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Learning to Say 'No'

By Bruce Zaretsky

5-yrsFive years ago, Bruce Zaretsky began his “On the Level” column with a question: ‘Have you ever turned down a client who really wanted to work with you and you alone?

‘It’s a hard thing to do,’ he wrote, ‘which is why most of us have found ourselves at one time or another saying “yes” despite the fact that we believe something the clients want simply cannot be done or, more important, that we’ve developed serious doubts about them. Just at that point where we really need to sit them down and tell them to go away, many times we’ll freeze.’ He continued:

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‘Giving in to this fear of losing a project and letting apprehension guide our decisions in place of any faith we might have in our common sense or experience is just asking for trouble – but too often we go ahead anyway, things don’t work out and we’re left holding the proverbial bag. We knew there wasn’t any hope, but we forged ahead anyway for the sake of keeping a job.’

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‘I argue . . . for finding ways to inject quality into every step of the design/construction process, no matter the size or scope of the work. Experience has taught me that a huge part of making the grade has to do with working effectively with clients. When you’ve reach a point where a healthy rapport is impossible, you’re only undercutting your best intentions and will likely be stuck with a client who will dog your efforts every step of the way. In that light, being able to say “no” may be just as critical to maintaining high standards as having the skills you need to get the job done!’

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‘[W]e’ve turned away lots of undesirable clients through the years. Our main tool is a carefully worded “go away” letter in which we tell clients in brief but certain terms that we are unable to work with them on their project at this time. . . . Reasons for our decision are rarely given: We won’t bring up the fact that they seem incapable of paying their bills, nor do we share the fact we’ve heard they’re awful to work with. . . . If they are truly the bad apples reports make them out to be, they usually just move on to the next company and forget all about us.’

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‘[M]ost of us feel the pressure to say “yes” as a matter of operational practicality, but the simple fact is that saying “no” will not cause your business to plunge toward bankruptcy: In fact, saying “yes” to the wrong client in the wrong circumstances will push you in the direction faster and more surely than saying “no” ever could.’

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‘This is why I put so much credit in my instincts – and why I spend a good bit of time communicating with colleagues and vendors in my market area about what’s going on locally. I’ve never seen other firms in my area as my enemies; in fact, I count many of them among my friends and best business allies and much prefer seeing them as colleagues rather than as competitors.’

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‘On the all-important client front,’ he concluded, ‘it’s all about comfort level and reaching a stage where you simply refuse projects that aren’t a reasonable fit. In that respect, it’s something that comes with the territory for business owners: If you manage to keep your emotions from taking control, learning to say “no” will actually keep you going!’

It’s tough these days even to think about saying “no” to a prospective client, but is it something you’re able to do? Please share your thoughts below!


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky & Associates, Inc. a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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