When to Say “No” In Business

Most people start a company with the goal of getting as much work as possible. So walking away from new business opportunities seems extremely counter-intuitive.  However, I was recently reminded why saying “no” to a sale, can sometimes be a better option. In some cases, knowing when to say no in business can be more valuable than taking on new responsibilities.

You’re Unable to Deliver a Quality Product or Service

Providing Valentine’s flowers is one of the most stressful days of the year.  Vendor prices double, inventory gets wiped out, and every order has to be delivered that one day or you’re going to have some very upset customers. 

This past year, I had a new interiorscape client that texted me the night before the holiday. He wanted one of our select arrangements but never confirmed his order. When he didn’t respond to my follow-up texts until noon that day, I had already sold out.  

Instead of apologizing and saying it was too late notice to fulfill his order, I decided to deal with the stress of running back to the wholesale supplier.  

Mistake number two was buying the only sunflowers left that were half the size and quality.  Mistake three was agreeing to meet him with his flowers at the town center which now had nightmare valentine’s traffic gridlock.  

At that point, stress levels were at a nine.  I get out to the first restaurant where I think he’s at, and as I’m walking among the crowd the cardboard box bottom gives way—wet from spilled water—and the vase crashes onto the sidewalk.  This should have been a giant white flag telling me to surrender.

Instead, I assembled what was left of the flowers into a spare vase and arrived late to the correct restaurant. Even though I offered the sad arrangement at half price, my new client was extremely disappointed, my quality of work looked shoddy, I lost money and the stress remained.

You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

When you’re a small business, taking on too many projects at the same time can have dire consequences.  Interiorscape accounts can be hard to come by, so when the opportunity arises, turning down any job seems implausible.

Taking on a new interiorscape project when you’re feeling overwhelmed, your staff is tired and stressed, extra material and equipment you don’t have is required all while cash flow is barely trickling in, is a recipe for failure.

Not being able to invest the proper time and capital can lead to major mistakes such as misquoting prices, underestimating labor time, not having the right resources to complete the job.  Mistakes lead to profit loss and sometimes a complete loss.  

A perfect example of this is a local website company that hired me to service their office.  Every week when I visited their business, they had taken over another section of the three-story office building. They eventually occupied the whole building.  They were handling accounts for small mom and pop shops all the way to large national chains.  

One year later all that spending and expansion was suddenly reduced to a few small offices.  They grew too fast. They weren’t able to fulfill customer promises, didn’t have the technical infrastructure available to handle large client demands, and ended up losing over eighty percent of their clientele.  Their bad reputation for poor customer service spread like a virus, which made gaining new business extremely challenging. Letting potential clients know you have to put them on a waiting list may earn you more respect and business than taking on a job that you can’t complete to meet expectations.

It Sounds Too Good to be True

Several years back, I got an opportunity to design for a new start-up company that moved into the top floor of a beachside high rise. Walking in, I didn’t see how anybody could focus on work when from every window you looked out at miles of blue ocean, sandy beach, sunbathers and surfers enjoying the beautiful sunshine. The ping pong table and arcade machines, only added to my suspicion about their work ethic.  As with any new customer, I was curious to know what their company did, but only got a vague answer.

Whatever it was, based on the art, furnishings and location, it had to be extremely profitable.  Despite my best efforts to fulfill their expectations, each time I submitted a design, there was something wrong.  I was giving them options like three-foot-high cylinders that glowed with cymbidium orchids and nine-foot kentia palms. 

Even though this could have been one of my biggest sales, I stopped trying after no response.  I assumed they gave the project to a competitor. Later, I saw the company on the local news for defrauding customers with phony telephone bills.  This impressive looking business was nothing more than a scam. Two of the owners left the country, leaving behind thousands owned to local vendors.  

Lucky for me, fate saved me on that opportunity, otherwise, I could have been one of those vendors who lost a lot of time and money on what appeared to be a dream client.   

As small business owners, interiorscapers are often already spread thin, and it can be tough to say “no” when potential opportunities arise. What other signals tell you when to say no in business or to potential clients?

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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