When To Say NO (And How To Do It)


Jun 03

When To Say NO (And How To Do It)

Did you know that one of the most common triggers for stress or burnout as a business owner is the inability to say NO?

I get it, you are most likely thinking of other things such as finances, employees, customer demand, market shifts, etc. All of those things are triggers too, but trust me when I tell you that every business owner needs to learn to say NO if they want to keep their sanity.

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs learn this lesson the hard way. I should know… I did.

When I started my business, I was hungry for growth, and I said YES to every opportunity that came my way. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did.

While this practice certainly helped me feed my family and grow my business in those early years, it also developed a bad habit. I got so used to saying YES to everything that I was actually hurting my business. I was saying YES to things that were definitely not in my wheelhouse and also were not very profitable. To top it off, I was miserable because I did not enjoy the work.

Saying YES as you try to grow your business gives you the opportunity to generate revenue and prove yourself and your skillsets, but every successful business owner will reach a point when they need to learn to say NO.

Are you at that point? How will you know?

Here are some indicators that you may be at a point where you need to start saying NO:

  • Are you working too many hours week in and week out? A common misconception is that in order to be successful as a business owner, you must work 80 hours a week. This is a simply not true and actually leads to productivity issues, mistakes, health concerns, and ultimately burnout.
  • Do you have a significant backlog of projects that need to be completed and find you are always behind schedule? If so, you either have a product/service delivery issue or you have too much in the pipeline. Far too often it is the latter and a result of saying YES at a level that exceeds your delivery model.
  • Are there certain clients or projects that you routinely set aside because the work is more difficult than it should be, or you simply don’t enjoy it? In my experience, those who focus their time and energy on what they enjoy and what they are best at doing are happier and more successful. If you keep putting off certain projects, or if there are certain customers you struggle to satisfy, it might be time to say NO.
  • Are you struggling to keep up with the demand for the products/services that ARE in your wheelhouse? If you are, then it’s time to cut some other things loose. When you have difficulty delivering on your most profitable offerings, you need to take a hard look at everything in your pipeline and eliminate those projects that are less profitable and suck the life out of you.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it is a really good place to start. If you haven’t yet considered these factors, I would encourage you to do so.


Once you have determined that it’s time for you to start saying NO, how do you actually start doing it?

I understand this predicament because I’ve been there too. When you’ve said YES to everything for so long, saying NO requires a bit of a paradigm shift for most of us. Finally being at a place where you are willing to say NO is a good thing, but how do you do it in a way that is simple, yet professional?

In my experience, honesty is always the best policy. Most people appreciate the truth and while they may be disappointed, I am confident that they will respect you as long as you are straight with them, and are kind in the process. A few examples I use consistently are:

  • I wish I could solve your problem, but I simply don’t have the bandwidth to take on your project right now. I’m sorry that I can’t help you at this time.
  • As my business has grown, I’ve had to make some difficult decisions in terms of what I focus my time and energy on. Unfortunately this is just not an area that is profitable for my business, so I’ve had to shift away from offering this service.
  • Honestly, I am not best suited to help you with this. I work with some great resources who are much better at this than I am, and I would love to get you connected with them. I am extremely confident they will serve you well.

Obviously, the last example is a really good one because even though you are not going to solve the customer’s problem, you are offering them a resource that will solve their problem. That is a great way to exit gracefully and build good will at the same time.

While there is certainly much more I could cover on this topic, I trust you will find this helpful as you continue to build your business. If you have questions or simply want to dig deeper, I’d love to speak with you. You can reach me at kent@kentgustafson.com.

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