to do this order even though it's completely out of our skill set. Yes, you can take next week off. Yes, you can have our products and services for half price.
Unfortunately, the word "yes" might also drive you out of business fast.
Of course, if you say no all the time, that can blow up in your face, too. You may miss chances for growth, and come off as close-minded, maybe even fearful, to your employees, customers and vendors.
So how do you know when to say no? It can be more of an art than science, but these business owners and consultants offer some guidelines. Before you say no, ask yourself the following questions.
Does "no" assist with the greater good?
When you want to be helpful and may have even started your business to help people, "it's hard to say no. As a society, we're taught that it's rude, and we should always be willing to help," says Michael Bremmer, CEO of TelecomQuotes.com, an Orange County, California-based company that works as a technology partner with nonprofits and government agencies.
But you may not be able to help and shouldn't help, if saying yes will go against your business's mission.
Erik Endress, CEO of a Ramsey, New Jersey-based software company, Share911.com, says, "In those moments, I think of Spock, who said sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
What's in it for your business?
Bremmer claims that he often asks himself what a "yes" will cost him in time, effort, energy and expense, four parameters you may also want to measure.
Put another way, Alexandra Golaszewska, who owns Helios Media (formerly Alexandra Go LLC), a public relations firm in Philadelphia, admits she used to accept unpaid speaking engagements, sometimes from very well-funded companies and organizations. At the time, she felt she was getting some benefit from her outings. "I got out and met people, and it was good to get some practice speaking in front of a group," Golaszewska says.
But she also knew that saying yes so often was hurting her bottom line.
"These things take a lot of time and energy between preparation and travel, and I knew that I was able to do them only because I wasn't fully booked with clients yet," she says. "So I thought about where I wanted my business to be, and reminded myself that putting in that much work without getting paid was not part of it."
Before too long, Golaszewska says she became very particular about requests, "and started saying no to most of them. Before long, those openings in my schedule were full of work I was doing for real clients."
Do you want this relationship that badly?
Sarah-Mai Conway, co-founder and COO of Resolute Fitness, a boutique fitness studio, admits she struggles with saying no to customers.
"We want to be nice, and we have a strong reputation for that, but we also need to earn a dollar," she says, "and some clients push us hard to take advantage of our niceness."
That is, they want some services cheaper, or for free.
—Sarah-Mai Conway, co-founder and COO, Resolute Fitness
"We train our staff to own up to it when they make mistakes, and to do what's needed to make amends, but to otherwise stick to the rules. Nobody wins if we offer our services for free—we won't stay in business."
But what Conway has come to realize is that saying no to a customer who then leaves and never returns may mean that her business has simply driven away a bad client.
"Good clients," she says, "understand they get what they pay for, and that our services are well worth the price."
Could "yes" backfire?
Neil Bondre, founder of The Interview Professional, a coaching service that helps people being interviewed, has learned to say no if people come to him wanting help in an area that is outside his wheelhouse.
"I don't want clients walking away and saying that I didn't know the material," Bondre says. "Bad reviews aren't worth one client. This will hurt my brand and reputation."
He advises other entrepreneurs to do the same. "Focus on your strengths and core business. Excel in those areas, and the clients will come," he says. "Do not be reaching for clients. Jack-of-all-trades is a master of none."
Do you feel uneasy about saying yes?
Nedalee Thomas, CEO of Chanson Water, a Laguna Hills, California, company that sells water ionizers and filters, claims that recently someone kept pushing her to invest $15,000 in a movie to get a few seconds of her product shown.
She was asked for weeks but ultimately said no. "I knew the movie wouldn't come out for over 18 months, if ever, and that the small spot would not generate sales," Thomas says.
It was harder to say no to an employee, she adds, who wrote her an "elaborate, well thought out letter" about why Thomas's company should sponsor the employee's daughter's softball team.
Still, Thomas declined.
Business, she explains, always has to come first. Though she's still not sure how her decision about the movie will play out, she found out pretty quickly that she was right about not sponsoring the softball team.
"Weeks later, the daughter was no longer on the team," Thomas says. "My money would have been completely wasted."
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A version of this article was originally published on January 21, 2016.