Small business owners: Learn the wisdom of “no”

In the business world no one wants to be seen as a “yes man,” yet at the same time, few are willing to say no. For many, it’s natural to be helpful, to do whatever is asked. Isn’t that part of being a good team player or providing excellent customer service?

“Would you be willing to…?”

Even when the “ask” comes in the form of what is clearly a request and not a demand, many are loathe to refuse. This may be because the person asking is in a senior role, an important customer, or someone to whom you want to demonstrate your competence or worth.

Seldom does agreeing to meet an overly tight timeline, add to project scope, or make some other concession impact only a single person. It may seem as if your saying yes will mean extra work for only yourself, but most times that decision has broader impacts.

Also, if you always say yes, you effectively limit others’ ability to get a genuine answer. How can they, for example, ask whether there’s wiggle room in the schedule, if you always say yes – no matter what?

What could happen when you say yes, thinking, “no, no way?”

You get a call from an important customer who wants to double his order from 1,000 to 2,000 units – and keep the same delivery date. You’re thrilled with the bump in sales, and call the production team leader with the “good” news. It’s really tough to say no to something like this, for both you and the team leader.

What are some of the possible impacts to just saying yes?

  • You need to press a supplier to get you additional raw materials and there’s an upcharge for the rush and/or you get on their list of “difficult” customers.
  • Your team needs to put in overtime hours to meet the increased production and margins suffer.
  • Your staff become stressed, demoralized or leave.
  • You wind up being late on that order or another customer’s goods and/or quality suffers.
  • Your customer thinks it’s okay to do this and last minute changes become the rule rather than the exception.

Does this sound like a dire, worst case scenario? Sadly, I have seen every one of these happen.

What other options are there?

Assuming this is not a stock item and easily obtained, the first step is to say “let me get back to you” and start investigating options and impacts.

  • Does the customer need all 2,000 units on the same date? Is there any wiggle room for staggered deliveries?
  • Can you upcharge to the customer for rush delivery of the 1,000 additional units? That would let you cover OT, hire temps, offer suppliers an incentive, or use some other strategy to ease the pressure.
  • Is there any room in the production schedule to add more work? For example, can you tactfully negotiate with another customer to push off their due date? If you got a better price for rushed goods, you could share a bit of it in the form of a discount to a customer willing to wait.
  • Can you use a subcontractor to deliver on the shortfall? This will mean extra scrutiny to ensure quality and different pricing.

Be transparent. Let the customer know what you have done to try to meet the request. And, if none of these could work, say no.

Just the fact that you are willing to look at all alternatives should demonstrate that you are eager to help. And, if you stick by your original timeline, your customer will hopefully place future orders with more realistic lead times.

Learn from the experience

Saying yes when you really feel the answer is no seldom turns out well for anyone. And if you do finally just say no, there’s follow up. Do some competitive research to make sure your timelines at least track with industry standards. Investigate what the obstacles to faster delivery are. Is there a way to address that? Look at ways to streamline. Could this be a competitive advantage? Work closely with customers to help them anticipate their needs better to give you more lead time.


Since 1991, Laurie Breitner has assisted organizations with operational improvement, organizational development and strategic planning. Learn more at

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