The Importance Of Saying 'No' In Business

Nov. 1, 2016

I’ve recently been on a self-improvement mission: books, podcasts, blogs, I’m reading and listening to everything I can get my eyes and ears near to.  

Two common themes on this self-improvement path are boundary setting and saying 'no'. Two things I’ve struggled with in the past. As a people pleaser and entrepreneur I have both the desire to please everyone and the unhealthy self-ego that makes me feel like I can do everything.  

That said, as business owners I feel like our businesses are extensions of ourselves.  For instance when my dad became comfortable using plastic as a primary method of payment we signed on with USA Tech, when I decided to go gluten-free (short lived as it was) we started carrying more gluten-free items in our inventory, and because I said yes to everything in my personal life I also said yes to everything in business.  

Lower prices and extra deliveries? Yes! 

Emergency deliveries on a Friday afternoon to fix a mistake we didn’t cause? Yes! 

My cell phone so you can reach me ANYTIME you want, early mornings, late nights, weekends? Yes! 

As you can imagine, and I’m sure as you’ve experienced, the road of 'yes' gets more than a little exhausting and more than a little frustrating as you find that despite all your best efforts your bottom line hasn’t moved.  

Now that I’m on this self-improvement journey for myself, just like gluten-free snacks and credit cards, it’s rubbing off on the business. After all, aren’t our customers just another type of relationship that we need to foster? Like with friends, spouses, children, parents, co-workers, we need to set healthy boundaries with our customers so that they feel valued and we don’t feel used.  

Here are some tips, adapted from an article written by Brene Brown, that may help you decipher when to say 'yes' and when to say 'no'.  

Know Your Direction, Make a Mantra 

In business, if not life in general, I often feel like a firefighter putting out fires, so distracted by the immediate needs of a few that I forget to focus on the bigger picture. In times like this it helps to not only know the direction you want your company to go but also to have a mantra to remember it by when you feel like you should say 'yes' but you know you should say 'no.'

For example, our current focus as a company is to implement Seed but there is still equipment that needs repairing, new accounts that need installing, routes that need servicing, etc. When one of my customers calls in and reports they are out of milk, my immediate thought is to respond with “I’ll be right there.” However, my current mantras are “do the next right thing,” and “do what only you can do.”  

I’m not the only one who can deliver milk so the next best thing is to ask some questions:  is the milk THAT important to the customer?  What does “out” mean to the customer (i.e. sometimes customers say they are out but actually still have 2 gallons on site)? If I pull someone off of a task to deliver the milk am I dramatically and negatively affecting our goal of implementing Seed?   

8 out of 10 times if I think and ask before I reply I can come up with a solution that works for the customer and for our company, because just like in the forest, sometimes it’s okay to let a fire burn as long as it is controlled. 

Keep A Log 

Write down your commitments and track how many you kept, how many you missed and how many you kept but resented following through on. At the end of each week give yourself an honest critic. Ask yourself:

  • Did I keep the bigger picture in mind?  
  • Did I do what only I could do?  
  • Do I have any unhappy customers? 
  • What could I have done better? 

Be HONEST with yourself. Don’t aim for perfection but improvement.  

Practice Saying No…And 

A lot of times we don’t say no because we are afraid of the response we’ll get. We’re afraid our customers will look elsewhere, we’ll get a negative review online or they won’t recommend us to their friends.  

The truth of the matter is that sometimes it’s better to let those customers go. If they want more service and lower prices you aren’t making a lot from their “business” anyway.  

For the ones that are worth keeping, if they have a request that you can’t meet, practice saying “no…and __________.” Fill in the blank with a solution. (I.e. “No we can’t deliver milk today and I’ll up your par levels so this won’t happen again. We’ll be there before 8 am so that your office has milk in the morning.”) 

If you haven’t done so already take some time and assess where you want your company to be when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. Ask yourself what are the things that only you can do to make that vision come to life and ask yourself what are you willing to say yes to. Remember: you cannot say yes to everything, so for every yes you will inevitably have to say no to something and/or someone else. If you practice getting comfortable with this transaction, it may be the best trade you’ll ever make.  

Jennifer Skidmore is a contributing writer for Automatic Merchandiser and wears many hats working in her family's business, J&J Vending Inc. You can read more about Jennifer and her insights on her blog here: