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In Defense of Saying “No”

by Katie Mehas

in Your Brand, In Business

About this column

Business basics for brand creators. Because keeping up with the details shouldn’t derail your big dreams.

In Defense of Saying "No"Have you ever worked with your Wrong Person?

It’s not a phrase we use often — we’re more focused on the positive here, the Right Person ideal client who you really want to do business with, day after day.

It’s a very different experience with the not-so-ideal client.

There’s a mindset in certain circles of business that’s focused on getting as many sales as possible. Don’t say anything too “out there” or you might scare off clients. Try to mimic the voices of the big names; it’s working for them. Appeal to as many people as possible. Hustle. Promote. Sell sell sell.

But here’s the thing: when you dilute yourself to appeal to everyone, you’re going to miss out on the people who would love your weird little quirks. And you’re going to attract people who are looking for…well, whatever it is you’re pretending to be.

Your Right Person comes to you because she believes you can do the job better than others in your market. Sure, it might take some convincing — samples, testimonials, great sales copy, even an exploratory intro session if that’s your thing — but by the time she signs on that dotted line, she trusts that you know what you’re doing. This isn’t blind trust, and it’s probably not boundless, but generally speaking, she hired you for being good at what you do, and she believes you’re going to do it well for her.

Your not-so-right person? They question you every step of the way.

Do you really need to follow this process? Can’t we do it my way?

I know you said you needed this, but I thought maybe you could work around it.

I was talking to my partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend, and she knew someone who did work like this once, and she said…

It’s exhausting.

It’s not that they’re bad people, or even bad clients — they’re just not your clients.

See, that’s the thing about the Wrong Person.

It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, just wrong for you.

Someone else is already following your Wrong Person’s process. They totally agree with the partner’s sister’s neighbor’s friend’s acquaintance. All those areas of friction that keep you stalled and sluggish? Like buttah.

Your Wrong Person is their Right Person. And yet, here you are…

They’ll fill up your schedule. They’ll take all of your energy. Six weeks into a two-week project, you’ll glance back at your scope in the rear view mirror as you fly into double-overtime with no end in sight. You’ll work nights. Weekends. Your daughter’s birthday. You could be hit by a bus, and you’ll be pecking out an email on your phone with two broken thumbs, responding to the 8,654th “I know it’s a bad time, but…”

You remember how you were so excited to make the sale? You’re spending twice as long on a project that doesn’t bring you half as much joy. Too many of these, and you’ll find yourself questioning if following your dream is really worth it.

(It is. But not like this.)

Working with your Wrong Person takes a lot out of you. They expect you to work outside of your comfort zone, because they don’t understand where that is for you. It’s not their fault; they probably don’t know any better.

So here’s the thing. You do know better. And you know what else?

It’s okay to say no.

I’m not talking about after they’ve signed on, though, you know, feel free to have someone without two broken arms shoot them a message to that effect if you have a run-in with a Greyhound. I mean, at the beginning.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I’m a fit for your needs.”

Boom. It’s that simple.

(It’s not. It never is. But it’s a start.)

Of course, some people will take it personally. It’s not. You just see what they need and know what you have to offer, and you understand that there’s a disconnect. So help them see where that disconnect is. Keep it simple but straightforward. You want X, I do Y. You don’t owe them a thesis, but be kind; they’re lost and don’t realize they haven’t found their solution. Try to have a plan for how you’re going to approach this in advance, because, if you’re anything like me, rejecting someone  — even for all the right reasons — is going to give you all kinds of anxiety, and having a script to fall back on takes some of that pressure off of you.

If you know of someone who’s a better fit to support them, make a referral. I know, it sounds totally crazy to pass a potential client on to someone else. But think of it this way: if you’re a dog-walker and someone comes to you looking for a birthday cake, you’re going to send them to someone who bakes birthday cakes. This isn’t really any different, just a little more specialized.

When we live in our own zone of genius, we tend to do our best work. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch yourself and try to learn more, but you understand what you’re all about, and you probably know, in your gut, when a potential client is asking for something different. Don’t fill your schedule with the Wrong People and then find you have no room when the Right People come calling.

So how do we avoid attracting the Wrong People?

Some of it is probably unavoidable. You’re going to get the occasional rogue inquiry, whether from a random web search or just someone who likes your philosophy but doesn’t really understand your process. Learn how to say no to them gently and with kindness. Make sure they understand that you simply don’t offer the experience they’re seeking, and steer them in the right direction if you can.

Other times, it’s just a matter of keeping your content authentic. This is especially true if you’re selling a physical product — you can’t exactly stop someone from pressing that “Add to Cart” button, but you may find yourself disputing their bad reviews and processing their returns for a product they just didn’t really understand (because, um, it wasn’t meant for them).

Remember that warning about scaring people off? Try to reframe your thinking. So you geek out over systems, or you cry at ASPCA commercials, or you take one week off every month to re-center on a desert meditation retreat. So your throw pillows are designed to suit a funky witchy-goth-boho vibe, or your hand-thrown ceramic mugs are intentionally a little bit wobbly. The kind of person who is going to love working with you is going to love that about you. They’re going to see you in all your quirks and think, “Finally, I have found my people.” And you’re going to have an awesome time working with them. But not if your schedule is already full.

So don’t be afraid to say “no.” It just frees you up to say “yes” to the Right Person — and it gives your Wrong Person a chance to find the place where they’re all Right.

In the comments, I’d love to hear:

Have you been approached by your Wrong Person? Did you end up working with them, or did you pass? How did it go?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

cristiana July 15, 2017 at 1:52 pm

I am considering if bumping into the wring client is not a fee we all need to pay when we start.
We are all anxious to start, to challenge ourselves with a real client and real needs and real economic goals that we necessarily accept to work for any client.
I did exactly the same.
I knew my client had an approach which did ot combine with mine but I thought:
– learning to manage her would be an extra value of the assignement
– maybe it’s just the start
and I am someway now starting to think I did want to fail someway as a clear proof that “No, you can’t make it”
I accepted 2 bad clients
It cost me money and a little of my health
I also earned some invaluable insights on myself
I am not sure I can now define “my good clients” but I am becoming more assertive

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Katie Mehas July 17, 2017 at 9:28 am

It’s definitely hard to wait for your Right Person to find you when you’re just getting started! At least there’s a lot we can learn from working with our Wrong Person. (Have to find the silver lining somewhere!) But the clearer I am on my Right Person, the easier it becomes to say “no” to the Wrong Person — and the more obvious it becomes that there’s plenty of work to go around and I don’t *have* to take those ill-fitting projects.

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